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When Is Everything Going To Get Back To Normal? Taking A Look At The Upcoming Season Of 'Mad Men'

Photo of Cory Everett By Cory Everett | @modage March 27, 2012 at 3:42PM

After an unendurable 17 month hiatus, “Mad Men” returned Sunday night with an epic 2 hour season premiere and its biggest ratings ever. If you have somehow shielded yourself from the buzz, the 4 time Emmy-winning Best Drama takes a look at the lives of employees of an advertising agency in New York throughout the 60s amidst social and political upheaval. After binging on 10 episodes Sunday afternoon as a refresher, this writer is convinced it’s easily the best show on TV and probably one of the finest dramas ever forged. (If you haven’t, seriously, it’s on Netflix Instant. You’re welcome.) The show is the creation of former “The Sopranos” writer Matthew Weiner, whose uncompromising vision extends to every aspect of the show including the way it’s marketed. In order to preserve the experience for fans of the show, Weiner won’t allow any spoilers prior to the season premiere. This includes incidental details like the year it takes place or which characters will be returning and means that commercials feature only footage from previous seasons and interviewers have to find clever ways to get even the vaguest hints about what might be coming up on the show.

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Megan Draper (Jessica Paré)
Many speculated that the marriage would not last long, while others thought the whole relationship might implode in the span of time prior to the season premiere and we might not see Megan at all. On the contrary, Megan’s birthday dance to Don became the talking point of the two hour premiere, and in many of her scenes with Don, she was the focus. As we speculated above, the working relationship between Don and Megan is bound to end badly, and that’s something that she seems to recognize during this first episode. She suggests that it might not be a good idea, but Don insists he doesn’t care.

An interesting aside for her character, which we had barely picked up on our first viewing comes a bit earlier in the party sequence: A friend of Megan’s tells Don, “You know, she’s a really good actress,” which could mean nothing, and just stand as an interesting parallel to his ex-wife Betty, a former model. Or you could take a much darker read, that Megan’s marriage to Don might be a big act in itself, so she can climb the corporate ladder: She’s already made it from secretary to copywriter, and though she certainly seems to love Don, it might be in the service of greater ambitions. Weiner spoke to NPR about the Don/Megan relationship: "What's wrong with it? All I can say is, 'You know already. You've been told. But it's not what you think.'" While it seems like a long shot, especially considering how genuine and open she is, anything is possible with this show.

Sterling Cooper Draper Price
As Weiner told EW, “the survival of the agency is still at stake” and from what we saw in the premiere, that appears to be the case. The partners of the agency are forced to share secretaries, Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) is scrambling to hold the business together, and while Roger tries to bribe Harry with a bonus to switch offices, Harry says “there’s no bonuses, we have no money.” With the crew already having survived a corporate merger and layoffs, going out of business seems unlikely, but where else could this be headed? Don gets his act together in episode 11 and lands a big account saving the day for the finale? Sure doesn’t seem like the show’s style.

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Social Change
Fans may have been puzzled in the opening of the episode to notice the “Goldwater ‘68” election banner hanging in the window of the Y&R offices, thinking that the show may have exceeded the “healthy time jump” promised by the creators, by going straight from the October 1965-set finale, directly to the election year depicted on the flyer. But thankfully, we haven’t missed quite that much time, as the first episode picks up just after Memorial Day 1966, about seven months after the finale of season 4. As you can see, the civil rights movement has landed on the doorstep of the agency, but Weiner says it may not be as big of an undercurrent this year on the show as you might expect.

He told TV Guide, “I'm never going to rewrite history and it's out of respect. I'm not going to say, 'Oh, now civil rights is a big deal to these people.' It's not. As you can see, this comes into their house and it's totally a practical joke. What I love is, change is happening and they can't do anything about it. They don't even know it, and that's part of the entertainment of the show.” Martin Luther King Jr. isn’t assassinated until 1968, so that likely won’t make an appearance on the show until season six. And aside from the Summer of Love in ‘67 (in San Francisco) we’re not sure if there are any other major historical events to keep an eye out for, like the Bay Of Pigs or Kennedy’s assassination in previous seasons. It is clear from Don’s birthday that the out-of-work fashions have come quite a long way, as we’re now entering a groovy, “Valley of the Dolls”-era '60s which is not the buttoned-up era in which the series began.

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Final Thoughts
The premiere episode was a lot of catch-up certainly, and while most seemed to love the episode, a few have expressed a disappointment they can’t quite put their finger on. It can’t be that “nothing’s happening,” because there are, without a doubt, tons of new developments with these characters, but instead might be just what those developments are. If the premiere was a disappointment at all, it was purely a personal one. It was disappointing seeing Don admit he didn’t care about work. It was disappointing seeing Joan, so strong and confident at the office, trapped at home with her baby. It was disappointing seeing Pete living in the suburbs, and seeing how Harry Crane has turned into kind of a dick. It was disappointing seeing Don and Roger looking older and out of place at Don’s party. During earlier seasons, Don could take a trip down to Greenwich Village and put the beatniks in their place, but we’re not sure he could do that now. Don is getting older and he’s losing his edge. And this appears to be where the show is headed (for now, anyway).

Creator Matthew Weiner has spoken about the perils of giving fans what they want, saying they only think they want more of something, but 'you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t' provide those thrills. We’re resistant to seeing our beloved characters in these positions because we don’t like change either. If it was up to the audience Don would always be the coolest guy the room, but that would be a far less interesting show. The audience (and hell, the advertising) may have built these characters up, focusing on the glamorous aspects of the show: drinking, smoking, cool-looking suits, mysterious pasts! But the show has never been about those things and Weiner is following a truer path, one that has rarely been traveled in television.

Take last season’s pivotal episode “The Suitcase,” for example, where a drunken Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) shows up at the offices to find Don and Peggy working late. He mistakes it for an illicit affair, calls Peggy a whore and Don takes a swing at him. If the show had any interest in making Don look “cool” or “heroic” he would have decked Duck and the audience would have cheered. Instead, he swings drunkenly, misses entirely and get’s quickly pinned to the ground by Duck. He surrenders. And that is why the show is great. It doesn’t pander to its audience, instead it follows a more honest path, where the plot is in service of illuminating character and not the other way around.

This article is related to: Mad Men, Television

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