The world of Mad Men, much like the characters who live in it, has never been overly concerned with the past. That might seem like an odd thing to say about a series that wows us every week with spot-on retro sets and costumes and singlehandedly made drinking like your grandpa cool again, but just like Don Draper, creator Matthew Weiner has never been especially concerned with letting us all in on what we missed while we were away. You keep up or you fall behind. It’s the Draper way, it’s the Weiner way—and it’s the right way.
It’s fitting, then, that the first people we see after a year and a half away from the show aren’t even employees at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. They’re rival executives over at Y&R, and they’re in trouble for waterbombing a group of African-American protestors, laying the groundwork for Civil Rights storylines that’ll surely reappear throughout the season. Season four left us with plenty of unanswered questions (Will Don and Megan last? What’ll happen to the agency now that they’re without big tobacco? Is Roger the father of Joan’s baby?), and rather than beat us over the head with the answers, Weiner trusts the audience is smart enough to draw a few conclusions on its own.
So what exactly can be concluded? For the most part, everyone’s where you’d expect them to be. Don and Megan are married, but as all of us on Team Dr. Faye could have predicted, they obviously don’t understand each other. Megan throws Don a surprise party for his birthday, a spectacle (complete with an awkward French burlesque number!) that anyone who’s spent five minutes with Don should know he’d hate. He gets upset, and over the course of their fight she admits she feels like she doesn’t fit in at work, where she’s now a junior copywriter (as Joan predicted in last season’s finale). By episode’s end, they seem to have temporarily smoothed things over, with Don telling her “I don’t care about work.” Riiiiiiight.
Meanwhile, Joan has had her baby, and she’s afraid that if she doesn’t return to work soon she’ll be replaced. Her mother (who’s been helping her with the baby while Greg is still in Vietnam) tries to convince her not to return to work, but despite her whole “marry-doctor-have-baby-settle-down” plan, Joan’s always been a career woman at heart. She’s not quite Peggy, but she’s also nowhere near Betty or Trudy—so she throws on a killer dress and drops by the office with her son to make sure they all know what they’ve been missing. It turns out she had nothing to worry about; organizationally speaking, the office is a mess without her, and Lane assures her they’re all eagerly awaiting her return.
While it’s never confirmed, it’s pretty safe to assume that Roger’s the father of Joan’s baby. The long look he gives the kid when he greets Joan left little doubt there. And Roger’s up to his old tricks, spitting out one-liners left and right to mask feelings of inadequacy, putting up a (mostly) jovial front to hide unhappiness at home and a power struggle with Pete now that he’s without Lucky Strike. He’s not the only one happy to see Joan, either; Lane, who spends most of the episode pining over a photo of a woman he finds in a lost wallet, is clearly lonely in spite of being back with his wife and kids. When Joan visits, they gossip like old chums and share a laugh while he holds her baby. Worth noting, however, is the just-barely-noticeable pain that registers in his face when she makes a comment about how handsome Don is.
What really made Mad Men’s return great were the little touches that fans were expected to pick up on. For example, the sight of Peggy and Pete awkwardly standing over Joan’s baby and arguing over who should watch it was a delightful little peek at what the pair of them might’ve been like had Peggy decided to keep Pete’s baby all the way back in season one. Or likewise, when Pete lures back Mohawk Airlines (and uses it as leverage to negotiate for a bigger office), we’re supposed to remember that Sterling Cooper dropped the airline back in the second season for a shot at American Airlines.
There weren’t any earth-shattering revelations in this premiere. Perhaps the biggest shocker was that Megan apparently knows all about Don’s past, at one point joking about Dick Whitman. Is Don really through with all the lies? We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, everyone else seems to be placed squarely where they belong: Peggy’s whip-smart and awkward as usual (and still with Abe!), Harry still puts his foot in his mouth every five seconds and even the dorkiest of SCDP employees still have that air of glamour that comes with being a ‘60s ad man (or woman). In other words, everything you love about Mad Men is back—along with, sure, a few things you know.
-Now that we’re into the second half of the ‘60s, the wardrobe’s getting really interesting. Pete’s checkered jacket at the party was this episode’s unsung hero.
-Apparently Bert Cooper got over Don’s PR stunt at the end of last season and didn’t quit after all? We’re glad. He steals the scene whenever he crops up.
-It’s interesting that the civil rights plot (which wrapped up with the agency dealing with a lobby full of African-American applicants after they jokingly run an ad declaring themselves “an equal opportunity employer”) centered largely around Lane. At the episode’s end, he’s accepting the applications, but earlier he refuses to leave a lost wallet with an African-American cabbie because he doesn’t trust him. And let’s not forget his Playboy bunny girlfriend from last season, who also happened to be black. He’s clearly a complex man who perhaps isn’t quite aware of the extent of his own prejudices, and kudos to Mad Men for reminding us that things aren’t often as cut-and-dry as Racist and Not Racist.
-Betty didn’t make an appearance this episode, perhaps due to the fact that January Jones’ real-life pregnancy caused her to take on a limited role this season. It’ll be interesting to see how and when she’ll turn up and whether that little moment with her and Don in the kitchen at the end of last season will amount to anything.