After making his audience wait 17 months for a new season of Mad Men (AMC, Sundays, 10 p.m. ET), creator Matthew Weiner faced a lot of pressure to produce a stellar premiere. Did he pull it off with season 5's debut episode on Sunday night? Oh, yes -- we think he did!
Not only did viewers learn the answers to some unresolved questions, but the plot moved forward into a new phase of smart storytelling. "The theme is every man for himself," said Weiner to TVGuide.com about the new season. "And the other one is, when is everything going to get back to normal?"
First off, here's where we've landed: It's now 1966, and Don (Jon Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Pare) are newlyweds. Megan's no longer his secretary; she's been given the job of coupon designer. "I had to do that baloney for two years," Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) tells her. "You can take comfort in the fact that it's very important to the client. Too important."
Joan (Christina Hendricks) has taken maternity leave to care for her newborn son, and now spends her days dealing with diaper rash and her irritating mother, while her husband is still away in Vietnam. No one's acknowledging that Roger (John Slattery) is the baby's actual father. When Joan visits the office, he declares, "Let me see my baby," walks right past the child, and embraces Joan. Though he's still the president of the agency, Roger's struggling to stay relevant now that Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) is bringing in more business than he is. Pete's disillusioned by life in the suburbs and, as usual, by his lack of recognition at work.
None of this is mind-blowing stuff, but there's an intriguing vibe change on this season's Mad Men. The sour-faced Betty (January Jones) has yet to make an appearance. And Megan has emerged as a major presence, and one who's more complicated than just the ditzy, new secretary that Don married on a whim. Gorgeous, young and stylish, she's a trophy wife, sure. But she steps out of bounds when she throws Don a surprise party for his 40th birthday and allows the guests (nearly the whole office) to watch her give him his gift: a provocative dance.
Don's humiliated and angry. She's confused and hurt. And the tension between them culminates in a highly charged sex scene that verges on violent. Clearly, this is an electric relationship with shifting seats of power. At the moment, it feels positively…combustible. "I put (the sex scene) in there so you can see...his desire for (Megan) and her knowing that," said Weiner. "We want Don to be powerful, but maybe Don doesn't want to be powerful. In the end he dominated her, but he was frustrated into doing so."
Back at the crowded office, everyone seems to be working out their issues. Peggy is coming into her own as a rising star at the agency just as Don is becoming disengaged. (At one point, he actually tells Megan, "I don't care about work," which Weiner tells us is a sign that Draper is "disengaged or maybe his values have been realigned.") Joan is showing the early signs of new mother restlessness. Bored with baby care, longing to return to work, and living during an era that's right on the cusp of the women's rights movement, Joan no doubt has some interesting storylines ahead!
This time period is also the dawn of the civil rights movement, but true to Mad Men fashion, these characters don't appear to recognize its significance. Protests are happening outside their windows, but so far these men aren't particularly fazed by them.
These characters only seem to care about themselves. But the show is so well done, we can't help but care about them, too.