Reviewing a “Mad Men” season premiere often feels like the parable about blind men describing an elephant. Based on exposure to just a small part of the beast, it’s easy to draw an incomplete and inaccurate picture. That said, the start to the bifurcated final season feels more indifferently paced than most – and thanks to the gradual push further into the 1960s, perhaps too groovy and scattered for its own good. Series creator Matthew Weiner never rushes his storytelling, but resetting the table ought to be more tantalizing in terms of what lies ahead.
Spoiler considerations prevent divulging too much about the plot, other than the well-telegraphed elements that the signature ad agency has set up a branch in Los Angeles, which figures prominently in this thread; and that Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is still digging through the emotional baggage from the heavy drinking and extramarital affair that dominated last season. Those excesses have made it clear Don’s second marriage to actress Megan (Jessica Pare) might not end any more happily than his first one to Betty (January Jones), who is among the prominent absentees in this opening chapter.
In a broader sense, “Mad Men” has perhaps inevitably lost some of its then-versus-now power as the show has advanced through the ‘60s, even with the shifting fashions and goofy sideburns.
If there was a certain innocence in the Eisenhower-era values on display when the show premiered – as well as repeated demonstrations of everything that must be ignored to nostalgically pine for those days – the series has at times labored to organically work the social upheaval unleashed by the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and counter-culture period into the lives of its mostly white and white-collar characters. (An exception would be the songs, which in the opener might trigger a resurgence of interest in Spencer Davis Group and Vanilla Fudge.)
That’s not to say the premiere is without pleasing moments, from Joan (Christina Hendricks) and her various challenges at work as she assumes greater responsibility to Roger (John Slattery), who, not surprisingly, has embraced the sexual revolution with all the gusto he brought to chasing secretaries around the office.
“Mad Men” remains a landmark series, and unlike something like “Breaking Bad” needn’t be heavily defined or judged by how well the program wraps up its run — although Weiner’s comments about his vision for the ending have done little to temper expectations. Nevertheless, this is one of those shows really more about the journey than the destination, despite the emphasis we’ve come to place on such things.
Yet for a series that has been so good for so long, the beginning of this final leg finds “Mad Men” looking a touch past its prime – a judgment subject to revision, naturally, once we can see the rest of the elephant.