After a 17-month hiatus that left Maddicts everywhere in states of Draper-less depression, “Mad Men” returned last Sunday, kicking off its fifth season with a two-hour episode that was seamless down to the smallest of details, which included Pete Campbell’s (Vincent Kartheiser) receding hairline, Bobby Draper 4.0 and Peggy Olson’s (Elisabeth Moss) journalist boyfriend, the Original Hipster, who only writes for underground papers you probably haven’t heard of.

Mad Men

Season 5 premiere
Sundays at 10 p.m.
AMC


The first order of business whenever “Mad Men” returns for a new season is always to piece together any clues that indicate how much time has passed. Judging by the age of Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) newborn and the growth of baby Gene, the year is probably 1966. Creator Matt Weiner, sly bastard that he is, never likes to spoon feed information to his viewers, and when it comes to disclosures, his slowburn method is enthralling and masterful. It’s not until someone refers to Megan (Jessica Paré) as Mrs. Draper that we get absolute confirmation that the pair have wed, developments with Betty (January Jones) and Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) remain a mystery (besides that they apparently live in a castle now) and of course there was the subtle but shocking reveal that Megan knows all about Dick Whitman and Don’s (Jon Hamm) sordid past. Looks like these two have been chatty.

The ’60s are coming to a close, and those who benefit from the status quo don’t want to acknowledge the brewing social unrest that viewers know is coming. Even if those at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce weren’t ready for it, change comes knocking on their door quite literally at episode’s end. “A Little Kiss” made it quite clear that “Mad Men” is finally ready to put race issues center stage.

In addition to social change, “A Little Kiss” focuses on the small changes that are shifting power dynamics, relationships and the overall narrative of the show. The first hour makes Don Draper appear like a completely changed man — he’s kind, patient. For any other character, these traits might be desirable, but it’s with narrowed eyes and a worried tone that Peggy makes this observation. Complacency isn’t the key to being an advertising wizard, and with SCDP still struggling financially, now is probably not the best time for Don to be switching up his style. There’s something decidedly unnerving about seeing Don Draper casually say “what’s up?” when someone steps into his office.

But as the second hour proved, Don is still Don. Megan sees it, too — while talking to Peggy, she calls him and pretty much everyone at SCDP cynical. Back in season one, it would be hard to imagine Peggy ever becoming cynical, but Megan is right. Peggy has changed, while Megan is reminiscent of the old Peggy: new to the creative team, hardworking and eager, always hoping to find the good in people.

“A Little Kiss” reveals the many facets of the new Mrs. Draper. Most viewers at the end of season four were unanimously up in arms about Don’s sudden proposal, because Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) was a more compelling candidate and because there was nothing in particular to like — or even dislike — about Megan. But while Don’s pre-surprise-party cheer evokes the bliss he once had in the early years of his marriage to Betty, it’s clear Megan is no Betty Draper. In some ways, she’s a much deadlier force — her relationship with Don appears to be a constant power struggle.

Whereas Betty never dared to throw Don a birthday party, Megan does so anyway, ignoring warnings from Peggy. Not only does she have a surprise party, but also gives a laughable, sexy burlesque performance in front of everyone, mortifying Don. When he yells at her, she stands her ground.

The writers have done an excellent job of making Megan more likable. She’s impulsive, bold, unpredictable. At the same time, it’s easy for viewers to sympathize with her — she may be capable of taking the dominant position in her marriage, but just like Peggy, Joan and any of the working women of “Mad Men,” she’s still subjected to sexism in the workplace.

Once again, “Mad Men” has proven it succeeds as a period piece, deftly exploring issues of its time, and a standalone drama with fully realized characters and fluid, detail-oriented storytelling. It’s a skill other shows — looking at you, “Pan Am” and “The Playboy Club” — simply can’t seem to master. Welcome back, “Mad Men.”

Correction appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Gene as Jean.

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