The third-season premiere of Mad Men is chock-full of revelations about familiar characters and fresh details about newly introduced ones, as well as the sort of specifics and symbolism that creator Matthew Weiner layers into every episode like a top Top Chef. As with so much about Mad Men, some of it is overheated but never half-baked, and the opening hour rises like a nearly flawless soufflé of sex and salesmanship.
The episode begins several months after last season ended, with a daringly moving flashback by Jon Hamm’s Don, as he imagines how he came into the world, an illegitimate child who we know from previous seasons was named Dick, but now we learn why. Since we last saw him, Don appears to have become a happy homebody, making warm milk for his pregnant wife, Betty (January Jones), and cuddling with her as she murmurs, ”I just want everything to be perfect.”
It’s a feeling echoed by, of all people, the delightfully weaselly Pete Campbell, who gets a promotion that he’s lusted after…but that comes with strings attached. (No one does bitter petulance better than actor Vincent Kartheiser.)
The opening hour is full of witty office scenes, including a marvelous business meeting with an unhappy client, London Fog raincoats, and an extraordinary firing of one employee who takes out his rage by making a scene in the secretarial pool. (The splashes there have to be mopped up by the Esther Williams of Mad Men, that Tex Avery dream-girl, Christina Hendricks’ Joan.) New business strategies (firings, job shifts) get implemented by the ad agency’s new owners, embodied by Fringe’s Jared Harris, who is dry, conniving, and quietly contemptuous of his American counterparts. Hoo boy, is this Brit going to be a jolly good villain to secretly root for!
The subplot that’s bound to get the most attention, though, involves our big, sad Sal (Bryan Batt), who has repressed his homosexuality in a manner typical of the 1960s: He got married and stayed miserable. In the premiere, however, Sal seems on the verge of joyous release while on a business trip with Don, but — well, I can’t give it away. Let’s talk afterward, shall we?
The recurring theme of the premiere is isolation and thwarted pleasure. Sometimes these sentiments are hammered home too hard, as when Don says melodramatically, ”I keep going to a lot of places and ending up where I’ve already been.” But most of the time, Mad Men’s depiction of quiet desperation is impeccable. Sal quotes Balzac to an unimpressed client: ”Our greatest fears lie in anticipation.” This glib crib from the French novelist can be turned inside out to describe Mad Men’s viewers. Our greatest pleasure lies in anticipation of what is to come this season. A?