The season-three finale of Mad Men was an unqualified success, and one of the most entertaining hours the show has ever delivered. But that was mostly because it had spent three seasons lowering its viewers’ expectations. Obviously, Mad Men is a masterful show, superlatively acted and written, and set in an immersive world that allows for the level of detail that Internet-age television junkies crave. But not much actually happens. When a show does so much so well, it seems unreasonable to ask for more. And while saying so exposes me as someone who may be missing the point entirely, what I occasionally want from Mad Men is a brisk, explosive burst of plot. Just when I’d given up hope, the finale, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” provided what I’d been waiting for, between the caperlike genesis of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and the dissolution of Don and Betty’s enervated marriage.
“Public Relations,” the fourth-season premiere, isn’t quite the exhilarating blast that episode was, but is a clear signal that Mad Men isn’t the leisurely paced character study it was early on. In many ways, it feels like a brand-new show. Some of the differences are subtle—Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) has freshened her priggish hairstyle, for one thing—but there’s so much new going on at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce that such details might only assert themselves with repeated viewings. When we resume, around Thanksgiving of 1964, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is no longer the superstar adman at a firm that valued him too much to let him go, but never required too much of him. Now he’s a named partner, perhaps the closest arrangement approaching a commitment he’s ever had. The choices he makes have serious consequences, and an inadvertent error shows him just how precarious a position he’s in at his fledgling new firm.
The opening line of the premiere is “Who is Don Draper?”—a clever nod to the question the show has been exploring for three seasons, at a time when the answer matters the least. It doesn’t matter who Don is now as what he does. Don isn’t the center of gravity he once was, though, not in his professional life, and not in the show. The corporate culture of the new firm is looser, more casual, and more informal, mostly because it has to be as the up-and-comers operate on a bare-bones budget with no room for frills or error. But the result for the show is that the supporting characters feel more important, more like equals than balls of yarn for Don to bat around in his paws. Betty (January Jones) seems to have fully inured herself to the Don Draper mystique, while Peggy and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) hatch harebrained marketing schemes without so much as clearing it with him. It’s a step in the right direction for Mad Men—not a radical makeover, but a new recipe using the same ingredients. It’s around the fourth season when even the best shows start to show signs of wear and tear, and the decision to insert the sea change that is Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (not to mention Don’s divorce) is looking like a shrewd one so far.