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'Mad Men': Season 3 premiere

August 16, 2009 | 11:00 pm

Madmen Since the second season of “Mad Men” ended in October 2008, viewers have been bereft of their weekly dose of multi-martini lunches; Lucky Strikes for every man, pregnant woman and child; appallingly un-PC office banter and women in conical bras and breath-stealing girdles. When we last left our Emmy-festooned drama, the Draper marriage was in shambles, the nation was seemingly on the brink of nuclear war and Peggy Olson dropped the baby bomb on Pete Campbell (i.e., she told him she had their love child and gave it away).

At the start of Season 3, it’s now 1963 – the year of the Kennedy assassination and the cusp of Beatlemania -- and all of these issues seemed to have reached an oasis of calm. Of course, nothing is ever what it appears on “Mad Men” and fissures are already appearing on everyone’s polished veneers. The first episode reiterates the abiding themes of the series – questions of identity, culture wars and secrets and lies – but without big plot machinations. As my colleague Robert Lloyd wrote, this is TV as Japanese tea ceremony, with each moment having delicate but great impact.

So, what is happening? At the start, our enigmatic ad man Don Draper, heating up milk for his wife but staring off into the distance of the kitchen, experiences hallucinations about his birth. We learn that Don got his real name – Dick -- from a rather violent wish that his prostitute mother made on her deathbed, a sharp, funny detail in an otherwise dream-heavy scene.

Later on upstairs, his wife Betty, who even with insomnia looks like a sweet, gauzy angel, strokes her pregnant belly and worries about the future. “I just want everything to be perfect,” she said. “I want [our baby] to come into our home at its best.” Something tells me she’s bound to be disappointed.

Peggy Olson, the up-and-coming copywriter who still dresses like Jane of Dick and Jane fame, is her usual stiff-lipped self, not indulging her secretary in any flirtations with the male British secretary who objects to being titled as such, due to the feminized connotation of the word in the U.S.

Of all the characters on “Mad Men,” Peggy might be the one I’m most excited to see develop this season. It’s almost impossible to predict where she might go, but as creator Matt Weiner is aware of, Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” was published in 1963. In many ways, Peggy is Friedan’s ideal – a woman not defined by her husband or children. But can Peggy get all her identity from a place that demeans her and all the other skirts?

In other company news, the British have fully invaded Sterling-Cooper and seem bent on shaking up the system. The head of accounts gets the ax, setting into motion a competition between Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove; both were promised the gig. Naturally, Ken sees it as an exciting opportunity while Pete uses it to launch into one of his crybaby moments. Why can’t anything good happen all at once, he poo-poos, as his wife attempts to soothe him.

(By the way, Alison Brie, the actress who plays Trudy Campbell, has been impressive for some time now and this episode finds her in particularly fine form. Her cadences and tones of speech are like a John Cheever story  come to life. I was utterly disappointed to find pictures of her on Imdb clothed in the garb of our time. I don’t want to believe that this woman was born after 1945.)

The episode’s most riveting storyline belonged to poor ol’ closeted Sal, who actually got to have a moment of sweaty petting before an ill-timed fire alarm at his hotel spoiled his fun. Draper, traveling with Sal for a meeting in Baltimore, was also rendezvousing with a stewardess and on his way down the fire escape, he sees Sal and waves at him to get outside. But when he catches sight of Sal’s half-naked friend, he moves on with only a little startle in his eyes, nothing more. This is Draper we’re talking about, the maestro of secrets and smooth talking.

On the plane back home, Draper bounces an idea for the London Fog campaign off Sal, imbuing it with his usual mystic mojo that works best in darkened boardrooms with hungover ad men. Sal looks incredibly relieved to not be asked for anything more than his professional opinion. And then another look passes over his face – something like tender recognition. Sal now knows that Don understands what it is to have secrets. They are both not who they say they are.

If “Mad Men” is like a Japanese tea ceremony, the matcha has yet to be poured. We’re only at the beginning of this season’s formal dance. The tea cups have been set on the tatami mat; let’s see who’s the first to kick one over.

-- Margaret Wappler

Photo by Carin Baer/AMC