If the first line of dialogue of the fourth season of Mad Men is meant to state its ongoing theme — “Who is Don Draper?,” asked by an Ad Age interviewer profiling Don — I think it’s Don’s response that really gets us into the season in a more concrete, direct way.

“What do men say when you ask that?” Don snaps back. Couple things here. Creator Matthew Weiner, who wrote this episode, was careful to use the word “men” in that line, because in the mid-1960s period in which Mad Men is set, it wouldn’t occur to Don that a woman would be an executive thus interviewed. Then there’s the tone of the response: Don is irritated by the temerity of the questioner (asking Don about his identity is like telling Batman his jaw looks an awful lot like Bruce Wayne’s), but unlike the Don Draper of the first season of Mad Men, he’s not hesitant anymore about letting that irritation show. Now the figurehead of the nascent firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — as well as, away from the office, a footloose fellow with no wife waiting for him at home — Don has acquired a new what-the-hell, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may attitude. He’s still settling into the role, however. He told the Ad Age man, “I’m from the Midwest and was taught it’s not polite to talk about yourself,” even as he’s busy being not-polite to the interviewer.

I like this new Don. I like this likably unlikable man who tells off some prospective clients peddling Jantzen’s bathing suits because he views their fussy primness as both dumb and hypocritical. I like this new Don who goes back to his Greenwich Village apartment and barks at the day-maid for moving his shoeshine kit… and then proceeds to prove he’s just as fussily prim as the pious bumpkins he booted by sitting down right after work and immediately shining his shoes for the next day of butt-kicking.

At work, Don strode down the halls of the new SCDP offices as jazzy, energetic music swelled up on the soundtrack, like a theme song from a TV show of the period — say, The Name Of The Game. Director Phil Abraham allowed us to simply luxuriate in spotting our old favorites (there’s Peggy! there’s Joan! there’s Bert Cooper! there’s Harry Crane with a ridiculous L.A. sunburn!). Weiner was kind to the fans, allowing us to simply enjoy a lot of snazzy dialogue, and to introduce a new character such as Peggy’s new partner-in-copywriting, Joey. Weiner shorthanded the working intimacy that has grown between them since we last saw the show by having them share an in-joke, moaning “John!” and “Marsha!” to each other — a reference to a then-popular routine by Stan Freberg, the great comedian and himself a superb ad-man. (Indeed, an appearance by a Freberg-like character, one of the then-new breed of ad men who liked to satirize the very notion of advertising — here’s one of his spots; that’s Freberg doing the voiceover — would make for a dandy one-off bit.)

Meanwhile, out in Slit-My-Wrists-Ville, Suburbia, Betty was busy not moving out of the house she and Don used to share, and grasping Henry’s arm during Thanksgiving dinner with Henry’s family as though it was a life-raft. Just when we started to feel sorry for Betty’s new fresh hell, she was reflexively cruel to daughter Sally, and Henry’s battle-axe mother, herself no kind maternal figure, levelled her verdict: Betty’s kids “are terrified of her” (true enough) and “she’s a silly woman” (sometimes; but more often, a stubborn, scared one).

These scenes of strain were contrasted all too neatly with a scene of release for Don, who spent his Thanksgiving paying good money to have a hooker come over and go through what we saw was a regular ritual: The pross on top, slapping Don. “Harder,” he said. She uttered words that might also be Matthew Weiner’s words to us, the audience: “Stop telling me what to do, I know what you want.” Thank goodness the show cut away before she hauled out Don’s shoeshine kit…

While we got amusing subplots such as Peggy’s publicity stunt gone wrong, the focus was primarily on The Many Moods of Don Draper, whether he was being the indulgent single-dad letting the kids veg out watching Sky King or playing hardball with Betty, threatening to ask to her to pay rent… and you know things are bad for Betty when Henry sided with Don.

Don’s dinner date mentioned the murder by the Ku Klux Klan of civil rights activist Andrew Goodman in Mississippi as a current event, placing this season in 1964. (So does the closing music, the Nashville Teens’ ’64 cover of “Tobacco Road,” which in turn may be a sly nod to the comment earlier in the episode that Lucky Strikes presently accounts for “71% of our billings.”) As always, Weiner and company resist the most obvious cultural reference — Beatlemania — doubtless saving it for just the right moment later on.

With another series, I’d say that if it can sustain the energy of this premiere, we’ll be off to a great season. But when it comes to analyzing Mad Men, well, I quote Le Draper: “I try and stay away from these kinds of shenanigans.” Mad Men doesn’t play by the rules of setting a tone that is carried on in subsequent episodes. We have to take it a week at a time, just as Don faces one crisis, at work or at what he’d now-laughingly call home, one moment, one scene, one line of dialogue at a time. Take it or leave it.

How’d you take to the debut episode?

Follow: @kentucker

Episode Recaps

Thanks to costume designer Janie Bryant , Hamm's '60s ad man single-handedly revived an interest in the classic two-button suit.
Mad Men

Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama

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