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You'd still be Mad to miss it

THE media has been going Mad Men mad all week. Every newspaper you picked up seemed to have one or two Mad Men stories every day. The weekend arts and culture supplements of two of the UK papers featured almost identical covers riffing on the falling man motif from the series' ingenious opening titles.

Depending on what you read, it has been 16, 17 or 18 months since we were last in the company of the staff of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. At any rate, it's been way too long. It's 1965 now and much has changed, yet much also remains the same.

The double-episode opened with uncharacteristic black faces: civil rights demonstrators marching on Madison Avenue. In the offices of SCDP's rival, Young & Rubicam, three obnoxious young salesmen shout "Get a job!" out the window and drop water bombs on the heads of the protesters.

This was the new series' first concrete signifier that the old, conservative order the Mad Men revel in is about to be battered by the lapping tide of social change.

Back at SCDP, discord, both domestic and professional, is the order of the day. On the train to work, a colleague of creepy Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) warns him the sheen of marriage and fatherhood will soon wear off: "There's a point where you go from going home on the 5.05 to going home on the 7.05."

Later on, we see Pete arrive home late and blithely throw out the dismissive excuse that he had "to walk from the station". This was one of several casually brilliant moments sprinkled throughout the 90 minutes, which were stretched to 20 minutes more by ad breaks -- something we didn't have to endure on BBC4.

The buxom queen of the secretary pool, Joan Harrison (Christina Hendricks) is restless, too. She's stuck at home with her new baby, which may have been fathered by Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who's as loathsomely compelling as ever, while her doctor husband completes his tour of duty in Vietnam.

A newspaper ad, intended as a joke at the expense of Young & Rubicam and seemingly inviting applications for "equal opportunities" jobs at SCDP, makes Joan think she's lost her job. Though a visit to the office puts her mind at rest that she's pretty much indispensable, the joke backfires embarrassingly when a bunch of black applicants -- "negroes" in the parlance of the day -- turn up looking to fill the non-existent jobs, leaving SCDP's casual racists squirming in an awkward corner.

Meanwhile, Peggy Olson's (Elizabeth Moss) gradual climb to the top of the male-dominated ladder takes a knock when her visionary campaign to sell Heinz beans with a TV ad using ballet and ultra-modern high-speed photography fails to impress the condescending Heinz suits.

Peggy's ire is sparked when her fiercest supporter, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), for a change fails to back her up. Don seems uncharacteristically happy in his new marriage to secretary Megan (Jessica Pare), but the illusion is comprehensively blown apart in a brilliant, extended scene -- the centrepiece of the opener -- set at the surprise 40th birthday party Megan throws for Don, where the Mad Men find themselves uncomfortably corralled with Megan's bohemian friends, which include, as one of them smirkingly remarks, "a negro and a homosexual".

Don doesn't like surprises and he doesn't like birthdays, possibly because they're not his birthdays but the ones of the dead fellow soldier whose identity he stole in Korea to escape his own troubled past.

As Megan, to the astonishment of the whole room, treats Don to a sexy French song accompanied by a provocative dance, Hamm conveys every one of Don's excruciated, embarrassed twitches.

So was the long wait worth it? Absolutely. Despite a clunky moment or two (the civil rights angle felt forced), this was a welcome reminder of why Mad Men at its best is exquisite television.