Mad Men is back!


You probably think I'm mad to have posted that title. You'll say, but the long-awaited fifth season of Mad Men returned weeks ago! Nay, I say! Those first five episodes (six, really, because the first was a double) were an odd kind of prequel to the real return of Mad Men, which happened last night.

Seriously, a week ago I almost wrote an entry I was going to call "Mad Men and the circling fin." It was starting to feel as though the show had either jumped the shark or was dangerously close to doing so. I know it's heretical to say so, but then it was heretical to say that the emperor had no clothes until someone was brave enough to talk about what they actually saw. Fortunately, the script and performances last night put my fears to rest, at least for now.

By "prequel," I mean that the first five (or six) episodes were loaded with plot points that had to be taken care of. We had to show how it was now 1966—the real 1960s were in full swing. We had to establish Don and Megan's relationship. We had to show how washed up Roger is. We had to show how unhappy Pete is. We had to find a way to get rid of Greg and get Joan back in the office where she was much missed by all and sundry (especially us, the audience). We had to show how Peggy was more obsessed with her job than ever but perhaps was losing her edge. And somehow we had to deal with the fact that January Jones, who plays Betty Francis, was pregnant during the shooting.

There were certainly moments of the old brilliance mixed with the new reality of the times. I love the addition of Dawn, and I hope we get to see more of her life. I loved how Don used the teenage girl backstage at the Stones concert as a one-person focus group, trying to understand how young people think (so he can sell them something, of course). I wasn't sure about the addition of Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), but he has grown on me, and I see how he is an antidote to the obsession that is common at Sterling Cooper Draper Price. His story is becoming interesting, and I hope that goes further too. I love how Ken Cosgrove has his own antidote in his writing, despite Roger's warning. Scenes between Peggy and Dawn were brilliant, as has so often been the case when the scene involves two or more women. And Roger still had all the good lines.

But too much was not ringing true, for me at least. I realize that the relationship between Don and Megan is tempestuous, but I just have a hard time believing them together. And that whole Howard Johnson thing? The violence between them? It could be real, but it didn't feel that way. Pete, new father, married to a very pretty woman, starts going ballistic in the office and has a wandering eye in driving school for a young Scarlett Johansson (it's not her, of course, but the actor kind of looked like her). And he hisses at Don in the elevator, bitterly, that he has nothing. Maybe Pete is suffering from suburban angst, but it seems not to have come from the character organically. And can anyone figure out what's really up with Lane? Do we hate him or just feel sorry for him, as Joan does? And Peggy ripping the Heinz guy a new one, well, I know she's been under stress, but that just didn't seem like her. Then again, maybe Peggy has really lost her way.

One curious thing is that those scripts were all written or co-written by series creator Matthew Weiner. What the heck went wrong? He obviously knows what he's doing, but how did he lose the incredible sharpness and amazing character interactions that were hallmarks of the first four seasons?

And then along came episode seven, "At the Codfish Ball." I felt like Mad Men finally was back on track. And who wrote this brilliant script? Curiously again, not Matthew Weiner, but Jonathan Igla, whose only previous Mad Men writing credit was co-writing (with Weiner) the script for the final episode of the fourth season. The ensemble acting was sharp, the situations all too realistic—Megan's father's disappointment in her, Peggy's dilemma, the scene between her and her mother, and Roger's playfulness turning darker. I loved Roger's very adult conversation with his ex-wife Mona. I loved the scenes between Joan and Peggy. I was absolutely delighted when Megan's armchair Marxist father asked Pete what he does all day, and Pete brilliantly showed him just how it works. And the scene with the Heinz guy over dinner that really started with his wife hinting to Megan in the washroom—wow! Now that's what we expect from Mad Men.

One part of the season that has been good all the way through is bringing Sally into the story. Apparently, Sally is kind of a stand-in for Matthew Weiner himself. He is younger than she would have been. I would have been the same age as her at the same time. The season starts with her accidentally seeing her father and Megan in bed. We see that she is growing up and exploring what it means to be an adult. In this episode, she is secretly calling her former neighbour Glen, who is now in boarding school. And later, she gets all dressed up and attends the dinner at which Don gets an award. Roger, who has gone stag, says he will be her "date." He is the perfect date, charming and witty, treating her just enough as an adult to help her through the evening. But he is still Roger. When Sally opens a door she shouldn't have opened, you can see the disappointment in her face to discover her step-grandmother going down on Roger. And then, at the very end, in the quiet of the night when Glen asks Sally on the phone how Manhattan is, she answers with one very telling word.

I hope this episode was a sign of things to come. The next is written by Weiner again. I hope he is as much on track again as the show seems to be.

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