The “best programme on TV”, a quote garlanded by numerous critics and an opinion upheld by myself, has been away for far too long. In order to indulge hungry fans, who after 16 months are now experiencing serious rehab levels of withdrawal symptoms, Mad Men is back with a 2 hour premiere for its 5th Season and the wait has most definitely been worth it.
The infamous stories of violent tussles with the network over money have been well documented and frankly, over emphasised in an effort to attack the artistic integrity and stubbornness of its author. Who really cares how much the programme costs or how much money the show runner gets when the quality is this good? Despite being away for a year and a half, Mad Men is as fresh as ever and the standard just as high.
Season 5 is setting itself up to be rather different from the previous 4. The repercussions of the last season’s big plot lines have definitely been felt, there is a very noticeable shift in geography as well as strong focus on time, in both the personal and political sense. The episode opens with Civil Rights activists on Madison Avenue with irritated ad executives water bombing them out of a high window. We know exactly where we are and we know exactly what is informing the discussions which are seemingly throwaway and the tensions that are all but palpable.
The personal sense of time is addressed with the imminence of Don’s 40th birthday, which is accompanied by some brilliantly underplayed acting by Jon Hamm. Upon asking to see his new wife Megan’s cleavage in a moment of spontaneous passion, she flippantly remarks “dirty old man” and his silent response is all but telling. Later on we’re invited into Don’s surprise party set up by Megan where the festivities only seek to annoy him. As Peggy (the character who still knows the elusive Don the best) remarks: “Men don’t like surprises”, and this is something Don proceeds to tell Megan after a night of drinking and nicely blasé pot smoking is drawn to a close.
The space of the drama is also very apparent. Instead of his pokey bachelor pad, Don is now inhabiting a spacious, colourful apartment that is far more warming and welcoming, a sign of Don’s softening perhaps. Hamm’s Don is noticeably more muted, less angry and all together very happy with his life. The man has surely turned over a new leaf, now when he goes into work he orders coffee as opposed to reaching for the bourbon. Instead of shouting at Peggy for delivering an underwhelming pitch, he shrugs his shoulders and encourages her to try again. I can’t imagine this will last.
We also have Pete and Trudy, now with a bouncing baby, in a house very much similar to the one held by Don and Betty in the previous seasons. The two have now settled into a comfortable home life. Work life for Pete is pretty much the same, hardworking but undermined by the people who don’t feel his importance and fail to take him serious. Yet it is he and Peggy who are seemingly holding the party together while Roger Sterling quaffs booze, Bert Cooper is amiably mentally absent and Lane Pryce walks around with an air of pomposity and courting married women.
Meanwhile, the headstrong Joan has to cope with life after having Roger’s baby with fears of being replaced and a husband off fighting in Vietnam. Her space becomes reduced while having her mother over to help with the baby who seems to be taking advantage of her responsibilities.
Season 5 of Mad Men is off to a good start. The acting is fabulous, the writing is dry, witty, straight to the bone and brilliant, the production values are just as high and the show is definitely the best on TV.
All in all this fascinating episode opens numerous doors for the following episodes, it could go absolutely anywhere. Matthew Weiner and his awesomely talented crew of writers keep their cards very close to their chest and the true revelations won’t arrive until the final episodes and I can’t wait to see what’s in store.