So Mad Men is back on our screens at long last, and there was much rejoicing. It’s been a tad bittersweet for me, however, since I cancelled my cable TV a few months back and have no legal way of watching it other than shelling out $3 to iTunes or Amazon to download it the day after. (The first two-hour episode was free on AMC, but it doesn’t look like they’ll be releasing any of the others that way.) And I have, actually, been doing this. Even though I own all four previous seasons of Mad Men on Blu-Ray and will no doubt buy the rest of the series the same way, I am paying again just to see it as it airs. I’m kind of stupid that way, I guess. Just further testimonial on how good the show really is.
The season premiere started off on a bit of a disorienting note. Some very trippy 1960s-esque music plays as Sally Draper gets out of bed and wanders down an unfamiliar corridor. And just as we’re wondering if this is some sort of dream, Don Draper appears out of his bedroom door and in a few words (and with the naked form of his new bride Megan in the background) informs Sally and all of us that this is his new, swanky pad and the latter half of the 60s has begun. For fans who have waited almost a year and a half forMad Men to return, this almost-hallucinatory beginning was an excellent way to give us that little pinch. We are, indeed, awake!
So obviously, Megan and Don got married in the somewhere-less-than seven months between last season’s finale and “now.” Also, Joan had her baby, Pete and Trudy moved out to the suburbs, Harry Crane got skinny, and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce survived the post-Lucky Strike fallout – but barely. Oh, and Betty is fat. More on that later.
The biggest change, perhaps, is that Don Draper is happy. He tries not to be. He tries to be the same kind of killjoy he sometimes was with Betty on her very few moments of spontaneity, but Megan will have none of it. Her sexiness, youthful attitude, and approach to life and work has thoroughly enchanted Don, and even the little power-play with Megan on the floor in her underthings showed just how much these two enjoy and get each other. The question – and Peggy very nearly poses it in the first episode – is a happy Don good for his business?
The third episode poses a different question – can Don truly be happy? In the midst of a terrible fever, Don first hallucinates that he sleeps with another woman, then when she threatens to tell everyone how screwed up he really is, he strangles her and shoves her under the bed only to wake up the next morning and gratefully realize he imagined the whole thing. So we learn he’s willing to fight to protect his current happiness…but that it is incredibly fragile.
Elsewhere in the Little Advertising Firm That Could is Roger Sterling. He’s apparently spent the last seven months eating Pete Campbell’s dust and feeling more and more like the comically-out-of-the-loop Cooper than a vital component of the company. The rivalry brewing between the two has the promise to be seriously epic and is veering Pete back towards “guy we love to hate” status as he one-ups Roger time and again.
At home, Joan has to deal with the baby, her mother, and the sense that she is no longer needed at SCDP even as she desperately wants to get back to work. But one thing she won’t have to deal with anymore is her dimwit husband. She finally realized what the rest of us did very early on in her engagement…this guy is a loser. She and Don mirror each other in that way: they both married what they thought they should want as opposed to what they actually wanted. What Joan wants may be the big question to be resolved this season.
It all works well and feels like Mad Men is back and as good as ever…except for one thing.
Yeah, in those seven months, Betty managed to pack on some serious weight. The second episode is largely centered around the possibility it may have been caused by thyroid cancer, but that turns out not to be the case. In other words, the second episode is almost entirely devoted to January Jones in a fat suit. And as amusing as it is to see Betty in this state, it feels gimmicky.
I remember Battlestar Galactica did something similar after a months-long gap in the story, causing Apollo to gain a huge amount of weight from his feelings of guilt and remorse. It was pretty silly, and was an early warning sign of how that show would turn out.
That Mad Men has resorted to that kind of novelty is troublesome, but the show still has too much going for it to think of this as a jump-the-shark moment. If anything, I wonder if the writers simply don’t know what to do with Betty anymore. She has a very tenuous connection to the rest of the characters, even Don, so it is understandably more difficult to keep her involved. I almost wonder if it might be better for her character to exit the series this season, especially if the writers have nothing better planned for her than tipping the scales.
Other than that, the stage has been set nicely for another stellar year of Mad Men. Now if I could just watch it for free…