The wait is over

After 17 months off air, Mad Men is back.

After 17 months off air, Mad Men is back.

MAD Men watchers know all about disappointment.

It's something of an article of faith among the characters of the lauded show, who seem chronically incapable of sustained fulfilment.

They're forever trying to escape their tortured pasts and the consequences of their lousy decisions. Their happiness tends to be short-lived, fleeting and infrequent.

How apt, then, that we will be watching the long-awaited fifth season with similar expectations of curtailed pleasure. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has stated that the show will wrap at the end of its seventh season. Tantalisingly, he says he knows how he wants the story to end.

Since debuting in mid-2007 on an unknown US cable network, AMC, Mad Men has become a once-in-a-lifetime success story, rightly winning the Emmy for outstanding drama series four years running and becoming a talking-point for fans the world over who endlessly dissect the characters and their follies.Yet the qualities that have audiences swooning and judges handing out awards - long, talky scenes, cerebral characters with rich backstories, sustained pauses and silences, eye-popping costumes and faithful recreations of mid-century design - seem more at home in art-house cinemas than series drama.

What's in store when the fifth season premieres on March 25 in the US and two weeks later here on Movie Extra, after a 17-month hiatus, is a closely guarded secret.The cast has been sworn to silence and preview discs haven't been sent to reviewers on account of Weiner being unhappy about plot revelations that were published in reviews at the start of previous seasons.

While there's no doubt that the cone of silence only adds to the mystique that surrounds Mad Men, Weiner's fear of spoilers is perhaps understandable.As Elisabeth Moss, whose copywriter Peggy Olson began work at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency in the show's first episode acknowledges, one of Mad Men's enduring and consistent appeals is the way it subverts the expectations viewers make of characters.

Speaking on the phone from New Zealand, where she is filming the Jane Campion-directed mystery thriller Top of the Lake, Moss recalls that her first impressions of Peggy were of a naive, inexperienced, shy, bumbling and homely 20-year-old.She was the quintessential ingenue. Then, unexpectedly at the end of the first episode, she bedded her work colleague Pete Campbell. It was surprising, wrong and fateful. She became pregnant, eventually giving the child up for adoption. (Their secret affair paid dividends in a later storyline where Pete and his wife Trudy, unable to conceive, seek fertility advice.)

''I think that's held through for the past five seasons,'' Moss says. ''The characters are presented in ways that you think something's going to happen in a certain way and they end up surprising you.''As viewers know, underestimating the characters of Mad Men is a mistake, and none more so than Peggy.

Promoted from Don's secretary to copywriter, Peggy is the only female in the company's creative department, eventually rising to second-in-command on the basis of several successful pitches. She is repulsed by the culture of her hard-drinking, womanising bosses and resents being the butt of their insults and practical jokes.One of the slow-burning storylines is the relationship between Peggy and Don.

While so far it's platonic - and Moss stresses she doesn't write any of the show's stories - it's clear that the two have a great deal of love and respect for each other. And this, Moss says, is how it should remain.

''The titillating question of 'Will they, won't they?' is interesting and, hey, if it keeps people watching ? the tension and connection that is not sexual is what makes it so interesting. When you think about it, how many friends does Don have, real friends who know him, know his real past, know his faults and love and accept him with those faults?

''That friendship is something he has with no one other than Peggy. Similarly, I don't think Peggy has any real friends other than Don. There's nothing wrong with them sleeping together, it's just a matter of their relationship as it is so interesting and complicated.''

Denial is another big part of Peggy's psychological make-up. How else does one explain Peggy being unaware she was pregnant?

''It's difficult to look back and think how could that happen,'' Moss says. ''As women we're so aware of our bodies. The way Matt [Weiner] explained it to me, she has a deep, deep psychological disconnection from her body and her femininity.

''Peggy grew up in this very strict Catholic household, has probably never had a conversation about being a woman with her mother. It's not that she didn't know that sex gets you pregnant. I think there's a deep psychological disconnection and that whole season one she's constantly being abused verbally, or being come onto, or sexually harassed in that office. So she begins to socially disengage from being a woman and I think that denial is so powerful and severe she wants nothing to do with her body. Denial is a powerful thing.''

The women of Mad Men tend to accept that certain things can't be changed in the man's world they inhabit, Moss says.

One of her favourite scenes was in the season four finale, after Don's bombshell announcement that he and his secretary Megan have become engaged.

''I love when characters take the audience's side and comment on it as if they were the audience. It's a great moment when Peggy says to Joan, 'This is bullshit, is no one seeing this is completely ridiculous and wrong and no one is stopping it.' I think the comments of the characters about the world they're in is so interesting.''

The characters' much-discussed wardrobes are a big part of the storytelling. In Peggy's case, season four marked her coming-out but the current season is Moss's favourite.

''What's happened in season five is a real kind of telling of her story through the clothes, so it's less about looking cute or glamorous or wearing the best dress and the best headband, and more about what a woman at that time and in her position would wear to the office. We call it her working-bee look. So much of her story this year is about work.''

Mad Men season five premieres on Sunday, April 12 at 8.30pm on Movie Extra.

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