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Season 4 of Mad Men begins with a query: "Who is Don Draper?" The person asking is an Advertising Age reporter, and he finds out what the show's viewers already know: the man in question doesn't like to share details.
That doesn't help the reporter (or, ultimately, Don's reputation), but the deliciously slow reveal of who Don Draper is continues to make Mad Men one of the richest, most involving TV shows of all time. Every week, show creator Matthew Weiner gives us a 360-degree, fully formed view of this endlessly fascinating world and makes us feel what his characters feel. You end up being a participant almost as much as a viewer.
The fourth season picks up in late 1964, a year after Draper (Jon Hamm) and his cohorts left Sterling Cooper to start their own agency. The new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce takes up two floors of the Time-Life Building, and Don is a master of the advertising world universe, having created a cinematic television commercial for Glo-Coat floor polish.
But behind the scenes, Don is, if not falling apart, at least confused and in pain. He's divorced and living in an apartment. His ex-wife Betty (January Jones) and his children are living with her new husband, Henry (in Don's house, which Don continues to pay for), and he takes out his anguish on those around him - including would-be clients. For this, he knows, he deserves to be smacked around.
Mad Men centers on Draper's story, but just as important is the story of the 1960s. Divorce is becoming far more common, morality is changing and women are taking their rightful place in the workforce and in American society. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss, looking sprightly and less dowdy) and a new male ad copywriter may engage in playful banter re-creating an old Stan Freberg song and commercial for a Wesson Oil shortening ("John ... Marsha"), but there's no doubt that she's the rising star.
So while we're watching Don Draper's world, what we're really seeing is how our world came to be. Weiner lays this out exquisitely, using fashion, hairstyles, furniture and examining the attitudes and mores of the day with no hint of irony. We may laugh at the clients who want an ad campaign that distinguishes their two-piece bathing suits from bikinis, but there was a time when that distinction was real.
That world, our world, may be less complicated than Draper's, however. We already know about some of his past - from changing his identity to his sordid philandering - and in this episode, we get a searing look into his unhappiness. Advertising Age labels him "a handsome cipher" - a zero - and even though he doesn't believe that on the surface, you wonder whether, deep down, that's exactly what he thinks.
After Season 1, I asked Hamm if he thought Don Draper knew what was wrong with him. To me, this is the key question of Mad Men. Hamm's answer: "Maybe. I think a lot of us know what's wrong with us. I think we find that it's harder to fix than maybe we endeavor to try to fix. So I think maybe. This is a man who's compartmentalized a significant portion of his life, and once those walls are erected, they're kind of hard to break through and break down. So whether he knows or not, it's a completely different question whether he's going to do anything or not."
Something happens at the end of this week's episode to suggest that maybe he's going to do something about it. That's just a supposition on my part, but you'll want to be there to find out.