Mad Men: Back to Business

Last night saw the fourth season premiere of AMC's melancholy period drama, an episode that was something of a return to basics. Let's do a brief postmortem, shall we?

Your regular Mad Men recapper Brian Moylan is on vacation in Los Angeles, likely passed out in the alley behind the Abbey at this very moment, so you'll be stuck with me this week. But fear not, he will return for the next installment.

My favorite thing about this episode was that it didn't try to do too much. Matt Weiner and crew got so far-reaching last season, with grand, dark-toned dives into history and existentialism that were definietly fascinating (though bleak), but they did lead us away from the workplace dynamics that made the show snap and sing in the first thrilling season. Well, that's back, in this first episode at least, as the employees of the newishly (it's been about a year) formed Sterling Cooper Draper Price hustle for business, suddenly the small artsy guy in a sea of big fish, one of which they used to be. It was great to see them doing what they do best and worst — Don sticking to his high-minded principles, Peggy and Pete stumbling over their own ambition, Joan coolly running the show. While this show is way, way more than a workplace drama, it's nice to see the typewriter-clacking, fluorescent-lit orbital core of the show back in mostly working order.

Don is, as usual, floundering along behind a diminishingly slick veneer. He's living in a small but well-appointed apartment at 6th and Waverly, the same Greenwich Village he frequented in the first season, stared at by beats and nodded at by cops. I suspect he's chosen that neighborhood because of his particular talent for future-seeing, tuning fork insight; he senses the new wave of culture and ideology emanating from that area and he wants to be close to it, suck it up, turn it into something more packaged and mainstream. Though he's got his finger pretty firmly on the pulse of what's coming, he's still flailing. He gives bad, elusive interview. He pays hookers to slap him — Don Draper, the alpha male with the streak of Midwestern prudishness is having a hooker slap him! On Thanksgiving! A broken man he is. He's going on dates with friends of Roger's young wife, girls who stay at the Barbizon hotel for women and only kiss on the first date, even that done a bit reluctantly. The world is changing, Don. ("The world is so dark now," his date said, and as uttered by the marvelous Anna Camp from True Blood, you knew how both prescient and naive she was being. Yes, but the world is going to get a lot darker, m'dear.) The world has already fundamentally changed for Don, now that he's seeing his kids only once in a while, putting them to bed in cramped bunkbeds behind saloon doors, waiting up in his old house that Betty and her new, worrisome husband won't vacate. Betty has emasculated him a bit, at least in respect to how Don sees his own masculinity, and he doesn't like it. But, he wants to understand it, hence the slapping. Will he and Betty reconcile? I'm guessing right now, yes, probably.

Betty just seems so unhappy. I mean, she always does, but now more than ever. Oh sure she and her husband still have the sexy hots for each other, dry humping in bed and doing it in a parked car. But her relationship with the increasingly peculiar Sally has gotten more frigid and testy, while her poor son is just the cute, quiet dope in the corner, left essentially to raise himself. (I'm so curious to see how these kids turn out, where they will go to college, who they'll become. It's a shame we'll never find out.) Betty seems to be existing in that moment after Ben Braddock has rescued Katherine Ross and they sit in the back of the bus and think, Well now what? Well now it's awkward family dinners with her new husband's family, with clipped discussions of divorce and the presence of Henry's daughter, who's only a little bit younger than Betty, it seems. Betty is foolish and cold and confused, but she's also a person, so despite all of her bad parenting and her robotic emotional bargaining, I still feel bad for her.

I do not feel bad for Peggy! Oh man, she's turned so awesome! She's saying "John, Marsha" in a flirty manner with her cuuute new assistant (Matt Long from Jack & Bobby, sporting a jarringly modern haircut) and sitting on her desk sipping booze, and talking back to Don. I'm not sure I quite get her alarmingly comfortable relationship with Pete — they have quite a strange, gnarled history together — but other than that, it's great to see Peggy finally not just trying to be a modern career woman, but actually being one. She's finally relaxed, sure of her competency and still heading toward that light at the top of the stairs. Plus she has a fiance boyfriend! I'm sure dark things await her, as they do all of these characters, but for now it's nice to see Peggy finally being the Peggy she's always wanted to be.

Let's see. Sterling's still glib and mysterious but seems less miserable, Pete has toned down the smugness and become a bit more sociable, and even Cooper was, though stern in talking to Don, a bit more laissez-faire. All told it seems that the move to the Time & Life building has done everyone good, shaking the dust off, letting in some new light (or new, intriguing dark, in Don's case). Though SCDP is barely skating along, everyone seems energized by the fight. I miss Kinsey and Ken and long-departed Sal (not to mention the ditzy pool of secretaries), but all told I'm glad to see Don & the Gang in their new offices, exploring new lives. I can't wait to see what they do with that second floor.

Oh, and the fashion! Peggy's hair is higher and shorter, yes? And Betty was waring a slim skirt and jacket suit, rather than one of her poofy girl dresses. Times changin', all that.

OK, that's it. What'd you think? Discuss.