After all the fags and booze, it’s little wonder Mad Men needed to go away, have a lie-down and think about what it had done. Last year passed without a new series. We were warned by Matthew Weiner that this would be the case, but every now and then there was a sharp reminder of its absence. It was missed when the shows that were compared to it inevitably fell short (Pan Am and The Hour, in particular); when films like The Adjustment Bureau tried to cash in on the suave-men-in-suits idea by peppering the cast with the show’s actors; and when Jon Hamm’s scenery-chomping performance in Bridesmaids suggested for one terrifying moment that there was life outside Don Draper.
But now comes the delightful news that the best show on television is returning, and soon. Jon Hamm let slip that it’s due on AMC in the States on 25 March – and, like many of its recent imports, Sky Atlantic looks set to show it days later. This is small comfort for non-subscribers still smarting that the show has been poached from the BBC, but it does at the very least mean we won’t have the kind of frustrating delay we had with season four, which aired here six months after its US debut. There’s plenty to look forward to, not least the fact that the opening episode marks Hamm’s directorial debut, following John Slattery’s cast-to-clapperboard trajectory – though you get the impression that Hamm will be considerably more stretched, since he’s got the series to carry.
Season four finished on a strange note. At first, I thought Don’s proposal to secretary Megan might have been part of a Sopranos-style dream episode, though it transpired not, and it remains to be seen whether the picture-postcard family man Don, made sentimental by grief and loss, will survive. But Megan doesn’t know Don in the way that Faye, the woman he rejected for what looks like a more simple life, does. Betty and Pete discovered it, but Don actually told Faye about his Dick Whitman past. I hope she comes back. The unravelling of Don’s protective armour was fascinating.
The other big reveal, though perhaps less surprising, was that Joan didn’t go through with aborting Roger’s baby after all, and will pretend it’s her thug doctor husband’s child instead. In the season four finale, Joan featured in one of my favourite ever Mad Men scenes, when, post-engagement news, Peggy storms into her office, for Joan to enquire: “Whatever could be on your mind?” It was the moment they really became friends and I hope that’s something the writers continue to develop, along with Peggy’s increasingly Don-like but inevitably more hard-won career.
Someone in accelerated decline, on the other hand, is Betty, who grew more monstrous with every disappointment. Her bleak relationship with Sally made for outstanding and unusual drama. Compare it to the mother-daughter histrionics of a series like Mildred Pierce and it shows this storyline to be a master class in perfect, awful cruelty.
Presumably season five will take place in 1966, which opens up multiple historical possibilities: civil rights, the space race and anti-Vietnam protests, to cover the main headlines, while in culture, Star Trek begins, In Cold Blood is published and Sally Draper may be asking her father for tickets to see the Beach Boys. But of course, these could be big news, or barely even acknowledged. Tantalisingly, brilliantly, details are scarce to non-existent. But what do you want to see happen on Madison Avenue when March finally arrives?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010