'Mad Men' Review: Racism, Social Issues Dominate

AMC's "Mad Men", season five is officially underway, and the times they are a-changin'.

The year is 1967, and the show opens on a civil rights demonstration. A rival firm treats the protesters poorly, and we have ourselves the beginnings of a story arc to kick off the new batch of episodes. I should warn you now that I will try to avoid spoilers in this review, but there might be a couple of minor points divulged. Proceed at your own risk.

Most of this episode seemed either to be laying the groundwork for future story arcs or filling the viewer in on what’s happened since season four. It did not make for a very exciting "Mad Men" episode, but it was necessary after such a long break (the last new episode aired 17 months ago).

Since season four, Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Pare) have gotten married, Megan has a new position at Sterling Cooper Draper Price and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and her beatnik (or do we call them hipsters by 1967?) are going strong. Meanwhile, Joan (Christina Hendricks) has had her baby and Roger (John Slattery), his own marriage in trouble, can’t resist needling her on paternity. Trudy (Alison Brie) and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) take their baby and head to the suburbs. No doubt the viewer will find out more about each of these events as the season unfolds.

From the premiere, I would guess this year will focus quite a bit on racial tensions. SCDP is going to be on the cutting edge of civil rights, but 1967 equality will look very different from what is acceptable today.

Through the day-to-day operations of SCDP, I expect that we will have a look at race relations from a variety of perspectives and situations. "Mad Men" touched on some issues of equality and acceptance in earlier seasons but, since the departure of Salvatore Romano (played by Bryan Batt), we haven’t seen much of this inside of the office.

I’m looking forward to seeing a new side of Don Draper. He is much more vulnerable with Megan than he was with first wife Betty (January Jones), which is not a comfortable position for him. Megan already knows, for example, about his past as Dick Whitman, which means that he has been unprecedentedly honest with her. Previously, only Anna Draper knew the whole truth about the man we know as Don. Clearly, this honesty suits him, as Don is happier than we have ever seen him. 

His co-workers tease that they see him smile regularly, which he usually only does for clients. Then again, I think most men would smile if they had a charming sex bomb wife who cleaned the house in black lingerie (incidentally, I was hoping his housekeeper would be Carla but, as there was no mention, I am assuming it isn’t).

How will his new marriage fare? Will Don be able to remain open with Megan? What will Betty do, now that her own marriage is in trouble? Will there be more Draper children on the way? These are all questions waiting to be answered in season five and beyond. This domestic unrest is going to be echoed in Roger’s marriage, which is already crumbling, and Lane Pryce’s, which is just beginning to unravel.

The added twist of Roger knowing he is the father of Joan’s baby puts her marriage in jeopardy as well. I don’t trust Roger to stay quiet simply because Joan wants him to do so. With her husband due back from Vietnam, we shall see how her marriage holds up.

Vietnam, of course, adds another layer to the story, and might come to the forefront as well. The final storyline I see emerging from this premiere was the Pete vs. Roger power struggle at SCDP. While Roger is getting older and his marriage is falling apart, Pete increasingly asserts his position in the company. Roger is seething with jealousy, as he is openly poaching Pete’s meetings in the premiere. I can only see this going downhill. As his star falls, Pete’s looks set to rise. With his marriage in trouble, Roger doesn’t seem to care about much anymore except Joan, whom he can’t have.

While this episode wasn’t as compelling as most, it gave the viewer quite a bit to ponder, so it served its purpose well. Season five looks set to be very entertaining with, I’m willing to bet, a lot of changes for our core characters.

"Mad Men" airs at 10 p.m. EST Sunday nights on AMC.


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