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“Who is Don Draper,” we hear a reporter ask and just like that, in the opening moment of the show’s season premiere, the central question of Mad Men has been summed up for us. It’s an unusually on-the-nose moment for a show that likes to work in subtleties, but an effective way of setting up an episode that serves as a reboot of sorts for the series. Gone are the lavish offices of Sterling Cooper, replaced with the narrow hallways and florescent lights of the newly formed Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Over is Don’s marriage to Betty, although she remains in his life as she stubbornly refuses to move out of the home they used to share. And missing are many of the colorful characters who populated the Sterling Cooper agency, but didn’t make the cut to join the new company, such as Ken, Paul, and Sal (poor, poor Sal). It’s a new beginning for everyone involved.
But, despite the new sets and relationships, if you think the show is going to give us a firm answer to the question of “who is Don Draper,” you clearly have been watching another program for the past three years. In the past, Don (Jon Hamm) has thrived as the man behind the curtain, making creative decisions while remaining out of the spotlight. Where this seemingly smooth and in control character has run into trouble and panicked, is when he’s been pulled out into the spotlight and confronted with information about his past, such as his childhood as the son of a prostitute, the man who’s identity he stole in the war, or his long-lost brother’s suicide. But now, as one of the head’s of a new company with his name in the title, hiding in the shadows in no longer an option. If he wants his company to succeed, he needs to sell himself as part of it.
His difficulty doing this and his inability to answer the reporter’s question, leads to an unfavorable profile, which is not what the struggling agency needs. In the past we’ve seen Don struggle in his personal life, but here we see him struggling with his work like never before. His fledgling agency has failed to expand beyond its clients it took with it when it disbanded from Sterling Cooper during last season’s finale, even if they have moved out of a hotel room and into a cramped office space (without a conference table, Don is quick to complain about). Don even fails to win over this week’s client (swimsuit manufacturer Jantzen), a rarity in Mad Men history. Like Don, they’re attempting to conceal their true identity. They want to sell revealing bikinis while claiming that they are instead 'two-piece bathing suits', portraying themselves as a wholesome company. Just as he struggles to define himself at the beginning of the episode, he is unable to come up with a new identity for his client. It’s a rare moment of professional failure for someone we’re used to seeing pull out a last-minute save.
Things aren’t going any better on the home front, but at least there we’re used to seeing Don in trouble. Betty (January Jones) is refusing to move out of the house, using the children’s well-being as an excuse for her spiteful actions towards Don. Betty has never been a particularly likeable character on the show, but in the past her bitterness has been more excusable. Don was certainly an awful husband, and his philandering and lying built up sympathy for Betty as a character, even if her own actions hardly warranted it. But now, with a new, seemingly loving husband, she no longer has that slack. Her treatment of her children can be downright cruel (such as forcing food down daughter Sally’s throat) and her actions towards Don appear to be those of a spoiled child. It’ll be interesting to see over the coarse of this season, whether any attempt is made to make Betty more likable. As of now, that seems unlikely.
Mad Men is a difficult show to judge one episode into a season, since so much of what comes early on is set up. But this premiere does set the ball rolling on a number of different ideas and seems to not hesitate in advancing them. Unlike last season, when the show took a little while to build momentum, here we’re thrust right into the action.
By episode’s end, Don has already accepted the fact that playing to the press is a necessary evil of his new position. He partakes in another interview, and this time is willing to play himself up as a renegade ad man. He still isn’t revealing any actual information about himself, as he noticeably lies when describing the circumstances of his departure from Sterling Cooper (he claims that he marched into Lane Pryce’s room and demanded that he be fired). But he’s doing what he’s great at; creating an image that people will want to believe in. I don’t expect Don to be able to come up with a definitive answer to that question of “who is Don Draper?” But, now four years into the series, I’ve never been more excited to watch him try.