Mad Men Returns, With the Rebirth of a Salesman

As Mad Men returns, Don Draper is starting over — and figuring out who, exactly, he wants to be

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Mike Yarish / AMC

Draper (Hamm) moves on after his marriage ends

Advertisers love to offer choice. More brands! More flavors! More ways to be the best you that you can be! It's the American promise in consumable form: not just abundance but individuality, self-determination, liberation.

Yet the side effect of limitless choice is paralysis. At the beginning of Season 4 of Mad Men (AMC, Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.), Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has made a clean break with the past, having ended his marriage and started his own ad business. Successful and in his prime, he can remake himself however he likes. But when we first see him, he's struggling to answer a simple question from an Advertising Age reporter: "Who is Don Draper?" He stares across the lunch table, blank, like a shopper boggling at 93 varieties of potato chip.

In the first three seasons of Mad Men — the Emmy-winning drama whose swellegant style and Cheeveresque writing has won it a passionate following — we learned who Don Draper was. Born Dick Whitman, a poor country kid from a loveless family, he enlisted and shipped out to Korea, where he took advantage of a freak accident to assume the identity of a dead comrade. He began a new life as an adman on Madison Avenue and a family man in suburban Ossining, N.Y., hiding his identity from his co-workers and even his wife Betty (January Jones).

But when Betty learned the truth last season, the lie — along with Don's serial skirt chasing — ended their marriage. Meanwhile, Don left his old ad agency to start his own shop with several colleagues.

In a way, Don has achieved what Dick Whitman wanted: his liberty. He works for himself. He's romantically unattached. He is free — in fact, expected — to relaunch his brand. But how? As whom? Don extricates himself from the reporter's question by falling back on his earliest identity: "I'm from the Midwest," he says. "We were taught that it's not polite to talk about yourself."

Hamm has a face that could be engraved on a coin, but he shows the tension thrumming under Don's stoicism. The reporter, excusing himself from the table, stumbles on an artificial leg. He lost the limb in Korea, the war Don/Dick deserted unscathed.

The Past Is Always Present
The idea that you can't escape the past is fitting for a show that details its era so acutely. Creator Matthew Weiner likes to (ahem) vigorously suggest that critics keep mum about the date that each season's action begins. (If you want to remain totally unspoiled, stop reading here.) Let's just say that since we left off near the end of 1963, a certain amount of time has elapsed — is that safe to say? — more than five minutes, less than a decade, enough to see the beginnings of change in the characters and the culture.

As usual, Weiner and company show these changes subtly, avoiding the hackneyed period cues of other '60s dramas. The color palette seems to have changed — in the advertising campaigns, in Don's new offices — brightening from its early modernist cool into saturated Kodachrome. There are no Beatles references, but the end of the premiere episode kicks in with the chords of "Tobacco Road," by British Invasion band the Nashville Teens — a clear but nonobvious signal that we've entered the rock years. (The song's lyrics are more or less the life story of orphaned Dick Whitman: "Mama died and my daddy got drunk ... Gonna leave, get a job/ With the help and the grace from above.")

In Mad Men's privileged milieu, the era's other big change, in race relations, is evident only around the edges (a reference, over an expensive dinner, to the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi). Gender equality is percolating at the office, but slowly. Sexual liberation is more prominent, but it's no party. Somehow, Don's sex life as a free man is even sadder and guiltier — to the point of self-punishment — than his philandering was.

Meanwhile, Betty — a model turned housewife always torn between independence and security — has found freedom too, only to immediately land a new husband, Henry (Christopher Stanley). The new arrangement is a strain on the families of both spouses, as crystallized by an excruciating showdown with Betty's daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) during a holiday dinner. Sometimes it seems the entire series is one long setup for Sally's inevitable therapy visits.

Which isn't to say the premiere is all angst. The script, written by Weiner, crackles with dark wit; when partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery) tries to brush off Don's bad interview with the one-legged journalist, he cracks, "They're so cheap, they can't even afford a whole reporter." And there's a buoyancy in the new offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce as the firm hustles to establish itself among larger competitors. As Don tells a client reluctant to try a daring ad campaign, "You can be comfortable and dead or risky and possibly rich." The changes that have come to Mad Men can be discomfiting to watch. But they're rich with possibility.