Mad Men

6:00 AM PST 03/13/2012 by Tim Goodman
Frank Ockenfels/AMC

As Matthew Weiner's baby advances through the turbulent 1960s, the core themes that made it great never change.

The devoted fans of Mad Men always want to know what's happening with their favorite characters. Because the acclaimed series has been off the air for 17 months, that curiosity has only grown, heightened by the fact that series creator Matthew Weiner gives away almost nothing as he works furiously to keep the show fresh for its fans. But there are a couple of through-lines on Mad Men -- change and identity -- that are constant, and season five is no different.

The premiere is visually thrilling as viewers get to witness what the passing of time has brought to the characters. Perhaps most impressively, there's a palpable difference to the series, something effervescent about it that conveys movement without actually hitting viewers over the head.

We've seen the evolution of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and the rest of the characters in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Most recently set in season four's 1965, Mad Men always has used the turbulent social and political changes in America as a B story line. If the show aimed directly at those themes, it would be boring and predictable. Instead, by centering on people experiencing the changes indirectly, it became a character drama -- a tapestry of personalities with Don at the center, his existential crises of identity and the lack of meaning in his life being the catalyst of the series.

Without giving away the year, there are noticeable changes in season five -- broader indications that the times are perhaps moving too swiftly for some of the Mad Men characters, Don included.

That's a little startling to witness. Don is 40 years old now. When we last saw him, after a brutal year of spiraling downward, he seemed to finally pick himself up, finding focus with the consultant Faye (Cara Buono) but ultimately proposing to his secretary, Megan (Jessica Pare), in the finale, an impetuous act that reaffirmed Don hadn't changed all that much. In season five, Megan's youth only makes Don seem older and of a different era.

The two-hour premiere repeatedly references Don's age. "So when you're 40, how old will I be?" Don asks his son. "You'll be dead," comes the reply.

Beyond the obvious -- but not jarringly obvious -- changes such as clothing and hairstyles and improved appliances, younger characters are rising. Although Don seems less motivated by work, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) are aggressively committed to their careers. Joan (Christina Hendricks) was pregnant last time we saw her, and her situation remains a core dramatic element in the series. The intriguing thing to think about with this trio is that Weiner has already hinted that selfishness will be a key component of this season. When the world seems to be shifting dramatically around you, the human impulse is to look out for yourself. 

Don, of course, will stay central to Mad Men. And no doubt his path in season five will be the most interesting to follow. What will be most interesting to watch, as always, is how Don rides the waves of change. How many times can a man shed his skin successfully? We're in the latter 1960s now, and we don't know what makes Don happy or even what he wants after all these years.

That's because Don doesn't know himself. And that's the point, isn't it? He's been in an existential crisis from the moment we met him in 2007.

It's unlikely that the brave new world outside the windows of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will sit well with Don. Despite his inability to truly change in previous seasons, he's at least become introspective. He's self-aware enough to know the ground has shifted. If not immediately, it certainly hits home when Megan throws him a surprise birthday party -- one of the most amazing and contextually weird scenes Mad Men has ever shot. It's a delightfully fascinating collection of moments that can also make you squirm. It's a reminder that Mad Men stays relevant and exciting by moving forward. Few series generate any critical attention in their fifth seasons -- much less the fawning or nitpicky deconstructions that Mad Men engenders. Whatever the take, people still care. That alone is impressive after so long.

Since critics only saw the first episode, it would be foolish to speculate too much on what may transpire in this upcoming season. But you can't ever go wrong betting on change (for everybody) and Don's albatross from all of these years: lack of identity and the search for self.

Airdate: 9-11 p.m. Sunday, March 25 (AMC)

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