“Who is Don Draper?”
That’s the question viewers have wondered about for the first three seasons of Mad Men. As the opening line of the fourth season’s initial episode, it’s the perfect encapsulation of all the viewers have learned about Don as well as an invitation to speculate on how the enigmatic Mr. Draper may have changed. Those who’ve read Ayn Rand may also detect a parallel with the opening line of Atlas Shrugged, casting Don Draper as Madison Avenue version of John Galt.
After the big red “Reset” button got hit at the end of last season, even Don probably doesn’t know the full answer to that question. We know now that Don Draper is a fiction, the creation of inventive Dick Whitman. But answers aren’t the same as understanding; despite knowing his history, Draper/Whitman remains an enigma.
Yet there’s no feeling of existential angst about the question, “Who is Don Draper?” “Public Relations” generally felt as light, crisp, and fresh as line-dried linens–a stark contrast to all the dirty laundry that came tumbling out toward the end of the previous season as the Draper marriage dissolved. It wouldn’t be Mad Men without at least a small dollop of anomie, but it was a bite-size portion compared to the bleakness of last season.
The best thing about the premiere for me was the feeling of homecoming it gave me. Seeing what’s changed and what remains the same from the end of Season 3 felt like returning from a long vacation–everything is familiar overall, but even small changes seem startling. Nothing makes us appreciate the charms of home like an absence, and I found that I missed Mad Men more than I’d thought I would.
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is no longer a one-room operation; the new offices look phenomenal (even if they do only take up one floor of the building). Joan finally has the office she has always deserved. Pete still looks like the dapper apple-polisher he has always appeared to be. Don is enigmatic and Roger has a controlling share of the show’s best one-liners.
But Peggy is transformed. She’s gone from the tentative, mousy girl with bad hair and Peter Pan collars to a business-minded woman in charge of her career and proud of her accomplishments. She’s even comfortable enough to show off both her sense of humor and her legs. Watching her stand up to Don’s disapproval over the ruckus her canned-ham publicity stunt created was cheer-worthy. Everything from her wardrobe to her posture to her voice showed the evolution that character has undergone in the time between seasons; Mad Men is brilliant at saying volumes with such little touches.
At one time, Joan seemed to be the yang to Peggy’s career-girl yin. Actually, her true opposite number is the pampered and childish hausfrau, Betty. While most characters have grown or at least changed slightly, however subtly, Betty is still an ornamental creature whose worth depends on a man, albeit a different man this season than in the previous three. Her hairstyle has changed marginally, but nothing else about her has.
She’s inexcusably vicious to her own daughter in her misguided attempts to have a pleasant Thanksgiving meal with Henry’s family. More accurately, she wants a pleasant Thanksgiving meal for Henry’s family, not with them–she wants to impress, not to share or enjoy. Instead, she winds up making herself look “silly” in Henry’s mother’s eyes. I hope we’ll see more of Ma Henry; she had Bets pegged from the moment she laid eyes on her.
Henry’s mom also made a very good point: why is Henry living with Betty in the erstwhile Draper household? Given his promise to Betty that he doesn’t want her to be reliant on Don for anything, the fact that he is “living in another man’s dirt” with her spells trouble for them no matter how much canoodling they do in the car. I can’t say I’ll be sorry to see it, at least not when it happens to Betty; the sweetly sympathetic housewife with a nervous condition whom we saw in Season One is long gone, replaced by a shrewish woman who terrorizes her children and shames both her new husband and her ex by refusing even to consider moving.
Mad Men relies on a slow and subtle simmer to tell most of its stories, but tonight’s premiere gave Don a chance to turn himself around in the course of a single episode. As “Public Relations” opened with a Don Draper interview, it closed with one as well–but how different these interviews were. The walled-off, private Don Draper who spoke to Advertising Age and blew his chance to market SCDP was nowhere in evidence as he spoke to the Wall Street Journal reporter.
He’s the urbane and charming character that Dick Whitman always meant him to be. His casual mention of the second floor of SCDP was a wonderfully subtle clue to the audience that Don was doing what Don does best: selling beautiful lies.
Not all the fictions that Matthew Weiner tells us in Mad Men will be beautiful. Last season’s dissolution of the Draper marriage got ugly, as did Don’s time with his Thanksgiving Day visitor in tonight’s episode (just what did Betty do to you, Don, to make you need that?). But the art in this series is evident everywhere; even the ugliest scenes have their beauty.
I am so grateful Mad Men is back; my time away seemed long. It’s good to be home even if a few things look a bit different.