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AMC's 'Mad Men' returns to 1966

By Emily Kraus
On March 26, 2012

Mad Men is back. For those of you who haven't been keeping track, Sunday night was the season five premiere of AMC's critically acclaimed drama, finally bringing the series' year-and-a-half-long hiatus to an end as Don Draper and the rest of his gang returned to prime time.

At the end of the show's last season, fans were left wondering if they would ever see their beloved characters again. Negotiations between Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and AMC became publicly heated-so heated, in fact, that Weiner told The New York Times in a recent interview that he quit at one point-and it seemed unlikely that the show would return. Rumors about budget cuts and characters being written out swirled. Luckily for us, though, Weiner got his way, and Mad Men is set to continue for two more seasons after this one, concluding at the end of season seven.

To say that a lot went down at the end of last season would be an understatement. Don Draper, the show's twisted protagonist, played by Jon Hamm, got engaged to his secretary, Megan (Jessica Paré) and dumped his then-girlfriend of sorts Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) after the fact.

Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) found herself pregnant after a one-night stand with her former fling, advertising executive Roger Sterling (John Slattery), and we saw her on a bus traveling to an unknown destination after deciding not to get an abortion.

Betty Francis (January Jones), Don's ex-wife, who has landed herself in another unhappy marriage, has seemed like she's been on the verge of a breakdown for a while now. At the end of season four, she fired the family's beloved maid Carla (Deborah Lacey) and started co-opting her daughter's therapy sessions so she could talk about her own issues.

And we can't forget Peggy Olson, played by Elisabeth Moss, who is continuing to rise through the ranks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and basically proving herself to be the most competent person in the whole place (girl power!).

That quick summary doesn't even scratch the surface of all of the subplots and complex relationships that were left up in the air at the end of season four. It makes sense, then, that this season's premiere was two hours long-after all, we had a lot of catching up to do.

Weiner is notorious for his refusal to let any spoilers slip before the show airs and the lead up to Sunday's episode was no different. Various news and entertainment websites deduced from the song slated to play as the credits rolled (which was released the week before the episode aired) that the show was going to be set 18 months after the last episode had taken place. That was basically all we knew about the premiere before Sunday night.

Needless to say, my expectations were high for this episode, and after watching it, I wasn't quite sure how I felt. The fact that the show was set a year and a half later than the end of last season made it feel as if the characters had just been going on with their lives even though I hadn't been watching, which made for an odd sensation as I rejoined them.

When the episode opened, the audience was immediately reminded of the tumultuous era in which the show is set (this season takes place in 1966); we saw civil rights protestors picketing outside a Midtown office building and listened in as Bert Cooper talked with some of the younger men about the Vietnam War.

More notable than those events, though, was the fact that the men and women around whom the show is centered seem to be pretty isolated from broader social and political trends. Pete Campbell spent most of the episode angling for a better office; Megan planned Don a surprise party; Joan took care of her new baby and worried that the company had replaced her. Despite everything going on around them, all of the characters seemed to be focused entirely on themselves.

It seemed kind of strange that nothing big happened in this episode, considering the fact that this premiere was so hyped and so anticipated-I kept waiting for a shocking moment, but one never came. I didn't really mind that, though.

This episode felt like a normal episode of Mad Men, and I'm sure that was intentional on Weiner's part. This show builds slowly, and one of the best parts of the way it works is looking at a character's whole arc and seeing how he or she developed and evolved without seeing one "aha" moment that completely transforms him or her all at once.

That kind of slow unraveling was already apparent by the end of Sunday night's premiere. Everyone looked a little bit uncomfortable (and more than just a bit in some cases) and everyone seemed to want to be somewhere different than where they found themselves as the episode began. And if I know Mad Men, those characters will be somewhere different by the time this season draws to a close-but we can be sure that they won't be entirely comfortable there, either.  

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