Review: Like Don Draper, ‘Mad Men’ Season 5 is a work in progress


After 17 months, “Mad Men” returns to AMC, television and the universe Sunday night. I have seen the fifth season’s two-hour opening episode. There is a party in it. I can say no more.

Well, I could say more. But you may have read of a memo that “Mad Men” creator and caretaker Matthew Weiner sent out to critics everywhere asking that, in order not to spoil any viewer’s fun, we keep secret “key storylines” as developed in the season premiere.

Specifically, he would prefer we not mention: the year it takes place; Don Draper’s relationship status; whether Joan had her baby (I’d forgotten that she was pregnant, it’s been so long); how the actual pregnancy of January Jones affects her character, Betty Draper; and the general health of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce after it loses the Lucky Strike account and tries to make its way in the wicked world of advertising in the olden days of the New Frontier and Great Society.

VIDEO: ‘Mad Men’ trailer asks fans if they missed Don Draper

These are hardly cliffhangers. All Weiner preserves by this secrecy are a few quick reveals — seconds, really, of television time — none exactly breathtaking or unexpected. But he asked nicely, and the fact is that, even though lots of things happen in a season of “Mad Men,” the show is not quite plot-driven. The crucial matter, at any juncture, is not what will happen to someone’s marriage or job or the agency itself, but whether the characters will act from their better nature or their worse. And with this bunch there is no telling.

However the show lives in Weiner’s head — and we have reached the point where he must know at least roughly where his inventions will be the moment he parts from them forever — it is a rich and, in its highly stylized way, a real enough creation that it doesn’t actually matter what he thinks it’s about. Your view may be equally valid. Here is mine.

As usual, a double-length opener notwithstanding, it is impossible yet to say where the season is going to take us. But if we’re to judge by the opening notes, we should expect variations on the parallel themes of passing time and onrushing age. This isn’t new to the series — the cast includes Robert Morse, 80, as Bertram Cooper, and John Slattery’s Roger Sterling has weathered two heart attacks.

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But now even the whippersnappers among them are looking at younger whippersnappers with confusion and rue. The mood is autumnal, which seems a strange word for a show set smack in the middle of the 1960s — though in the life cycle of the series, it’s appropriate. Because even as “Mad Men” celebrates the fabrics and the furniture, the appliances and accouterments of the American midcentury, it is a story of the end of all that.

Indeed, putting aside Weiner’s own yen for historical veracity — in a second memo to reviewers, he announced that the recording originally played over the closing credits of the season premiere had been replaced because, in the series’ timeline, it wouldn’t have been released yet — what makes “Mad Men” tick is not period nostalgia, though it has benefited from and encouraged our taste for it.

It works because it’s less about who we were then — it’s a fantasy of who we were then, really — than about who we are now. The civil rights movement, the advancement of women, the early stirrings of what would become gay liberation: This is not old business. In some prophetic way, it is a show about the end of male white privilege, and that we’re still waiting for that end is what makes the show contemporary.

As to Don Draper (Jon Hamm, wearing his Gregory Peck face), the privileged white male at the center of the series, he is a man of many sides. But — apart from his love for his children, to whom he remains a devoted if distracted, often dumbfounded divorced dad — they surround an empty space.

He has a sense of honor and of guilt — and, from his spurning of his brother in the first season to his serial infidelities, he has had plenty to feel guilty about. But he has no identity — having swapped his own with a corpse in Korea — and from one angle the series is an account of his so far fruitless, if outwardly successful, attempts to find or construct one, from nice things and what are, to him, exotic women. (That he is a void looking to be filled may be what makes him a good ad man.)

Yet it’s exactly because he is a work in progress that we root for him. Whatever epiphany or accident, moment of self-realization or resignation or suddenly burst unsuspected fatal aneurysm might await him at the end of this road, things may work out for Don, or they may not; a simple resolution would be out of character for Weiner and the show. But with a sixth season of “Mad Men” already in the cards, all we can say for certain is this isn’t the year we find out.

‘Mad Men’

Where: AMC

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and sex)