Always intent on coming at you from angles you both expect and cannot predict, Mad Men offers a two-hour season premiere that commences with a muted tone, and then explodes in different directions. The episode, written by creator Matthew Weiner, begins and ends with faces not frequently seen on this show: black ones. The Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce ad-agency folks are drawn into the civil rights movement’s fight for equal opportunity in surprising ways.
Although Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete brays that he brings in more business than some of his more senior colleagues (oh, John Slattery, you make Roger such a marvelously petty yet funny man!), there’s no doubt who’s still the top dog. “Don, you’re the big draw,” says Pete, begging Jon Hamm’s Draper to put in an appearance to seal a deal with a new client. It’s flattery, but it’s true: While Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) continues to be in charge of her presentations, signing off on others’ work and making pitches to sack-suited sad-sack clients, she still looks to Don to back her up, to bestow praise, to validate her. In one of the premiere’s most quietly amusing, wise moments, Peggy is irked by Don’s agreeable reaction to a Heinz executive’s dismissive criticism of her baked-bean campaign. Peggy remarks to a colleague that Don has changed in such a fundamental way that she — and, by extension, we — might worry about it.
Indeed, his new living arrangement has altered some of Don’s characteristic responses at work: Is this the evolution of the hard-driving, go-getting, terse executive we’ve come to both admire and occasionally consider an SOB?
Some of the premiere centers on a milestone birthday for Draper. Megan (Jessica Paré is now cozy enough with him that she can refer to him as an “old man” and Don doesn’t flinch. Fluidly directed by Jennifer Getzinger, who also oversaw the superb season 4 episode “The Suitcase,” the premiere — titled “A Little Kiss” — is shaped around a series of long, beautifully detailed set pieces. To tantalize you, I’ll say there’s a surprise party and a makeup-sex scene that will curl your toes as much as it does those of its participants.
After almost two years away, Mad Men isn’t about to start sucking up to you for your affection. Like anyone working for Don Draper, you have to earn the rewards. It’s time to dial back the cranked-up pace to which AMC has accustomed you with Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, and get back into the languid groove that Mad Men insists upon. By the time Dusty Springfield rises up on the soundtrack, you’ll be singing along with grateful assent: “You don’t have to say you love me/Just be close at hand.” It’s great to have Mad Men close by again. A-