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'Mad Men' preview -- with a side of Jon Hamm!

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Mad-Men-302_lThe third season of Mad Men is under way, with the second episode airing tonight on AMC. One of the genius aspects of last week’s quietly brilliant premiere was how much it satisfied without really resolving many of the lingering Season 2 “cliffhangers.” How’s Betty feeling about her unwanted pregnancy? How much confidence does she have in Don’s fidelity? Was adulterous Don’s aborted dalliance with a stewardess last week a repairable relapse—or did the epiphanies of last season’s spirit walk in the Southern California wilderness not stick? How are Peggy and Pete feeling about each other after their waiting for Armageddon-induced come-clean confessions? Why has Joan stuck with her rapist doc fiancée? How much control do Sterling and Cooper really have over their agency now that they’ve sold out to the Brits? And what the rhymes-with-puck happened to Duck?

Questions. About as many as Lost gives us in any given week—and I must say, I enjoy thinking through the heartbreaking realities of Mad Men’s mid-century America and denizens about as much as I like puzzling through Lost’s time-tossed castaways and cryptography. I don’t expect Mad Men to resolve its unanswered riddles in some straight-forward fashion, and I wouldn’t want it to; part of the show’s elliptical artfulness is how revelations leak out, as the characters live and breathe, lie and thrive through their times. The season three premiere worked for me as a table-setter; with the episodes to come, I look forward to feasting on deep dishes of character. As an appetizer for tonight’s episode, please enjoy some excerpts from my recent interview with Jon Hamm, whose spiritually woozy, despairingly duplicitous Don Draper/Dick Whitman is one of TV’s most compelling creations. And please, come back here tomorrow for another highlight of my week: Karen Valby’s always smart, always engrossing, always beautifully written recap/analysis.

EW: For those coming late, how would you recap where we left off from last season?

JON HAMM: We had a fairly major international crisis with the Cuban missile crisis happening, and it coincided with a fairly significant crisis in both Don’s personal and professional life: his marriage was falling apart, while the partners had decided to sell the agency at great personal gain financially speaking. So we’re dealing with the fallout of all those actions. We don’t take a big jump in time that we know of in season 2; season 3 kinda picks up where we left off. In his personal life as he’s trying to manage his expectation of what being a husband and father means and what he wants from his wife and family, and at work, he’s trying to manage the new line-up, the new hierarchy. Moving forward, you’re going to see at work there’s tension between Don and Roger, who also orchestrated a lot of the events that led to Sterling Cooper’s sale. The first few episodes are about everyone feeling everyone out. Where do we fit into this world and how do we feel about it?

EW: At the end of last season, it seemed that Don was on the road to redemption—but instead of coming back to New York and really confessing his sins and revealing his true self to Betty, he stopped short. It was contrition without intimacy or exposure, and it killed me he couldn’t go all the way.

JH: I think if Betty had not told Don that she was pregnant at the end of the season that there would have been a completely different conversation at that table. That seismic revelation lands on Don and makes him think, “Now what?” Maybe he was going to unburden his soul and come clean–but now there is a whole set-up. That’s another thing we’re dealing with. There’s a baby coming, what’s going to happen, how does that shift the dynamic between Don and Betty and the whole family. This baby was conceived not at a great time in their lives. What does that mean?

EW: Interesting. So perhaps the pregnancy revelation derailed Don’s redemption momentum? Basically, he’s a guy who can’t afford to be honest, because with a baby on the way, there’s too much at stake, too much to lose?

JH: I think that interpretation is certainly plausible—we’ll see if it’s accurate. People say having a baby solves a lot of problems. Well, it creates a lot of problems, too. That’s a lot of what we’re dealing with in season 3. … I don’t know how broken Don and Betty’s relationship is, or how much either one of them really wants to put the tremendous effort it takes into fixing it. What is the next step? That’s what we’re going to explore.

EW: I’d love to ask you about an episode from last season—“The Jet Set,” aka “The Hedonists-in-Palm Springs Episode,” which seems to be something of a love/hate episode for Mad Men fans. I loved it for being such a surreal, unsettling change of pace, but others disliked it for the same reason. What did you think of it?

JH: I loved it, but it was definitely a trip. I remember getting the script and John Slattery [who plays Roger] poking his head out of his trailer and said, “Did you read this f—ing script?” And then he shook his head and went back in.

EW: What do you think that Palm Springs digression—followed by the time he spent with Anna, the widow of the real Don Draper–meant for your character?

JH: It helped sway him to do the right thing by his marriage. It taught him that life is long, that a guy at his age still has a lot ahead of him, and that he should take advantage of it. That’s a big breakthrough for Don. It makes him realize what he has–not just with his wife, who loves him, but also with his family. You would think that the meaning of these things should be tremendously clear to Don, given that he knows what it’s like to lose a father and how a broken home is devastating for a child. But Anna’s advice really made him stand up and pay attention to that. Whether that advice sticks remains to be seen.

More Mad Men from EW:

Mad Men season premiere recap: Secret lives of men

Mad Men: What about Sal?

Mad Men: Episode 3 leaks via iTunes

Mad Men season premiere scores series-high ratings