SONIA BRAND-FISHER: The first image we see of Mad Men Season 4 Episode 1 is an unsettling close-up of the contorted, yet deliberately handsome face of the Don Draper we know and love (or hate). I don’t know about you, but at the end of Season 3 I could not get the image of his now ex-wife, Betty, sitting confidently on a plane with her baby in her arms like a doe caught in the small overhead-lights on the airplane. I thought of her when Don’s prominent jawline popped onto my screen with the faceless voice of the ad agent asking “Who is Don Draper?”
This question is clearly plaguing the mind of not only this walk-on agent, but also Draper himself, as Season 4 kicks off with some noticeable changes in the Draper’s fractured household and the infant corporation of Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce.
We are not unaccustomed to seeing Don Draper out with women who are not Betty, so his “first date” as a bachelor didn’t seem terrifically shocking, in fact he acted more calmly during his date than he did during the entire episode. However, we can’t help but wonder whether Pete Campbell’s description of the “scrappy upstart” persona of the new company articulated through significantly less mahogany and more sterile cubicles seems to be wearing on Draper.
Peggy’s hairstyle flips a little more and the ends of her hair raises with her confidence in herself, despite Draper seeming to show signs of spiting Peggy and her growing success with Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce. Betty is first seen at her new husband Henry’s Thanksgiving in a provocatively red dress, foreshadowing potential conflicts with Henry’s mother and her open scrutiny of Betty, who is being led calmly to the slaughter.
Draper is beginning to lose his control of his credibility amongst Sterling and his fellow Mad Men. Evidence of being a tad out of touch surfaces with Draper being grabby with his date in the cab (which, according to Sterling, you apparently “just can’t do anymore”) and with not mentioning “Hoho” in his article.
What startles me is Draper’s reaction to his life’s changes; he throws the “two-piece-bathing-suit” salesmen out of his office, surely out of frustration for being thrown out of his own house the season before. There’s a frantic-ness to Draper’s actions that contrast with the smooth-drinking, smooth-talking man who seduced audiences in seasons past.
My questions, overall, from this elegantly costumed “dance macabre” of a first episode seem to ultimately address Draper’s vulnerabilities as an ad-man, as a father, and as an ex-husband. Is his Vaseline grasp of his his world, as he understands it, slowly becoming total alienation with the people in his life, as well as his new lifestyle?
HOWARD MEGDAL: I want to focus on a motif that appears to be new to the show in Season 4: Don Draper adapting.
In past seasons, Don frequently appeared to be on the wrong side of any number of conflicts: with Pete Campbell, with Duck Phillips, with the re-organization of Sterling Cooper. Each time, a combination of Don’s actions and changing circumstances land Don on top. He doesn’t alter his essential Draperness to prevail- it is, instead why he prevails.
The result is an astonishing acceptance on the part of his professional and personal contacts. His mistresses accept his time when he provides it, and wordlessly fade away when he finishes with them. He takes off for weeks to California- his job, incredibly, is waiting there when he returns, and almost nothing is said about his absence. Even Betty Draper accepts Don Draper’s reality; only the approach of Henry changed that in any real way.
That isn’t what happens here, even though, as Roger Sterling puts it, Don has lost the right to modesty “after the year you’ve had.” When Don flubs the interview with Advertising Age, Bert Cooper, of all people, demands that he fix it. The lovely young actress Roger sets Don up with dictates how and when they will see each other again. And even the ridiculous men trying to sell two-piece bathing suits without selling two-piece bathing suits aren’t blown away by his work.
Don is out of his comfort zone; and so are we.
But the final shot of the episode seems telling to me: if it is the selling of himself, not just his work, that is required, Don should certainly be up to the task. After all, his entire identity to date is a self-creation, and creating the framework for selling products is what he does better than anyone else.
And briefly, on Betty- I get the sense the comeuppance she is about to receive will be awfully satisfying to viewers. As far as I was concerned, we learned all we needed to know about Don’s infidelity during Episode 8 of Season 3, when Don and Betty go to Rome. Don’s attention is focused on Betty; that clearly isn’t enough for her, or even means anything at all. It is no wonder that Don seeks out the company of other women. And it isn’t hard to imagine this as a simple device from the writers to evoke the original disintegration of the Don-Betty bond.
Not to fear: Henry’s mother will take care of Betty for us.