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Mad Men Season Premiere: Once a Dick, Always a Dick

Mad Men has thrived by confounding our expectations with bracing, blunt dialogue (Pete: “Get a rope”) and bolt-from-the-blue plot twists (Joan’s rape). In the lead-up to the season-three premiere, AMC has flaunted its “10 Most Shocking Moments” with a promo reel, priming fans for a startling premiere. But Matthew Weiner loves to mess with us. The shock: There are no huge shocks in this fantastic return to form. (Still: spoiler alert.)

The Pitch
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The Campaign
It starts with a dirty joke: In interviews, Weiner (who, as we mentioned, loves to tease) has said that he’s done with Don’s past. So, of course, we begin with a flashback origin story. His mother has just delivered a stillborn baby when his jerk father yells at her: “So, you killed another one.” Then, with just 85 cents in hand, his father shortchanges a prostitute, telling her he can’t afford a “sheath.” She says that if she gets pregnant, “I’m going to cut your dick off and boil it in hog fat.” The prostitute dies; the midwife hands a baby to Don’s mom: “His name is Dick,” she says, “after a wish his mother should have lived to see.” (No wonder he wanted a new name!) It’s a crass reprise of Don’s central drama: Can this son of a cheating sonofabitch escape who he is? Can he break the curse and stop being such a dick?

Looks like it’s about six months later, and Don’s trying — warming up milk for Betty, who’s about to have their baby. Back in the office, the British are coming! The buyout has happened, and they’ve already laid off almost a third of the staff (who says this show isn’t contemporary?). Old man Cooper has moved on from the emptiness of Rothko to something kinkier: a Japanese illustration of a giant octopus having sex with a woman, one tentacle twisting a nipple. “What man could imagine her ecstasy?” On cue: Enter Don, who’s got his mojo working again.

“You are the face of our business,” says the new CFO, Lane Pryce (these names are straight out of Dickens), played by Jared Harris, an effortlessly skeazy character actor who once played the vacant pop icon in I Shot Andy Warhol. Pryce is an epically manipulative manager (notably unmarried — is he gay?) who seems to represent the shift from the old-boys’-club way of doing things to a more scientific, cold, number-crunching McNamaran rationalism (after remaking Ford, Robert McNamara was remaking the military at this time). This is a form of corporate sixties masculinity we haven’t seen yet — and an explicit challenge to the clubbiness of all the men. In one telling scene, Pryce stares at an ant farm: The office is now his little colony, his plaything.

In a corporate-management experiment, Pryce promotes both nakedly ambitious Pete and golden (violin) boy Ken to head of accounts and tells each to keep it a secret. The next day they find they share the job — and Pete (seemingly at peace with Trudy) is pissed. Still petulantly convinced he deserves the world on a platter, he whines: “Why can’t I get anything good all at once?” The office scenes are all set up: Ken and Pete will duke it out; the new Joan is not Jane, and Harry has grown more powerful, along with TV. Joan (still wearing that engagement ring, even after the rape) might have a thing for Pryce’s cute new English assistant, John (either that, or the new Joan isn’t Jane after all, but John).

The brand London Fog? Pryce explains that there never was any fog there — just the coal dust from the industrial era. This is the most direct metaphor we’ve seen yet for this unsentimental show. Believe in the romantic mist, or Mad Men’s cool, smoky style, if you want: Underneath, it’s all carcinogenic. Those cigarettes aren’t toasted, they’re lethal. The Sterling Cooper men (and this show) willfully perpetuate the lie: “I don’t care what they say,” says Cooper. “London Fog is a great name.”

Then — whoa! — a handsome bellhop unbuttons Sal’s pants! Sal shivers. He gets that kiss he’s wanted for too long (his pen, hilariously, leaks), but — damn you, Matt Weiner! — there’s a fire alarm. They all evacuate.

On the way down, Don sees Sal — and his shirtless bellhop — but we all know Don can keep a secret. Back home, Don’s daughter finds a TWA brooch in Don’s bag: He tells the girl it’s for her. She asks about the day she was born. He struggles to reply, next to his pregnant wife — and his pregnant pause says everything. “I had just come up from … work.”

Another moment: “You look like Ty Power,” says the stewardess to Don. “Remember him?” Like Don, Power was a former Marine typecast as the romantic lead. But Power died in 1958, years after his prime. Don, who needs reading glasses, is a relic of an older era in 1963, which is why his advice to the London Fog guys is so last-decade. That season-three poster of Don calmly holding a cocktail as the water rises in his office? Don’s too cocky to notice the water rising. He’s the oblivious frog who doesn’t know the sixties are about to boil him up.

The brand London Fog? Pryce explains that there never was any fog there — just the coal dust from the industrial era. This is the most direct metaphor we’ve seen yet for this unsentimental show. Believe in the romantic mist, or Mad Men’s cool, smoky style, if you want: Underneath, it’s all carcinogenic. Those cigarettes aren’t toasted, they’re lethal. The Sterling Cooper men (and this show) willfully perpetuate the lie: “I don’t care what they say,” says Cooper. “London Fog is a great name.”

Another moment: “You look like Ty Power,” says the stewardess to Don. “Remember him?” Like Don, Power was a former Marine typecast as the romantic lead. But Power died in 1958, years after his prime. Don, who needs reading glasses, is a relic of an older era in 1963, which is why his advice to the London Fog guys is so last-decade. That season-three poster of Don calmly holding a cocktail as the water rises in his office? Don’s too cocky to notice the water rising. He’s the oblivious frog who doesn’t know the sixties are about to boil him up.

Photo: Courtesy of AMC