Mad Men: “All You Get to Do Is Watch”

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Frank Ockenfels/AMC

When we first met Don Draper all those years ago (five, thanks to the 17-month hiatus that ended last night), he was drinking an Old Fashioned, wracking his brain, trying to come up with a new slogan for Lucky Strike cigarettes. Thanks to a new law, the ad men at Sterling Cooper could no longer claim that any cigarettes were healthier than others. In a meeting with Lucky Strike executives, Don overcomes his writer’s block and produces the slogan, “It’s Toasted”. “But everybody else’s tobacco’s toasted,” Lee Garner Jr. of Lucky Strike tell him. “No, everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous,” Don says. “Lucky Strike’s is toasted.”

The scene, while not as widely cited as Don’s famous Kodak Carousel pitch, is Draper at his very best, a state we haven’t seen him in for quite some time. But it also pulled back the curtain on what exactly these nattily-dressed Madison Avenue men do —they don’t sell products, they sell reasons why this product in a hell of a lot better than that one. The great episodes of Mad Men have always struck a nice balance of focusing on the characters and the business, and last night’s two hour premiere gave us a lot of what we’ve been missing for a year and a half.

With last night’s premiere, the year is 1966. When we last saw Don, he and Megan were engaged; now Mrs. Draper is a copywriter, which makes for built-in tension. The situation comes to a head when Megan throws Don a surprise party. During the episode, the Twitter-sphere went abuzz for Megan’s light burlesque rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou,” which Sophia Loren made famous. It was nice to see creator Matt Weiner, who penned this episode, flesh out Megan’s character with some hidden talents and some deep vulnerabilities. Look for her to continue to evolve this season.

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The surprise party aside, SCDP appears to be functioning, but it’s far from the well oiled machine Joan used to run. Thankfully, Joan’s maternity leave is soon to end. The scene where she brings her baby (fathered by Roger) into the office created touches of comic relief: Roger holding his son with a cigarette dangling from his lips; Peggy and Pete in an awkward exchange when Peggy’s left watching the infant (don’t forget that Pete and Peggy’s one-night stand from the beginning of Season 1 resulted in a child that Peggy gave away).

The characters have grown, but they haven’t changed all that much, even though 1966 seems like a different era than 1960. There are still fedoras, tailored suits, three martini lunches and anachronistic ways of thinking, but make no mistake change is coming to SCDP. The reason Joan comes storming back from maternity leave is she fears she is being replaced, the result of an advertisement Roger cooks up to poke fun at rival firm Young & Rubicam. The premiere began with a scene where some Young & Rubicam employees toss water bombs on a group of Civil Rights protesters, creating bad press for that agency. The advertisement Roger places in The New York Times hails SCDP as an equal opportunity employer who’s “windows don’t open.” That ad draws a number of black job applicants to SCDP’s lobby, and because of a Young & Rubicam counter prank, it seems the agency is on the brink of hiring its first African American employee.

When the episode ends with Pryce accepting resumes from black secretarial applicants, we know things will evolve for SCDP. Peggy was the first female copywriter we saw, and her development as a character has been a central thread for the entire show. It’s not clear if Weiner is planning on doing the same with a new employee, but we know there are some surprises in store this season, and after 17 months, there’s a lot of buzz about what might happen. That’s because Mad Men has always been better, richer and more nuanced than most other dramas, and far and away in a different category than the atrocious knock offs — The Playboy Club and Pan Am — that other networks attempted. Don may have been able to convince people that other people’s tobacco was poisonous while Lucky Strike’s was toasted, but it was essentially the same product. We’ve never needed his charms to convince us that Mad Men is better than ordinary shows. But when Don Draper does turn on the charm, it certainly doesn’t hurt.

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Sign of the times: From the very beginning, Mad Men‘s costumes and sets have perfectly captured the early 1960s. When we left the old Sterling Cooper office and moved into the Time Life building, the sets began to evolve at a rapid clip, and the productions designers went into overdrive to show the passage of time from the off season. Don and Megan’s apartment is now decorated in horrific late ’60s chic and Pete’s red and blue plaid jacket from the surprise party reminds me of my grandfather’s outfits from the 70s. It’ll be fun to see how the details continue to reveal the changing times.

Awkward sex location: Over the seasons, we’ve seen characters get it on in offices, on couches, in an alleyway after a mugging (Roger and Joan, resulting in Joan’s little bundle of joy). Don and Megan’s makeup afternoon delight on the post-party dirty floor has to rank up there. If for nothing else than the discussion afterwards about how hard it is to keep a white carpet clean.

Fascinating character development: Jared Harris has always been exceptional as Lane Pryce, the agency’s British partner. We saw some intense vulnerability in Season 4 when he was fighting with his wife and Don took him out for a night on the town. The subplot from last night where Pryce obsesses over a photo of a woman he found in a lost wallet could have been creepy, but Harris conveys Pryce’s lonely weaknesses with touching subtlety. I hope we see more of that this season.