‘Mad Men’ returns strong after long absence

It’s been about a year and a half since the last new episode of “Mad Men,” AMC’s drama about life — and incidentally, advertising — in 1960s New York.

With the return of the series tonight, creator Matthew Weiner gives us an episode that surely must have been designed as fan service. The two-hour premiere hit a lot of sweet spots for fans of the series.

Roger’s still a funny jerk, Pete’s still an insufferable brat. Some things don’t change at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Chief among them is the relationship between those two antagonists, silver fox Roger and boy wonder Pete. The two competed over office space and needled each other over which is the rainmaker.

Women are still second-class citizens. Joan, still on maternity leave, is told by her mother that surely she doesn’t think her husband will let her work. Secretaries are scolded and sent for coffee. Peggy continues to grow but still gets dismissive treatment from Don.

The mad men are restless. Besides Pete’s bitching about his office, we get Brit Lane Pryce’s fixation on a wallet he found in a cab — and the voice of the wallet owner’s wife or girlfriend. Lane is behaving in a twitchier than usual manner, which is fun stuff.

Don is settling into married bliss. Kinda. Sorta. After his whirlwind courtship and proposal to secretary Megan, Don seems to be settling into domesticity in a groovy apartment. But we know what happens with Don settles into anything. That’s right, Don the Moody lashes out at Megan for throwing him a surprise birthday party and singing a sexy French song. The “cleaning up the apartment in black lingerie” scene near the end of the episode is an eye-opener. Yikes.

The 1960s are about to close in on our protagonists. The episode opened with a protest by African Americans outside rival (and real life) advertising firm Young and Rubicam and ended with a big turnout of black job applicants at SCDP. And surely even the partners know they can’t treat Joan and the other women in their lives like second-class citizens forever.

“Mad Men” gets criticized sometimes for the glacial pace of its seasons and tonight’s episode, while packed with wonderful character moments, was typically low-key. Having said that, however, I have to note that the series continues to make the most of its leisurely tone. If the rest of the season is as strong as tonight’s premiere, it’ll be a great one.

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