Mad Men: TV Review

2012-11 REV Mad Men Cast H
Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Times are changing for (from left) Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Jared Harris, Kartheiser, John Hamm, Robert Morse and Elisabeth Moss.

After 17 months off the air, the AMC series returns with a two-hour fifth-season premiere full of fascinating moments and character nuance.

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 AMC 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.

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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 hitting viewers over the head.

When Mad Men launched, the most important aspect to pass on to viewers — when they had yet to see a frame — was that the series wasn’t “set in the ’60s,” as so many had written. It opened in 1960. Which was still, essentially, the 1950s — in the culture and in American values. This was important to understand when seeing the show’s shocking display, for modern audiences, of sexism (and racism) in the workplace.

Beyond gender inequality, 1960 was a time when men too old to eventually get their mid-’60s groove on or become hippies were nonetheless feeling that unsatisfied post-war feeling that Don Draper (Jon Hamm) so clearly has.

He kept it in seasons two, three and four as well. Don’s lack of understanding of what he really wants in life precipitated his first momentous change — assuming the identity of the dead Don Draper. He could reinvent himself but always seemed adrift. Success, money, a beautiful wife and kids, the house in the suburbs — Don had all of those things but ultimately found it wasn’t what he wanted.

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And so we’ve seen the evolution of Don and the rest of the Mad Men characters each season in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, last witnessed in the 1965 of season four. Along that march of time, Mad Men has always used the turbulent social and political changes in America as a ‘B’ storyline. If Mad Men focused only on those themes, it would be a boring and predictable drama. Instead, by centering on people experiencing the changes indirectly, it became a character drama — a tapestry of personalities with Draper at the core, his existential crises of identity and lack of meaning in his life the catalyst of the series.

Without giving away the year, there are noticeable changes in season five — broader indications that change is constant and the times are perhaps moving too swiftly for some of the characters, Don included.

That’s a little startling to witness. Don is 40 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 like clothing and hairstyles and improved appliances, younger characters are rising. While Don seems less motivated by work, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) are aggressively committed to their careers and to the growing-pain struggles of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. That’s in stark contrast to Roger (John Slattery), who still seems checked out (plus wary and maybe jealous of Pete) and Bert (Robert Morse), who bears watching for signs of aging.

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It’s clear that Pete and Peggy will be at the center of storylines this year, as will Joan (Christina Hendricks), who was pregnant last time we saw her, most likely with Roger’s baby.

There should be little surprise about the first two — since they represent the younger generation. And we are now at a point in the Mad Men evolution where we’re quite a ways from 1960.

Joan’s situation is now a central dramatic element in the series. Weiner has 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. Those in the least-settled positions as personal, sociological and political changes come about are Pete, Peggy and Joan.

As for Betty (January Jones), well, she doesn’t even appear in the two-hour pilot. So we’ll have to see where that goes.

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

That’s because Don doesn’t know himself. And that’s the point, isn’t it? He’s been in crisis mode from the moment we met him in 2007. We’ve only seen him truly at ease and possibly happy when he was with Anna Draper, but she’s dead, and there’s really no going back to California.

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 shot. It’s a delightfully fascinating collection of moments that also can make you squirm, 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.

Since critics only saw the first episode, it would be foolish to speculate too much on what will transpire this 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.