Well, that was nice. The episode (actually, two episodes together to make a two-hour special) gradually reintroduced us to the characters, while subtly letting us see how much they had changed since the last time we saw them. I could list those changes, but if you care, you’ve already watched it.
Mad Men is a show, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that has a cultural impact that far exceeds the number of people who actually watch the show. Mad Men is not even the most popular show on its network: AMC’s biggest hit is the zombie series The Walking Dead. But Mad Men is the water-cooler show, or, in the modern era, the Twitter show. Everyone who does watch it immediate offers their opinions (this post being an example), making it a hard show to fall behind on, because spoilers are everywhere.
Of the women characters, Betty is absent (she will only make occasional appearances this season, as January Jones was having a baby during the time the season was shot). Peggy is settling into her position of relative importance within the company, Joan is missed in the office during her maternity leave, there are new secretaries here and the same wives there. Mad Men has always managed to simultaneously show the misogynist tone of the times and the budding feminism of the 1960s. Women’s advances have been gradual, but Peggy and Joan are extremely valuable to the company, even if it will be a long time before either of them makes partner. And Jessica Paré as Don Draper’s wife Megan adds a nice touch to the ensemble. She is allowed to have her own personality in ways never given to Betty Draper (who was just morose, although it was very effective dramatically), and Paré has a kind of modern beauty that matches well with the 1966 setting (or at least, they let her show off that beauty, unlike Peggy … Elisabeth Moss is far better looking than they let her be on Mad Men).
As for the men, there is a lot of interesting things going on, and I look forward to the continued evolution of Jared Harris as Lane Pryce. But let’s face it: Mad Men is about Don Draper/Dick Whitman. And he’s rather unsettling as the season begins. As Peggy says, “I don't recognize that man. He's kind and patient!” But Megan doesn’t seem ready to play the trophy wife, and their sexual attraction to each other has a kinky undertone. Given that Don’s life was such a mess last season, it’s odd to see him almost happy. But even that happiness is off in some way. Megan nails it when she says of her co-workers (including her husband), “What is wrong with you people? You're all so cynical! You don't smile; you smirk!”
We don’t get much of Sally Draper this episode, but she’ll be around. And Christina Hendricks got to have a fine emotional scene … Joan presents such an assured front that when she breaks down, it’s surprising and hard to bear.
And finally, Mad Men seems ready to confront the issue of race in the 1960s. There has been criticism of the show in the past for ignoring race, but the characters are mostly clueless about their prejudices, and it is rare for any of them to know what is going on outside of their narrow world. But now there are black people protesting, and a stupid joke is taken seriously by a group of black people who show up to apply for a non-existent job with the company. It will be a smart move to hire at least one of those people, forcing the characters (and the show) to address things that have mostly been pushed to the side in the past.
Mad Men takes its time getting to where it’s going; even given the two-hour premiere, very little “happened”. Tonight’s Shameless was more, well, shameless in eliciting emotional reactions from the audience than usual, but I think partly it was that the raw nature of Fiona and the rest is so much different than what we see on Mad Men. In the course of just a few minutes near the end of the episode (I’d give a spoiler warning, but no one I know watches the show), there was a Thanksgiving celebration where the main dish went from a bunch of cans of Spam in the shape of a bird, to a bald eagle, to an actual turkey. The Gallaghers had a moment of familial bliss, at least as much as they can manage, only to have the mom try to kill herself. She is rushed to the hospital, and she’ll survive … and oh, Lip’s son is being born in that same hospital, so everyone runs into that room, watches the birth of a baby, celebrates once again … and then we learn that the baby has Down’s syndrome, and isn’t even Lip’s baby at all. (They aren’t done then, either … Joan Cusack as Sheila steals the baby from the hospital, escaping on the motorcycle of her new lover.) I list all of this to demonstrate how a show like Shameless is always ready to pull you all over the emotional map, and how Mad Men seems so civilized in comparison.