I’m delighted to be joining you once more in the boardroom. John, I share a certain haziness about the details of Season 4—remind me what happened, again, with that open letter to the tobacco industry?—but I sense I am more thrilled than you that Mad Men is coming back. (I feel, perhaps, like one of Don’s spurned lasses: I’ve grown so resigned to his absence I’m a bit startled —but charmed—that he’s back in town and throwing some attention my way.) Of all the television dramas I’ve gotten excited about since Mad Men went off the air—Game of Thrones, The Killing, Homeland, Downton Abbey, The Hour, Breaking Bad (do I need to mention here that I am still watching Smash?)—none quite matches Mad Men’s ambition, or its bravura execution. And given that the crew has had longer than usual to cook up Season 5, I am, to put it technically, pretty freaking psyched to see what Matthew Weiner has in store.
I recognize that with expectations like this, I’m bound to be disappointed. But I don’t think I’ll be frustrated because Mad Men’s characters “don’t change,” as Matthew Weiner claimed in his interview with you, John. For one thing, many of them do change: Even if Don seems locked in an eternal struggle with his own worst self, we’ve seen Pete learn to hustle, Peggy gain confidence, and Joan settle down. But even if some characters don’t change, as you noted, John, the times do. What makes the show fascinating is how the impulses that animate all the main players—Don’s restlessness, Peggy’s ambition, Roger’s lassitude, Joan’s pragmatism, Pete’s cunning—find different uses and expressions as the decade passes and social mores shift. The very qualities that once made Roger indispensable now render him dead weight; the ready-made comfort Don seeks from his marriage to Megan will no doubt take a different form than whatever he found in his marriage to Betty, given the way times have changed (and the fact that Meghan is much calmer when faced with a spilled milkshake).
Speaking of Megan: The thing I’m most curious about is how the writers will define her this season. In an interview actress Jessica Paré gave at the end of Season 4, it became clear that her role evolved in fits and starts as last season went along. She’s shown hints of a corporate ambition more akin to Peggy’s desires than to, say, Roger’s wife Jane’s husband-hunting tendencies. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her still working at SCDP in some capacity, if not at the beginning of the season, then somewhere along the way. But perhaps she’ll just be a slightly more cheerful Betty, in a kitchen somewhere, wearing an apron, baking apple pie. Patrick, do you have thoughts on which way this will bend?
And I’m eager to know what both of you have made of the Mad Men media we’ve been treated to in the run-up to the premiere. What about that falling man billboard that supposedly exploits 9/11? I wasn’t troubled by that echo, but I’m not sure I like the way the poster strips the advertising paraphernalia out of the opening credit sequence. If that’s a hint that there will be less focus on advertising this season than last year, we are in trouble. The show is always at its strongest when it’s set at SCDP, investigating the art of the pitch.
And the other prevalent ad—Don looking at his reflection in a window featuring an unclothed mannequin—feels a bit on the nose to me. Women are just bodies to Don! Empty forms to dress as he desires! Oy. If there’s one thing that can sometimes grate about the show, it’s Weiner’s heavy-handedness with themes and symbols. But there is often so much subtlety and so much wit in Mad Men—think how much funnier the show is than any of the dramas I mentioned above—that I will forgive it its overreaches.
Plus maybe when the show starts people will stop trying to get this “draping” thing off the ground.
Yours in madras,
Slate’s TV Club will be chatting with readers about the Mad Men premiere and what to expect from the show’s fifth season. Join them on Facebook at noon on Monday, March 26 to take part in the chat.