The return of Mad Men was highly anticipated, as evidenced by its show-record 3.5 million viewers, and it certainly did not disappoint.
While some aspects of the show, such as the continuing fight between Pete and Roger over clients and who drives business, did not work for me, I loved how the episode returns to the core question of the series, and something directly expressed in the fourth episode premiere: Who is Don Draper? Beyond that, we also begin to see the influence that Don has on those around him, especially his protege, Peggy.
The cynicism Don expresses so often has, one could say, corrupted many of the people around him. Pete is high strung about his role in the running of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and although he has always been that way, it seems to have intensified of late, to the point where he has begun bringing his work home with him. Peggy feels swamped with her workload. Lane Pryce pulls a Don Draper-esque move with regards to the contents of a man’s wallet. Even Joan, who has been on maternity leave, feels the cynicism of her choices, as she suddenly feels expendable and fighting for her job, something she did not feel when she was at Sterling Cooper.
The main victim of Don’s cyncism is his new wife, Megan, who tries to alleviate the sting of turning forty by throwing him a surprise party. Of course, Don, who hates talking about himself, being talked about, being the center of attention, and parties in general, puts on a happy face (or as Roger Sterling, Jr. calls it, “the smile he usually reserves for clients”), but asks his wife not to do that again. She feels stung, and initially takes it out on Peggy, who in turn felt stung by Don weighting her down with extra assignments when SCDP is short-handed due to continuing financial difficulties, and expresses as such to him. Peggy, realizing her error, apologizes to Megan, and later to Don, who realizes that his new marriage’s honeymoon is indeed over, and that he and his wife will have to work things about. Don eventually tells Megan that he just wanted to spend his birthday with her, because he doesn’t care about his co-workers, and wanted his special night to be just for them.
Some aspects of the show do not work for me: the continued squabbling between Pete and Roger reminds of immature college students fighting over a girl, complete with pranks, Roger strong-arming a third party to try to get resolution, and Pete trying to actively make a point about his place in the business, as opposed to being a mature discussion in the very serious business world. The subplot with Lane and the wallet was a bit much, and the issues surrounding the civil rights protests, from the water bombing to Don and Roger’s ad to the ending of the episode, seemed heavy handed by the standards of the show.
However, the show on the whole is very good. The questions surrounding who Don is begin to show some possible answers, which are, of course, contradictions: he is a family man, who loves his wife and children, and shows affection towards a few others; however, he is built to be a lone wolf, and that comes across as cold, even towards his family.
Finally, the notable absence of Betty actually served as a boon towards the show, rather than a detriment. I was among the many who thought Betty would be written out after the third season, and was surpised to find that she could still be an active part and good component of the show in the fourth season. However, I feel like her presence here would have pulled from the episode’s main point: the more things change in the Mad Men universe, the more they stay the same. The character of Megan, as Don’s wife, could be described as Betty 2.0: she is better with the kids in many ways, she tries to get Don to come out of his shell more (which is positive in intent and negative in execution), and far unlike Betty, she has an active interest in the world of advertising.
Even the parts of the episode I don’t like are well-acted, and the best surprise performance comes from Jessica Pare, who plays Megan Draper: her joy at throwing a party for Don, coupled with the depression of its aftermath, and her ability to bring out the soft, sensitive side of Don we so rarely see makes her a great choice.
My rating: 4.6/5.0