Obsession is back: “Mad Men” takes out its trash

Joan and Roger, a dynamic duo

In case the sudden uptick in Facebook activity from that one friend who fancies themselves to be yet another wise-cracking, well-suited account man at the gin-soaked, ever struggling Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce hasn’t tipped you off already, season five of “Mad Men” premiered on AMC this Sunday.

Expectations ran high for the two hour episode, diehard “Mad Mennies” (think Trekkies, but with better taste in clothing) needed a quip from cynical partner Roger Sterling, a sassy dig from master secretary Joan Harris, and, of course, an emotional breakthrough mid-pitch from the man himself, Don Draper. When a show runs for four seasons, assumptions build around how the characters can and will act.

The premiere defied those assumptions. Between the fall of 1965 and Memorial Day 1966, we see that Joan, weighed down by her baby, has left the office; that Pete Campbell is starting to bald; that someone in the costume department recently discovered the color orange — hidden somewhere near the shag carpets and leftovers from filming the first Pink Panther movie. As Peggy herself remarks about surprisingly still-married Don Draper, “I don’t recognize that man.”

Much of this can be attributed to changes in history. Racial tension, once a ominous hum behind the character drama, explodes when civil rights protestors shout with pride on Madison Avenue. Perhaps the most painful reveal occurs when the stuffy British Lane Pryce steps over trash, out of his Taxi, and into an unkempt city street. New York is dirty. The clean swept, white washed, utopia that people like Don Draper sold doesn’t even exist on the show anymore.

The early seasons of “Mad Men” had the dubious advantage of taking place in that utopia. Just as “Friends” operated on the semi-ridiculous premise that six 20-something’s could pay Manhattan rent, “Mad Men” stipulated that men could drink too much and abuse their wives, but that we would still identify with them because the logic of their world just wasn’t the same as ours. Sure Don’s a bastard, but he’s just trying to find himself in a society where men were bastards. A lot of this is due to the finely articulated beauty that lies at the heart of Mad Men’s world. Everybody in Sterling Cooper looks good, is shot well and dresses impeccably.

All the depravity in the show, though undeniably present, is tempered by its own aesthetic. Forgetting what they’re celebrating, people host “Mad Men” parties and choose favorite characters to imitate. The show is largely responsible for resurrecting 60s fashion and for championing the return of the skinny tie.

Critics of “Mad Men” often target its style, arguing that focusing on appearance leaves gaps in character development, or allows the actors to get away with bad work, or even presents a vision of the 60s that never existed. I disagree. These characters sell themselves for a living. Don Draper, formerly Dick Whitman, wakes up in the morning and asks himself, what would Don Draper wear? Clothing, style, everything in “Mad Men” is a weapon, a way of selling persona, one’s own way of life. It’s only a coincidence that we buy Don’s product as much as anyone else.

If the season five premiere is any indication, this season, though maintaining that aesthetic, is going to question how powerful it can be. The episode was bookended by civil rights protestors, first being water bombed by a rival firm then answering Don’s joke “equal opportunity” ad en masse. These problems matter. Compared to the delicate intrigue of office politics, they have weight.

“Man Men” has always been about people who sell solutions rather than solve problems, and nowhere is that more present than in Don’s new life with his sexpot Canadian secretary, Megan. Her surprise birthday rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou” at Don’s party (available on iTunes!) delivers on her promise that “after this party, everyone will want to go home and have sex.” Don has bought a new life with her, but both have yet to realize its flaws. The viewer, however, has the privilege of Sally Draper’s perspective, who wanders disoriented through her new home, realizing the false promise — the bathroom door leads to dad’s new girl — of her new home.

In a beautiful world, dirt is more fascinating than anything else. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce may tell you that it doesn’t exist, that you can buy a life that’s squeaky clean, that beans do ballet, but the dirt will always creep in. Fans may not want to acknowledge it, but the dirty and ugly are everywhere — in race relations, city streets and even the knots of Megan’s formerly white shag carpet. Beauty, sex and style sell, but dirt, trash, loss and change matter. “Mad Men” knows that; that’s why it still works.

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