Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce reopens its doors at 8 p.m. Sunday when “Mad Men” returns for its fifth season on AMC, ending the longest period without new Don Draper stories in the series' history. The last airing of an original “Mad Men” episode happened over 500 days ago, an epic gap nearly equal to the drought between seasons 5 and 6 of “The Sopranos.”
The faithful waited as “Mad Men” was caught in a tense renegotiation process between series creator Matthew Weiner and the network, discussions that delayed Sunday's premiere but ensured that the series would continue for seven seasons. All the while, viewers pondered what became of Don's spur-of-the-moment proposal to Megan, the fate of the advertising agency after the Lucky Strike account went up in smoke, and Joan's maternal future.
All these plot strands, new sets of interpersonal dynamics and a perceptible shift in the balance of power at SCDP all make grand appearances in the two-hour premiere, titled “A Little Kiss,” but viewers spoiling for spoilers must look elsewhere to be spoiled. Looking for big-picture analysis? Shut the door, have a seat.
“A Little Kiss” lays the groundwork not only for cultural shifts at SCDP, but in the world at large. While Draper (Jon Hamm), Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and their subordinates at the agency stayed attuned to social shifts for commerce purposes, they largely maintained an Eisenhower-era culture in their Time-Life Building offices. But well into the 1960s, the office is finally confronting the impact of the Civil Rights Movement and the expanding role of women in the workplace, and Draper's dynamic with his children and ex-wife predicts the nuclear family meltdown of the decade to come.
The most obvious changes, though, announce themselves in the form of style and color palette in the early scenes, which follow Sally (Kiernan Shipka) through her changed world to Wurlitzer organ bachelor-pad sounds of Ken Griffin. Sally's old, buttoned-up but unraveling “Ozzie and Harriet” existence is starting to look like the day-glo cut-and-paste Brady family, but with unsettled feelings that cannot be solved with a talk and a hug before the final credits. And Joan (Christina Hendricks), an exponent of the Marilyn Monroe ideal of sex symbols, faces a stiff challenge from the skinny new breed with their miniskirts and heavy eye makeup.
Furthermore, the fraternity atmosphere that started to evaporate beginning with the season four conflict between Joan and sleazy copywriter Joey is an endangered dynamic. Brazen sex talk about SCDP co-workers can be deadly in the new reality. But the most pivotal changes involve the shift in Draper's world view — an unsettling development for Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) — and the ramped-up quest for power by the ever-demanding Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser).
But most importantly, the season premiere of “Mad Men” is funny, emotional and contains an unforgettable scene in which Megan (Jessica Pare) carves the phrase “zoo be zoo be zoo” into the cultural discussion for the next several days. Time passes, lives change and the bizarre double life of Don Draper continues to engage. “Mad Men” took a long time to make its latest presentation, but as its fifth season begins, this landmark series is still on message.
— George Lang
When: 8 p.m. Sunday.
Where: AMC (Cox Communications Channels 33 and 795).
For Season 4 episode recaps: Go to blog.