Perhaps the most emotionally genuine moment during Sunday’s long-awaited return of “Mad Men” came when usually in-control office manager Joan Holloway wept tears of frustration over being away on maternity leave.
“I just keep thinking about what’s going on here,” she cried to ad firm partner Lane Pryce, “and I missed it too much.”
We know how she feels. After the show’s 17-month absence, it took only two hours to get sucked back into the “Mad Men” universe. But the world created by Don Draper, the ad man with a double life – and the world around him – is a-changin’.
Not only did Draper follow through on his stunning impulsive proposal and marry his young secretary Megan, he gave her a job as a junior copywriter at the firm. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement marched into the doors of Sterling Cooper Draper Price, with the country hurtling toward social upheaval as the hot summer of 1966 approaches.
The episode unfolded deliberately, deftly laying the groundwork for the season to come while providing memorable moments designed to fuel water cooler gossip at Draper’s firm – and to burn up the Internet among a devoted, patient fan base forced to wait 518 days between episodes of the AMC drama.
The most talked about scene appears destined to be Megan’s bizarre sex kitten song-and-dance number at the surprise 40th birthday party she threw for Don, who thrives on keeping others off-balance but hates anything out of his control. The bigger shocker came with the revelation that he told her about his secret life, the one he began as dirt-poor farm boy Dick Whitman 40 years and six months earlier.
Whether Megan, who emerged in the season opener as something of a wildcard, will keep his past quiet or use it against him is unclear. Megan is hard to pin down – as we saw quite literally with her odd approach to housecleaning toward the end of Sunday’s installment.
The episode brimmed with such telling, awkward moments: Blowhard firm partner Roger Sterling, cigarette dangling from his mouth, holding Joan’s child, who is almost certainly his son. Peggy Olson and Pete standing over the child’s carriage – a decidedly uncomfortable image given their history as secret parents. The increasingly obnoxious Harry Crane’s cringe-worthy – and overheard – bawdy talk about Megan.
More significantly, Sunday’s episode offered hints that this season will delve deeper into issues of identity – whether it’s the country being shaken into racial reality or Draper’s unlikely new persona as a happily married man who brings his wife to the job he long ago married.
“I don’t recognize that man,” Peggy, who may know him best, said early on.
We’re not sure what’s coming next, at least for Don Draper, a man mired in the same kind illusion he peddles to consumers. We have a better idea, of course, of what’s going to happen outside his world. Part of “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner’s success rests in telling the stories of his characters set against historic backdrops like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy Assassination.
The Season 5 opener whet our appetite for more, and proved a two-hour advertisement for the power of quality television. Luckily, now we’ll only have to wait a week to see what we’re missing at the office.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, milt-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.