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Fans can breathe a sigh of relief - and maybe pick up a whiff of tobacco - now that AMC's four-time Emmy Award winner is returning Sunday with a two-hour premiere (9 ET/PT) after a seemingly interminable 17 months away.

"You hope it's a situation where absence makes the heart grow fonder. But there is a corollary to that: out of sight, out of mind," says Jon Hamm, who plays the flawed hero, ad man Don Draper. "I don't know which side the general public will fall on. Obviously, I hope they like it. But that's part of making a TV show.

"Every season is a new endeavor," he says. "What we try not to do is rest on our laurels and retell the same story. We're trying to continue the story as its natural progression, to tell the next chapter."

Cast members hope the buzz surrounding the show's return indicates renewed interest. But creator Matthew Weiner is concerned about the long delay, something he unsuccessfully fought during protracted and very-public contract negotiations that yielded a three-year deal, which will extend the series through seven seasons.

"I have a huge anxiety about it. No one owes us anything," he says. "That's why we have a two-hour premiere. Part of it is just to say (to viewers), 'I hope this lets you know how much we value you.' "

Getting back to normal

We left Mad Men in 1965, halfway through the tumultuous decade that serves as the ever-percolating backdrop for this exploration of life at a New York advertising agency.

Some time has passed since Don showed off his new fiancée, Megan (Jessica Paré), to surprised colleagues at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, which was fighting for survival after losing the Lucky Strike cigarette account.

That engagement, office manager Joan's pregnancy, the response to Don's anti-tobacco newspaper letter and the agency's business struggles are among the unresolved issues, but Weiner and cast are tight-lipped about details for fear of spoiling the experience for the audience. They won't even give out the year. ("I'll get executed" for giving out any specifics, says John Slattery, who plays partner Roger Sterling.)

Weiner promises something new. "Coming into the season, it's a whole new story and everyone is in a different situation, because that's what I do with the show. I don't want (viewers) to watch the same show every year," he says. "People coming into the show should ... expect something completely different and just know that our people are there and that there is a lot about their lives that has not been investigated. We will try to spin a new story with new tensions."

He lists larger themes for the new season, such as When Will Things Get Back to Normal? and It's Every Man for Himself.

The question of normalcy could apply to life at SCDP, which was still struggling to establish itself, and to the ever-changing society at large. Every Man for Himself could relate to survival at the office, as evidenced by the generational rivalry between aging partner Roger and young, ambitious Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser).

"There's always trouble in that (office) environment. And there's a changing world out the window, which adds to the complications for everybody," Slattery says. "How much of these people's lives does the office determine is a question I think is posed this season, too. How do people get satisfaction? Oftentimes, it isn't just from what goes on in the office."

Every Man For Himself could have a more literal meaning too, says Elisabeth Moss, who plays rising copywriter Peggy Olson. "You feel like every character is almost going onto their own little solo journeys," she says. "It feels like everybody very much is on their own path this year."

Weiner says the 13-episode season could have particular resonance for today's viewers.

"As opposed to other seasons, to me it feels more in touch with what's going on right now," he says. "I didn't do it deliberately, but there are parallels between the mid-'60s (and) the world we're living in in terms of massive technological and financial change, a questioning of our standing in the world and a questioning of values that are often taken for granted."

Season 4 saw Don in "a pretty significant downward spiral," Hamm says. However, he rebounded during the season, which culminated with his engagement to his secretary. But he also must deal with age. "Don is increasingly realizing he is on the periphery and not as vital as he once was," Hamm says.

Last season revealed a lot about Don, Weiner says.

"We learned that Don, for all of his flaws, is trying to be a better person and maybe in some people's minds, just by proposing to that person, he didn't make it. Writing that tobacco letter (publicly resigning the account by referencing cigarettes' health issues) was a brilliant piece of p.r., but was not selfless," he says. In "his relationship to his work, it seems still he is willing to do anything and in his personal life, he still seems to not be using the part of his brain we wanted him to."

Looking forward, Hamm says, "I think Don's overarching journey is a quest for happiness. It's kind of the central irony of the show. Here's a man whose job it is to define and sell happiness who is fundamentally unhappy," Hamm says. "One of the show's objectives is to figure this guy out, figure out what makes him tick, figure out what makes him happy, figure out what he's going to do and how he's going to come to peace with that. This is the next chapter."

Seven-season run?

There almost wasn't a next chapter. In behind-the-scenes negotiations that created their own riveting drama, Weiner fought proposals to cut two minutes from each episode's running time and $2 million from the season's budget and to delay the Season 5 premiere until spring 2012. He planned to quit.

"I love going to work every day, because I get to do the show this way. I felt it wouldn't feel that way" with the changes, he says. "I felt it would be a different, compromised, less interesting show."

Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan, can't imagine a Mad Men without Weiner. "The show is Matt Weiner. He is every aspect of the show."

He ultimately prevailed on two of the three issues, avoiding the cuts in length and budget as part of a three-year deal. But the 17 months between episodes is an eternity in TV time, and he takes no solace in the fact that The Sopranos, a show he wrote for, rebounded strongly after long delays between seasons. (First-run Mad Men episodes in Season 4 averaged 2.4 million viewers, and it had the most upscale audience in basic cable.)

"We're not exactly The Sopranos. We've never had the audience that they had, we aren't on HBO and people are not paying to watch the show. But I hope it's the same result," he says. "I've never been happy about a delay."

A seven-season run sounds good to him right now, but he's still processing Season 5.

"I think that seven will be about right. I'm sure I will get there and want more or I'll get to the middle of Season 6 and say why did I say seven? I've never done this before. I've never lived beyond season to season," he says. "I can't even think in terms of next season right now."

But he does have an ultimate ending in mind, "an emotional flag" he'd like to get to, though he hasn't mapped out just how to get from here to there.

"I do have a fantasy, that when it's all done and there's no more of them being made, that it will feel like a whole piece," he says. "It's really like, how do you want to leave this in the audience's mind? 'Oh, I watched all of Mad Men. That was something.' That's what you want."

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