updated 03/21/2012 AT 3:00 PM ET
•originally published 03/22/2012 AT 8:30 AM ET
AMC’s Mad Men is back Sunday after an absence of more than a year, and its maniacally intense fans are anticipating what new developments are in the pipeline at the chilled offices of 1960s ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Mad Men is too subtle to resort to cliffhangers – people here live or die according to what account gets signed over a business lunch lubricated with drinks – but season 4 ended with everyone poised on the brink of … something.
Something maybe good, possibly bad. Maybe neither. It’s that kind of show. Ominous, but incrementally so.
Before Sunday’s premiere, here’s a refresher as to where the show’s main characters were when we left them:
DON DRAPER (Jon Hamm): Series creator Matthew Weiner says Don, a legendary ad man with a very dodgy past, is going to be confronting midlife issues this season. Fine, but first: what about Megan? Season 4 ended with divorced daddy Don suddenly proposing to his beautiful new secretary (Jessica Paré). (He seemed to surprise even himself with the move.) Don can override a woman’s resistance as smoothly as Liquid Paper blots out a typing error, but his relationships tend to be, at the least, complicated.
PEGGY OLSON (Elisabeth Moss): Rising copy-writing star Peggy saved the struggling agency in season 4 by bringing in a pantyhose account. But any given episode sees her chafing at a sense of being unappreciated, unfulfilled or discounted because she’s a woman. For every proudly notched accomplishment, there’s a whiff of “Is that all there is?” Cue up Peggy Lee on the turntable! This probably won’t change. Will it?
BETTY FRANCIS, FORMERLY DRAPER (January Jones): When last we saw her, the most bitter housewife in American television history was moving to a better home with her new husband, who is as dryly handsome as former husband Don is dangerously sexy. Betty seemed to be working out her own psychological issues by hauling her unhappy daughter Sally off to a therapist. Anyone who thinks Betty is going to contribute one iota to the well-being of anyone else, ever, is deluded.
JOAN HARRIS (Christina Hendricks): With her overripe voluptuousness and polite, baby-whisper delivery, Joan has become the most pitiable character on the show. She understands the rules of this boys’ club, tries to play by them and keeps losing. Director of operations at the agency, she ended season 4 pregnant by boozy skirt-chaser Roger Sterling (John Slattery), but decided to keep the baby and lie about the paternity to her husband, Greg, currently a doctor in the military. She’d pinned her dreams on Greg’s success as a hot-shot surgeon, but apparently he isn’t really much good. It’s all very Emma Bovary, only with office supplies. Heartbreak ahead? Si.
THE 1960s: Someday, somehow, the walls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are going to crumble and a troupe of hippies will come rushing in, hair streaming, singing, “Aquarius.” But the cultural revolution comes at its own slow pace on Mad Men.