In just a few minutes, there will be champagne on ice, celebratory cigarettes, and toasts brimming with good cheer. Or there will be frosty silence, consolation cigarettes, and much harder drinks. Somebody had better pick up that phone so we can find out. On a soundstage in downtown Los Angeles that's been meticulously time-warped back to the '60s, the cast of Mad Men is shooting a scene for the upcoming fifth season. Silver-haired Roger (John Slattery) stands at his desk at ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, where a flashing light indicates there's a VIP client waiting on the line. ''I want all the partners in here,'' Roger yells to his secretary. And so the gang pours in, filling the room with a rush of power and familiarity: There's Don (Jon Hamm), Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), Lane (Jared Harris), Bert (Robert Morse), and Joan (Christina Hendricks), who's wearing a fetching dress that's the color of money. ''Well, I'm glad to hear that,'' says Roger into the phone, a smile crossing his face. ''We like him too.... We'll be over this afternoon to kiss the bride.''
The partners congratulate one another with handshakes and hugs before heading off to the conference room. Don holds the conference-room door for Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), but as they greet each other, it's clear that something more important will keep them from attending the festivities. What is it? During a break, Hamm settles into a chair in Roger's plush office and tries to offer a cryptic hint about the celebration scene. ''Like most things on the show,'' he says, ''all is not what it seems.''
What else would we expect from the series that has turned obfuscation, self-deception, and the idea that no good news goes unpunished into high art? Thankfully, a new exhibit is finally about to open. After airing its fourth season way back in the summer of 2010 (remember Inception and vuvuzelas?), Mad Men returns to AMC on March 25, ending a 17-month hiatus. The sleek Madison Avenue-set series which revolves around secret-stained Don Draper and the selling of the (mythic?) American dream has claimed the Outstanding Drama Series Emmy four years running, one of only three shows to achieve that honor. And with the exception of Two and a Half Men, no show grabbed more headlines last year for its behind-the-scenes activities, as protracted renewal negotiations nearly prompted series creator Matthew Weiner to abandon the show that he calls ''the best work I may do in my life.''
He's got a pretty important task ahead of him: continuing to satisfy a fan base that was left holding a bag of question marks and exclamation points. Don proposes to his secretary!?!? Joan decided not to abort Roger's baby?!?! A panty-hose account might help save the agency!?!?! Rest assured, though, Weiner a man who says he's driven by fear of failure doesn't take his viewers for granted, and he's crafted an ambitious two-hour season premiere that's part welcome-back, part thanks-for-your-patience. ''We have to fight hard to show how much we love this audience,'' says Weiner, who knows all about long hiatuses from his years as a writer-producer on The Sopranos. ''It's not a given that they're going to come back.... But the thing I found is that if you deliver it all, you will be forgiven.''
And according to the cast, the goods that Weiner is delivering are very good. ''I was completely, completely surprised by season 5,'' marvels Moss. ''For a few of the characters that have big things happen to them this year big surprises and changes the audience is going to look back and go, 'He said that in episode 1! Or they hinted at that in episode 3!' It's a brilliant writing season.'' Adds Hamm, ''This season is about getting everything back on track. The company is where we left it. It's in a bit of disarray. We get to see more of everybody doing their job. Peggy, Pete, Roger, Lane, Harry [Rich Sommer], Ken [Aaron Staton] everybody's reinvigorated.'' Slattery believes that season 5 may be the best yet. ''It's funnier. It's sadder. It's just amazing,'' he says. ''Maybe it's because you know these people a little better than you did before. But not as well as you think.''