The best thing about "Mad Men", the thing that sets it apart from other shows on television, is its willingness to challenge what we think we know about how a television drama works. Never was that more evident than in last night's Season 4 premiere, "Public Relations".
For me, the episode was notable not for what it did, but for what it didn't do. A lesser series would have picked up the timeline right after the Season 3 finale, and probably would have settled for a season of Don Draper either trying to save his marriage or dealing with the fallout from it. But "Mad Men" didn't do that. Instead, the show jumped ahead 11 months, with Don and Betty divorced and Don living in an apartment while trying to get his ex-wife, now married to a different man, out of the house they once shared.
A lesser show would have also done more to ease the blow of the massive changes that occurred in Don's work life in the Season 3 finale. In fact, on some level, I expected to see the new agency of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce humming along, having brought in former colleagues like Ken Cosgrove (who is still in the opening credits) or Sal Romano or Paul Kinsey, working in a huge building and making the new home feel just like the old one. But again, "Mad Men" never settles for the easy way out. The new firm is definitely in a better place than when we last saw them (working out of a hotel room), but they're still struggling
In some ways, those things are what hold the ratings for the show down, and make it prohibitively difficult to jump into, but they're also the things that make the show great. Last night's episode started with Don Draper being interviewed by a reporter from Advertising Age and being asked the question, "who is Don Draper?". That question has been at the core of the first three seasons of the show, whether overtly via Don's stolen identity or more subtly by his escape to California, but even through three years of the show, it seemed like the one person unable to answer that question was Don Draper himself. But by the end of the episode, we got a glimpse of a different Don Draper, one who if he didn't know who he was at least knew who he wanted people to think he was.
It's easy to point to the second scene with the Jantzen Swimwear people as the turning point for Don, but that's exactly what it was. You can actually see the moment in the meeting where something in his mind clicks, and he even verbalizes it, though he's speaking to the client, not about himself:
"You need to decide what kind of company you want to be: comfortable and dead, or risky and possibly rich."Replace the word "company" with the word "person", and Don's no longer talking about Jantzen, but about himself. He's comfortable being mysterious and not letting people into his life, but that's no longer an option for him, and it's going to be amazing to see this journey play out over the rest of the season.
With all that said, this wasn't the "Don Draper Hour". The supporting cast had their moments to shine too, particularly Peggy and Pete. What struck me is that in the past, they never would have gone through with their idea without running it by Don first, but in this new company, they feel more empowered, and Peggy even expressed as much ("at least I'm thinking ahead").
Outside of SCDP, we got to see Betty's new home life with Henry and his extended family at a Thanksgiving Dinner. In the early seasons of the show, you could feel sympathetic for Betty because of Don's frequent extramarital affairs, but now that Betty seemingly has everything she wants, her treatment of her own children just seems cruel. I like that Henry's family seems to pick up on Betty's poor behavior, and her new mother-in-law seems to immediately dislike her.
Back to Don before I wrap this up: we saw him interact with females in three levels of relationships, and it seemed interesting to me that the only one he really felt comfortable with was the prostitute. He was definitely uncomfortable on his date with Jane's friend, and his interactions with Betty were understandably chilly -- at least until he got his Don on and demanded that she move out or pay rent. It's like Don, despite the frequent cheating on his wife, doesn't know how to be single, and doesn't want to deal with having a "normal" single life. We'll have to see if that remains the case with the new attitude he displayed at the end of the episode.