The new season of Mad Men begins with all the subtlety of an anvil to the head. The first image we see is a quietly anxious, askew close-up of Don Draper’s face, the perfect match for the episode’s opening dialog. “Who is Don Draper?” a voice asks. Don is in the midst of an interview with a reporter from Advertising Age after an award-winning campaign for Glo-Coat cleaner earns the ace copywriter some fresh buzz. Of course, Don ducks the question handily, responding with a half-serious query of his own. But, as we soon learn, he can’t escape it forever. Might this be the season we finally get some answers? [Spoilers after the jump.]
Fresh off the interview, Don and the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce team head to a meeting with Jantzen, where the staid swimwear brand execs tell the debauched ad men that they want to sell a refined “two-piece bathing suit,” not a vulgar bikini. With that clash of values already in motion, we get our first glimpse of the new SCDP offices, a decidedly cramped setup that squishes the entire staff into a single floor (despite the fact that some employees have been spreading the rumor that they’ve got two). This third scene is just as laden with meaning as the first two. Anyone who’s ever worked in a tight, airless office can tell you that it seeps into everything about the job: Suddenly, the things you used to love about your career disappear, replaced by nervous energy and a vague but constant sense of oppression. Within the Mad Men universe, the new digs are especially telling, seeing as they replace Sterling Cooper’s expansive, well-appointed space on a show famous for its lush surfaces.
That’s not all that’s changed for the main characters: As the premiere continues, a sort of role reversal seems to have taken place. The recently hapless Pete Campbell is back to his snotty, slicked-back tricks, full of smarmy energy. Peggy Olson also has a spring in her step. She finally seems comfortable in her own skin, sporting a short haircut that looks a lot better onscreen than in some of the early season four preview photos and trading quips with the art director. She and Pete cook up a publicity stunt to drive sales of a client’s canned ham, hiring a pair of actresses to fight over it in a grocery store in a play for news coverage.
Don, meanwhile, comes home to his new, tasteful but dark, New York apartment. A motherly housekeeper is in the kitchen fixing him supper. “But you never eat,” she says, sadly. Their stilted conversation and the way he orders her around are reminiscent of nothing more than Don’s relationship with Betty. He settles onto the couch to watch TV, and we slowly realize that what we’re seeing on the screen, a tight shot of a child’s hands grasping what look like jail-cell bars (really, the back of a chair), is the very Glo-Coat commercial that won Don those accolades. In the only moment of his Advertising Age interview that truly felt honest, he told the reporter that he had wanted to make the spot feel like a movie, and that’s clear in the slightly disturbing, Shane-like result. He smiles a bit, watching it, and that’s the happiest we see him.
Later, he takes a friend of Roger’s wife to dinner. The flushed 25-year-old Mt. Holyoke grad is prim but friendly, warning him that she generally avoids dating divorced men and musing, “The world is so dark now.” She explains that she’s an actress but works as a sort of theater extra or, as she says, “We’re the actors that fill the stage.” Whether or not this stand-in for Betty around the time Don met her is aware that she’s also fulfilling that role in her date’s life, the appropriateness of her career isn’t lost on us. The evening ends after some light kissing in the cab, as she refuses Don’s uncharacteristically clumsy advances and says that, although she does want to see him again, “Let’s see where we are New Year’s Eve. If it’s meant to be, it’ll keep.” Seeing as Thanksgiving hasn’t even come yet, she doesn’t appear to be aching for him. Soon after, word gets back to Roger that Don got a bit “grabby” in the taxi.
It isn’t long before Don’s next failure. The Advertising Age article is published to great panic at SCDP. The reporter describes Don as “a handsome cipher” and compares him to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey, young and beautiful on the outside but old and rotten on the inside. (You’ll recall that his true age is one of the many things Don has lied about.) In a meeting, Bert Cooper is infuriated by the news, sputtering, “Turning creative success into work is your business, and you failed.” Don kicks a chair across the room.
We get two-thirds of the way through the episode before encountering Betty, who, in the year since we last saw her, has married Henry Francis. Their large, well-dressed, blended family sits stiffly through a Thanksgiving dinner in Don’s old house, punctuated by a typical Betty bad-mommy move: When Sally won’t eat, she shoves food into the girl’s mouth, causing an alarming scene that concludes with the new Mrs. Francis proclaiming that Sally is ill and sending her to bed.
As depressing as Betty and the kids’ Thanksgiving looks, Don’s is infinitely bleaker. He lets a provocatively dressed redheaded prostitute who is clearly quite familiar with Don into his apartment, and they get right down to the business of raunchy sex. “Stop telling me what to do. I know what you want,” she snaps, then slaps him. “Harder,” says Don.
Peggy calls as a post-coital Don is sleeping, and the redhead hands him the phone. One of the canned-ham actresses has pressed assault charges against the other, and she needs $280 for bail and bribes. When Peggy shows up at Don’s door, he’s angry but comes through. She’s brought a young man who calls himself her fiancé, a detail she takes him to task for as soon as the door closes. This year’s Peggy, we understand, belongs to no man.
We finally see Don and Betty together when he comes to pick up the children for their visitation. The brief encounter is awkward, to say the least. He may be happy to see Sally and Bobby, and he surely doesn’t make the kind of massive parenting errors Betty does. (Meanwhile, in their absence, Betty and Henry engage in some kinky sex of their own, getting it on in their car, parked in the garage, presumably to keep the illicit thrill of the initial affair alive.) But no great bonding occurs, either. We see Don work while the children stare at the TV. The real drama comes when he drives them home to Ossining, puts them to bed, and (in yet another role reversal) waits on the couch for Henry and Betty to return from their date. Although his lawyer couldn’t convince him earlier, Don gives Betty an ultimatum about leaving the house, which he still owns. (In case anyone had any doubt, divorce was not kind to housewives in the ’60s.) Later, Henry’s mother tells him, “I know what you see in her, and you could have gotten it without marrying.” Ouch.
Back at work, Peggy tells Don, “We are all here because of you. All we want to do is please you,” echoing a similar comment Pete had made a few days earlier. We question whether it’s the Don Draper of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce or their memory of the Don Draper of Sterling Cooper they’re struggling to keep alive when Don presents his brazenly sexy pitch to Jantzen and they reject it, horrified. The calm, smooth man who’s captivated so many clients and women (not to mention TV viewers) is nowhere to be found in the ranting, reactionary Don who barks at the executives and orders them out of the office in a temper tantrum of epic proportions.
It all adds up to a lonely, joyless life for Don. Not only is he unhappy, but he’s become unsuccessful and is dangerously close to personal and professional collapse. The charisma that has always saved him is failing. A reporter met him for five minutes and saw through his polished veneer. He couldn’t even manage to get past first base with a naïve college girl and now regular appointments with a prostitute are fulfilling his darker sexual needs. Complete personal crisis seems inevitable.
But then, this is still Don Draper we’re dealing with, right? In the episode’s very last scene, he’s back at lunch with a reporter, this one from the Wall Street Journal. This time, when the journalist asks him questions, he responds boldly, proudly, and expansively, spinning the kind of narrative that has powered him through his entire post-Korea life, taking credit for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s early success, and throwing in the bit about their two floors of office space for good measure. The confident and magnetic Don Draper appears to be making a comeback, at least in his own mind. How his words will look in the next day’s paper is anyone’s guess.