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AMC
Jon Hamm plays Don Draper on AMC’s “Mad Men.” The two-hour Season 5 premiere airs tonight.

‘Mad Men’ shrouded in secrecy

17-month hiatus hasn’t loosened lips

The last time we saw Don Draper (Jon Hamm) nearly a year and a half ago, he had somewhat impulsively gotten engaged to his beautiful French Canadian secretary, Megan (Jessica Pare), who seemed to be the antithesis of his ex-wife, Betty (January Jones): warm, optimistic, empathetic and deeply engaged with his two children, instead of chilly, bitter, self-absorbed and no one’s candidate for mother of the year.

So as “Mad Men” finally returns to AMC for its fifth season in a special two-hour premiere tonight we’ll see Don starting his happily-ever-after with this new life mate, right? Oh, get serious. This is “Mad Men,” people.

Series creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner, who is notoriously averse to letting any spoilers about his show leak out, won’t even confirm that Don and Megan are still together when the plot resumes after a confirmed but unspecified time jump. In fact, Weiner impishly has hinted that Don may be back with Betty, whose second marriage to political adviser Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) already was showing signs of strain in the fourth season.

This leaves Hamm, one of show business’s nice guys who really would like to help a reporter out but doesn’t want to tick off the boss, picking his words very carefully when asked whether Don and Megan are together as we rejoin these characters.

“Well, we certainly set that up at the end of last season,” he ventures. “On the surface at least, Megan is very dissimilar to Betty, and you could say that is Don trying to find a person in his life who represents positivity and promise rather than a person who feels stuck in the past and reminds him of how old he is.”

That resonates with a powerful chord in the fourth season, an explosive series of episodes in which Don – ever-unflappable, on-top-of-it Don – struggled mightily to hold himself together in the wake of his marriage’s collapse and what seemed to be the very imminent implosion of his fledgling agency.

“That was a season about Don really going to extremes,” Hamm says. “Anytime a relationship ends it’s difficult on everybody involved. Don’s way of handling it was obviously not the healthiest, but he worked his way through it the only way he knows how.

“Early in that season, the marketing research expert, Dr. Miller (Cara Buono), said something like, ‘Don’t worry, guys like you are usually married again within the year.’ Don was kind of taken aback by that and a little insulted, and she said, ‘Sorry, I didn’t realize some people don’t like to think of themselves as a statistic’ – but she turned out to be right. So last season was kind of a character study in what not to do, in a way.”

As for that time jump, Hamm isn’t throwing out any specific numbers, but he hints that the action may just be picking up roughly 17 months later, about the same amount of time “Mad Men” has been on hiatus. That’s partly because the main characters include Don’s daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka, now 12), whose age is pretty difficult to cheat.

“We try to keep the show rooted in very real time because we’re not ‘The Simpsons,’ ” the actor says. “Our characters move through time and get older instead of living in a kind of nebulous, constant state of fourth grade. ... (Kiernan is) an incredibly talented young actress and plays the character very well, and of course we try to make Don’s relationship with his oldest child as real as we can.

“I think that child is going through a lot of things in the world and rapidly becoming an adolescent in a time when becoming an adolescent was very confusing and oddly infused with a lot of freedom and power that wasn’t available in generations past, in the sense that there’s a lot of the music and the marketing and advertising was starting to be geared toward younger people. Sally is right smack-dab in the middle of that demographic.”

Hamm has snagged an Emmy nomination for each of the four seasons “Mad Men” has been on the air, and many fans thought he would win for the fourth season (the award went to the similarly underappreciated Kyle Chandler for “Friday Night Lights”), but Hamm also has received two Emmy nods for his hilarious guest appearances as Liz Lemon’s hot but clueless doctor boyfriend, Drew Baird, on “30 Rock.” He was Kristen Wiig’s raunchy and commitment-phobic friend-with-benefits in the movie smash “Bridesmaids,” and after three hosting gigs on “Saturday Night Live,” he already is considered such a go-to guy for that show that he recently made another comic cameo as designated “substitute host” on the Lindsay Lohan episode.

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