"Mad Men" is finally back after 17 months, and I have a review of the premiere episode coming up just as soon as I have tickets to the bean ballet...

"What is wrong with you people? You're all so cynical! You don't smile; you smirk!" -Megan

A lot of people try to mark their territory in one way or another over the course of "A Little Kiss."  Megan throws a party for Don to show their fantastic marriage off to the world. Pete hauls the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce senior partners into his pathetic office and demands a workspace commensurate with his value to the agency. Joan gets all dolled up and marches her baby son into the building to reassert the position she fears she's lost during maternity leave. Don and Roger take out a fake ad in the New York Times to stick it to Young & Rubicam. (And Y&R gets in trouble for responding poorly to a nearby civil rights protest, a much more serious, historical marking of territory.)

Some of these demonstrations backfire (Don and Megan have a major fight over the party, and the fake ad inspires a lobby-ful of real black job applicants to appear in the SCDP lobby), and others are unnecessary (Joan finds out that the office misses her even more than she misses it). But the episode as a whole is a very bold, funny, effective demonstration that "Mad Men" is back at the top of its game — and, therefore, back at the top of the whole TV pyramid.

Though "A Little Kiss" was technically two episodes for accounting purposes (there will only be 11 episodes remaining this season as a result), Matthew Weiner and director Jennifer Getzinger (aka "The Suitcase" team) achieved their goal of making it feel like a seamless two-hour experience. There's a clear break where the episode will be split in future repeats (right after Megan goes out on the balcony, upset about how the party night ended), and the second hour introduces a brand-new subplot about Lane and the wallet, but most of the second hour spills out of what happened at the party in the first, and almost every story revolves around illusions of happiness: how we can construct an ideal happy ending in our head, then have to live with the messier, often disappointing realities that come with it. In one way or another, everyone wanted the pristine white carpet Megan saw in the magazine, and everyone wound up with the dirty one in Don and Megan's apartment that survived the party.

It's a very Megan-heavy episode, which makes sense given the huge transformation she inspired in Don at the end of last season. Don and Megan's engagement seemed like a flash of madness, or Don having the cliche midlife crisis he mocked Roger for with Jane. (More on that in a minute.) Each of them has idealized the other, and Don's birthday party forces them to confront how little they truly understand their new partner. Don thought Megan would be easy and uncomplicated, but she has her own past, and her own beliefs; she's not French-Canadian Barbie. Megan looked at Don as the dashing hero of the agency, when he's a moody, unpredictable man nearly twice her age, and with even more baggage than she expected. She shut him down when he tried to tell her about his past last season, but by now she knows all about Dick Whitman — knows enough, in fact, that she can make a sarcastic joke about her husband's true identity. But still she doesn't know him, and he doesn't know her. She can't fathom why someone wouldn't want to get a sexy serenade of "Zou Bisou Bisou"(*) in front of all his friends and co-workers; he can't fathom why any wife of his would think he wanted all these people inside his home, getting even the tiniest glimpse of what they have together.

(*) We've talked in the past about how even though the show began in 1960, all the characters back then were stuck in the styles and mores of the 1950s. We've been gradually edging into what's more traditionally thought of as "The Sixties," and with Megan singing "Zou Bisou Bisou" in fishnets, I think we've had our most unequivocally Sixties moment yet.

But if Don and Megan's marriage isn't exactly what they imagined in "Tomorrowland," there are parts that are clearly genuine, not least of which is the powerful sexual chemistry they share. Megan can't get Don to respond to her after the party on Saturday night, so she puts on a big, angry show for him by cleaning the living room in her bra and panties, knowing that at least this will provoke a reaction from him, which it does. (And a far stronger reaction than when Betty tried to stir him up with her underwear in season 2.)

Still, it's not hard to look at them having sex on that carpet and not think back to four years (and three seasons) earlier, when it was Roger head over heels in love with his much younger secretary, and she madly in love with him. And where are Roger and Jane now? They're constantly bickering and insulting each other — Roger: "Why don't you sing like that?" / Jane: "Why don't you look like him?" — and he cracks resigned jokes about her at work. Is that what Don and Megan have in store by the time the 1970s roll around?

Roger's love life hasn't turned out like he dreamed it would in 1962, and his professional life isn't in much better shape. Without Lucky Strike, Roger is even more of a fossil than he was before, and only relevant in comparison to Bert Cooper. He seems to know his position in the lean-and-mean firm is becoming precarious, and he's hanging on for dear life, but whatever gift he had for pursuing new business has long since atrophied, and the only move he has is to bigfoot in on meetings with Pete-acquired potential clients.

As for Pete, he thought he wanted Don's life back in 1960, and now he practically has it: the wife and the kid and the house in Westchester Connecticut (with a kitchen that even looks like the one at the old Draper house, in color scheme if not layout). And his accounts work is keeping the agency afloat in this lean post-Lucky Strike era, which all the other partners recognize. But Pete Campbell is still not happy because Pete Campbell never really knows what he wants; just that he wants more. He gave Trudy the baby she wanted (even if he wasn't so keen on the idea) and is getting impatient for her to go back to being the doting, always-composed woman he married. He resents Roger trying to piggyback on his work, and makes a play for the big office Roger has and doesn't need, only to be foiled when Roger cleverly arranges for him to move into a bigger office that isn't the bigger office. In the end, though, he's at least better off than he was before, and he gets to take a measure of childish revenge on Roger by sending him to Staten Island at 6 a.m. (And that Roger actually goes shows just how desperate he is to maintain his position in the agency.)

Joan wanted a baby more than Pete did, and she got one, only to learn what many new moms learn, even the ones whose husbands are off in Vietnam (and who aren't the father, anyway): caring for a newborn is exhausting and it is lonely and it can make you desperately miss the life you had before. Dr. Greg is thousands of miles away, and the office feels almost that far, especially when the only regular companionship Joan has comes from her mother Gail, as we see in their acidic relationship ("And how did that work out for you?") how Gail turned Joan into the tough but at times cruel woman she is today.

Joan misunderstands the Times ad that Don and Roger cook up to mock Y&R, and her return to the office to reassert her claim to the throne is an even more masterful, funny sequence than Don's disaster of a birthday party. Every interaction with Joan and/or the baby is gold, particularly Roger terrifying Joan by jokingly calling out, "There's my baby!" as he walks up(**) and then Pete and Peggy bickering over who has to take the baby like the parents they could have been together. Everyone on this show knows so much about each other in different combinations, and everyone at home knows it all, and Matt Weiner trusts us to remember the details so they can play out beautifully in a sequence like that.

(**) Roger's no dummy. He has to know the kid is his and that Joan backed out of the abortion, right? Would he really buy a bicycle for a child belonging to that idiot Greg? 

Lane wasn't dreaming for the return of his wife Rebecca like some other characters were about their partners (he was perfectly happy with his chocolate bunny before she left him for Eddie Cibrian), and so his fantasy isn't about her, but Delores, the kept woman whose picture he finds in an abandoned wallet in the back of a cab. (And note that in the middle of an episode bookended by civil rights scenes, Lane insists on holding onto the wallet because he doesn't trust it with the black cabbie.) He knows what Delores looks like in a picture, and what she sounds like on a phone, but she's not real; just someone he can daydream about while envying the life of the man who has her — and who turns out to be a rumpled fat guy in a straw hat(***).

(***) Discussion topic I had with several people who saw the episode in advance: there were hints in the conversation with Delores that Mr. Polito was some kind of big shot — perhaps a businessman or even a wiseguy — and while he seems unassuming when he turns up in the SCDP lobby, this show, and this episode, have taught us not to make assumptions based on how people look. 

And then there are the civil rights protestors(****), and the black job applicants who turn up in response to the fake ad. The job applicants see in that ad the dream of opportunity in a field that's largely been closed to them; they don't realize that the firm can't afford to hire anyone, and doesn't much want to hire someone of color, anyway. Though the civil rights movement was a huge part of the decade, the lives of these characters have only been occasionally touched by it to this point (a conversation or two between Betty and Carla, or Paul and his girlfriend going on a Freedom Ride). By opening and closing the premiere with those scenes, though, you have to imagine Weiner is acknowledging that we've reached the point in the '60s when even Don Draper and Roger Sterling's lives won't be unaffected by matters of race.

(****) The incident below the Y&R offices really happened in late May of 1966, and Weiner based most of those scenes on a New York Times account, which included the "And they call us savages" line.

If so, I look forward to what the show has to say on the subject. And if I'm wrong (the series pilot did, after all, open up with Don chatting up a black busboy, and not much came of that), then we're still in very promising territory for these characters — and "A Little Kiss" suggests a show still in top form to tell their stories.

Some other thoughts:



* I interviewed Matt Weiner earlier this week, and he agreed to discuss the events of the premiere on the condition that I not publish the interview til Monday morning. So look for that when you wake up tomorrow. (UPDATE: Here is the interview.) Among other things, he discusses why Betty's not in the episode (though it's easy to imagine her as the ice queen hiding in the castle turret of her new home). Sally gets a little more screen time, and you can see that her feelings for Megan are a bit more ambiguous now that she's her stepmom than when she was just the awesome babysitter in "Tomorrowland." Loved, by the way, the wistful look on Don's face as the kids walk back to Betty and Henry's house; he may not always do right by them, but he does love them, and he misses them when they go.

* Another topic Weiner and I discuss is the period. We open on Memorial Day weekend of 1966, after last season ended in the fall of '65. That's a considerably shorter gap than the show itself was off the air, though some of that is the result of AMC's scheduling needs. Even with Weiner's contract negotiation, they were back in production in time to be on the air sometime in the fall; AMC just wanted to wait until "The Walking Dead" and "Hell on Wheels" were done.

* Though the Heinz guys (who, remember, were steered to the firm by Dr. Faye) don't like her bean ballet pitch, Peggy continues to be awesome in general, and among the funniest characters on the show. Loved the duck-like expression she made on hearing how old Don would be (especially on the heels of discussing Duck himself), for instance. Peggy and Don's relationship at the moment is another case of someone getting what they thought they wanted, only for the reality to be less impressive than the fantasy. She and Don finally have a healthy working relationship, but it's come at a time when his interest in work seems incredibly low. It's not hard to assume that the parts of Don's personality that made him such a bold, driven ad man aren't wholly compatible with his new happy persona — Peggy: "I don't recognize that man. He's kind and he's patient." — and I wonder if Peggy would rather have the jerk from season 3 back. At the very least, the jerk wouldn't make Peggy navigate the minefield of being his wife's direct supervisor. And he wouldn't coast through the day and tell his wife things like, "I don't really care about work." 

* I love that Cooper (who quit in a huff after Don wrote the letter to the Times) is back without any explanation at all. He just missed the place, even though he has no office, and is so irrelevant that the other partners don't  bother to include him in their business meeting — or even tell him that it happened.

* Also got a big kick out of the various comedy bits tied to the support column in Pete's office, whether the slapstick of Pete bloodying his nose on it or Roger and Don entering the office and immediately disappearing behind it.

* In my recap of the "Mad Men" panel at PaleyFest, I noted that Rich Sommer and Jay R. Ferguson seemed to be having a dispute over whether Harry or Stan is the bigger douchebag. On the evidence of "A Little Kiss," I'd say Harry still holds the crown, and it's still very funny to watch. His negotiation with Roger over the office swap was a delight. (Harry: "You're going to owe me." Roger: "No, I'm not. I just gave you a lot of money. This is a transaction.")

* Also, per the Inflation Calculator, Roger gave Harry more than $7,000 in contemporary dollars — which is, indeed, a whole lot of cash to be carrying around.

* They're not dwelled on for very long, but Peggy and Abe are still going strong. Also, we get our second glimpse of Ken's wife Cynthia (played by Larisa Oleynik), and in other family casting, Hey! It's That Girl character actress Christine Estabrook makes what I hope is only her first appearance as Joan's mom. 

* Matt Weiner didn't come to "The Sopranos" for another few seasons, but every time I hear the phrase "toodle-oo" (which Lane clumsily uses on Delores), I think of Dr. Melfi beating herself up for using it with Tony: "Toodle-fucking-oo?"

So that's that tonight for "A Little Kiss." I'll have interviews with both Weiner and John Slattery in the morning. As happened last season, AMC isn't going to send out future episodes to critics, so the rest of this season's reviews will be appearing sometime on Monday, most likely sometime in the morning. Better to get it done right than done fast.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com