Mad Men returned to our screens on Sunday night after a gap of 17 months, but in the world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, only 7 months have passed in the lives of our favourite characters. The action begins towards the end of May 1966* – just before Don’s fake 40th birthday on June 1st and a few months after Dick Whitman’s actual milestone. The episode opened with a real historical event when workers at the advertising agency Young and Rubicam threw water bombs at nearby Civil Rights Protestors, getting their firm negative press in the NY Times. After only having been hinted at during the first few seasons, the Civil Rights Movement may be playing a more prominent role in this year’s story arc. Following that incident at Y&R, Roger and Don decide to put an advert in the Times proclaiming themselves as an equal opportunity employer, which results in a lobby full of African-American would-be applicants for a role that SCDP cannot afford to be filling. Lane Pryce, who had shown his own bigotry earlier in the episode when he would not trust the black taxi driver with a lost wallet full of cash, realises that not hiring one of the candidates as a secretary would be more costly to the agency than doing so, thus for the first time an African-American will be employed by the firm. How the agency copes with this forced integration will be interesting, since the idiots at Y&R who got them into trouble, seemed no worse than last season’s trouble-making group of Stan, Joey and Harry, who between them could well have ended up throwing water bombs themselves, had they been in the same situation.
*The show did tease the year of the setting before it was made clear – in the Y&R window, someone had put a fake Presidential endorsement sign up of “Goldwater 1968” – but this was to antagonise the protestors outside, since Senator Goldwater (who was defeated in a landslide by President Johnson in the 1964 election) was an opponent of the Civil Rights Act. On the train, Pete is also asked how old his baby is, which could have revealed how much time has passed, but he sidesteps the question – it is only when we see Joan with her young son that the year is clearly 1966.
Don and Megan have been married in the time since we last saw them announcing their engagement, and Draper genuinely seems much happier and cares much less about work than before. Significantly, he wants to make his wife happy, a trait he never showed with Betty, and only argues with her about the surprise party because he does not want to be the centre of attention, nor invite his work colleagues into their marriage. Megan has taken on a new role as a copywriter at SCDP and is now reporting to Peggy Olson, except with Don being her husband, she comes and goes as he pleases, not Peggy. The cynicism Megan now experiences in the workplace may result in her becoming jaded with this opportunity in the long run, but for now she seems to be holding her own with her work. However, her song and dance routine at the party made her the object of derision by Roger, Lane and Harry Crane, and her colleagues are making comments about her existing outside of ordinary rules as she is married to one of the senior partners.
There have been a couple of significant changes within the agency, in particular, Pete Campbell is now the dominant figure amongst the partners, power he has garnered through being the person who has brought in the most business for the firm. Pete has a direct confrontation with Roger Sterling for the entire double-episode – Roger is trying to worm his way into client meetings by snooping at Pete’s calendar, resulting in the junior partner reacting by trying to engineer an office swap. Though Campbell ends up trading with Harry Crane – who is forced into it as he goes in to the meeting thinking he is going to be fired for making fun of Megan Draper, and is also paid off by Sterling – he does get one over on Roger by setting up a fake appointment with Coca-Cola on Staten Island at 6am, setting him up for an early morning ferry ride to nowhere. Pete seems set on putting his all in to his working life, as he does not seem happy at home – he has moved to the suburbs with Trudy and their newborn, leading to him giving a rueful response to the traffic noise at Don’s party. Being a new Dad does not appear to have cheered him either, and he is unwilling to look after Joan’s baby even temporarily in the office – though that interaction did give a wonderful moment of him and Peggy standing over the baby for an awkward moment, a reminder that the two of them have a child out there who will be about 5 years old now. Now that Pete has more power and authority to go with his ruthless ambition = as well as a renewed focus as he tries to spend less time at home – he could become a significant danger to Roger and Bert’s existence at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
A depletion in staffing levels as a consequence of the layoffs at the end of the last season, has resulted in people fighting for secretaries to sit near their offices for periods of the day – but the biggest reason for the drop in efficiency at the agency is the absence of Joan, who is on maternity leave. After being shown the non-job advert by her mother, Joan fears that she is being replaced now that she has a child, but Lane makes it clear when she comes in to the office that without her running things, it is almost impossible for the firm to survive financially. Money concerns appear to be forefront in many of the partners minds: Don scolds Megan for spending money on the party; Lane has yet to pay tuition for his son’s school; and Pete states that his job did not provide the house they now live in. Only Roger seems immune from their micro-recession, as he is handing out $50 to a secretary to sit by his office, and $1100 to Harry to convince him to switch offices with Pete – either his longevity in the industry has given him a comfortable cushion against the bad times, or sales of “Sterling’s Gold” went through the roof in the last seven months.
There was plenty of humour in this double-episode, not least of which was Megan’s performance of “Zou Bisou Bisou”, which may not have been intended as funny, yet was as awkwardly hilarious as David Brent’s impromptu dance in The Office. Also: Pete’s comment to Roger at Don’s party “Roger, I’m surprised to see you here – were you invited or did you just know I was going to be here?”; Joan’s response of “Try me” to her mother saying she was not exactly at “fighting-weight”; and Harry taking the bribe from Roger and then claiming “Well you’re gonna owe me” being rebuked with “No I’m not, I just gave you a lot of money, this was a transaction”.
As always with Mad Men, the early episodes lay the groundwork for plot developments later in the season – but this was a strong opening and, after so long away, it is good to have them back. Having a happy Don Draper, who acts like the clients are right and with kindness, may not be perfect, but it is better than no Don at all.