“Mad Men’s” creator Matt Weiner is notoriously anti-spoiler. The season was shrouded in such secrecy that it set up the expectation that something insane would happen, like the show jumping forward 1000 years with all of the characters appearing as heads in jars a la “Futurama.” The two hour premiere was a reminder that this show is not about plot twists. It’s about style and tone and character development, and memorable moments. Really, not much happened in the episode. But that did not stop it from being thoroughly captivating.
Weiner told Xfinity that this season would seem relevant to what was happening in America now. The opening scene, inspired by a real incident, in which a group of African-Americans peacefully demonstrated on Madison Avenue, demanding better job opportunities, only to have Young & Rubicam employees throw water filled bags at them, echoed not only the current protests seeking justice in the Trayvon Martin case, but the disrespect that investment bankers had for the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
It’s June 1966. We’ve come a long way from the 1959 of Season 1. The protestors are empowered to confront their harassers. The incident becomes a scandal. Then again, we haven’t come that far at all. When Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce places an ad in the New York Times proclaiming that they are equal opportunity employers, the agency does not really mean it. It’s just a jibe at their rivals. “Mad Men” has been criticized for not having significant minority characters other than Carla, a maid. It appears that this season will explore the impact of the civil rights movement on the then lily white advertising industry.
In the approximately nine months that have elapsed between the premiere and the season four finale, Don (Jon Hamm) married Megan (Jessica Pare). They have moved into a huge, swinging sixties apartment. It seems like a classic midlife crisis relationship, based primarily on sex. It’s a parallel to Roger’s (John Slattery) marriage to Jane (Peyton List), but instead of becoming a trophy wife, Megan has used her new status to get herself promoted to copywriter. Don no longer seems creatively inspired. He shows up late to work, leaves early, and is far more interested in getting Megan to flash him in his office than in coming up with great advertising.
Pete (Vincent Karthesier) has moved to Greenwich and takes the train to the city every day. It’s as if he and Season 1 Don have switched roles. Pete misses living in Manhattan, and pre-baby Trudy who was focused only on him. He also feels disrespected at work. Roger keeps crashing Pete’s meetings with potential clients, his liquid lunches now out of step with the business world. Pete demands that he get Roger’s office since he brings in all of the money. Roger solves the problem by bribing Harry (Rich Sommer) into switching offices with Pete, prompting the question: why does Roger carry 1100 dollars in cash in his wallet?
Joan (Christina Hendricks) has had her baby, which the audience also knows is Roger’s. She is on maternity leave and eager to get back to the office. Her passive-aggresive mother finds it bizarre that she does not want to quit her job. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is still dating the underground journalist, who is still both right about most things and irritatingly smug.
The standout scene of the episode is the surprise 40th birthday party that Megan throws Don despite Peggy’s warning that it’s a bad idea. Megan has invited her younger, hipper friends to mingle with the SCDP crowd. Megan all but gives Don a lapdance as she sings Zou Bisou Bisou. After the party, Don angrily tells her he has always hated his birthday, which, technically, is not even his birthday. At the end of the episode, she strips down to her bra and panties to clean the apartment, because she apparently does not own any casual clothes. Don ogles her butt. She says he does not deserve to sleep with her. Then they have rough sex, just like he has done in the past. When Megan tells him she thinks she should quit her job because everyone at the office hates her, he disagrees not because he thinks she’s talented, but because he likes having her by his side. Don has found himself the brunette Betty.
In contrast, when Joan comes to the office with her baby — a great scene highlighted by Roger cavalierly calling Joan, “my baby”, and Pete and Peggy’s efforts to avoid holding the infant because it reminds them of the baby that they had — Lane (Jared Harris) treats her with respect, assuring her that her job is safe and the office has been falling apart without her.
The episode ends with numerous African American job applicants showing up at the office, unaware that the ad was a joke. Y&R sends over a racist statue, which the ditzy receptionist does not hide from them. Realizing how bad it looks, Sterling-Coopers decides to hire a black secretary — a position Lane makes clear is only open to women, because SCDP is still sexist as well as racist.
By the end of the season, numerous moments from the premiere will undoubtedly turn out to have a greater significance. For now, it was a great reintroduction to “Mad Men.”