There’s no series premiere more anticipated than “Mad Men” on July 25th. Matthew Weiner‘s series returns with a Season 4 opener that really made me grin from ear to ear. Fans of the show are going to love it.
When we left Don Draper and friends, it was December 1963. Don and his wife Betty were over, and Betty was on her way to Reno for a divorce. The ad agency, Sterling Cooper, had capsized, and the survivors were regrouped in a hotel suite.
Season 4 picks up nearly a year later, on Thanksgiving weekend 1964. As I wrote last week, “Mad Men” skips forward through all of 1964, leaving the arrival of the Beatles and other historic cultural moments alone. I can only guess that Weiner is actually trying to avoid too much of the outside world, rather than become “American Dreams” or just another show about nostalgia.
So here goes, to some extent: Don and Betty have divorced. Betty has married Henry Francis, whose mother disapproves of Betty’s mothering skills. Sally is turning into quite the little witch. The new ad agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has moved into the Time Life Building. Don has had some success with one account, but there’s trouble with the others. Don is also dating, and sometimes paying for sex. He tells Roger Sterling, “I’ve hardly been a monk.” Sterling–played to perfection by John Slattery— urges him to take his young wife’s friend to dinner at Jimmy’s La Grange (a real eatery on East 49th St., now long gone.) “They have Chicken Kiev,” he says. “The butter squirts everywhere.”
Peggy, Pete, and Harry are all in the office, as are Joan–who now has an actual office–and Bert Cooper, played by the wonderful Robert Morse (they’ve got to get Michele Lee to play his wife). Jared Harris is now a regular as Lane Pryce. The new office of SCDP is met with a fanfare on the soundtrack; it’s a cool place. Peggy and her office mate are quirky brainiacs who keep doing “John and Marsha,” the comedy routine by Stan Freberg, the early 60s comic who sprang from advertising. There’s no sign of the folks who tried to steal the agency, or of gay Sal.
Weiner, who wrote the episode, centers it very squarely on Jon Hamm‘s Don Draper. Hamm is better than ever. Square jawed and unwavering in his reticence to reveal himself, Don Draper is emerging from a cocoon in 1965. He is the anti-Darren Stephens. In fact, I keep thinking of Darren and Larry Tate visiting SCDP and kind of crumbling. McMahon Tate (the ad agency so perfectly rendered on “Bewitched” in real time of 1965) was benign. Don Draper is running an ad agency built on neuroses.
The episode is titled “Public Relations.” I won’t give it away, you’ll see why as Peggy and Pete get involved in a funny subplot. Suffice to say, Weiner has his work cut out for him, to keep the show from becoming “Bewitched” as Don and friends begin to enter what we really think of as the Sixties. The innocent years are over.