The fourth season of Mad Men opened with a blunt question: “Who is Don Draper?”
It was a line delivered by a reporter during an interview over lunch, but it could just as easily be the motto for the series. In each of the first three seasons, amid all that has happened to the characters of Sterling Cooper (and now, Campbell Pryce) and the world in which they live, the story of Don Draper has been teased out bit by bit. It sure worked: Mad Men not only made smoking cool again and made certain television critics long for the days when you could walk into your boss’s office mid-morning and pour yourself two fingers of Jamieson’s -- and not be labelled a drunk -- it put the AMC network on the map and won the Emmy for best drama three years running.
And yet, Season 4 has topped all that, largely by putting the load squarely on the shoulders of Don Draper and his crisp white shirts. In the season’s penultimate episode last week, Don encounters an old flame. (Yes, this term could seemingly apply to half the women in Manhattan, but this mistress goes all the way back to the series’ first episode.) Her life has mostly fallen apart, but she remarks how pleased she is that Don “hasn’t changed a bit.”
And that’s just the thing with Season 4: Don has changed. At least, we think he has.
Consider the gauntlet of the previous 12 episodes. The season began with Don fully divorced and living on his own. He, er, embraced his newfound freedom by drinking a lot and using the services of a call girl who slapped him around: scenes that no doubt caused wives throughout the land to turn to their husbands and point out the folly of indulging their inner Draper. See what happens? It got worse. The drinking led first to a tryst with a secretary who quit in tears, then later to a full-on bender in which he left the bar with one woman and woke up two days later with a waitress whose name he didn’t know. The bottom came when Anna, his best -- possibly only -- friend died; news that came via a phone call that had Don heaving in tears himself. That mid-season episode should form the crux for Jon Hamm finally winning the best actor Emmy -- if he doesn’t he might as well steel himself for a Susan Lucci-style always-the-bridesmaid run.
Rock bottom was an odd place for Don to be. We’re used to seeing him own the room, not slumped on the floor. But he climbed out of it. He started keeping a journal, a little evening routine that seemed good for stability. He cut back on the whiskey.
He began seeing Fay, a psychologist who consulted for the agency, and in a shocking turn of events didn’t even try to sleep with her on the first date. He even confessed (although just a little) his secret past to her, meaning that for once Don was not living a double life with someone he cared about. (That episode, in which Don’s Korean War identity-switcheroo with a dead soldier was almost discovered by the government, is Act Two on the Jon-Hamm-for-best-actor reel.)
This, too, is unfamiliar ground for Don. He’s always been the anti-hero: dashing, eloquent, and honourable in most ways, except when it came to his marriage. Even here the water was a little muddy: his tragic flaw was his fundamental inability to be faithful to his wife, but -- and I say this as someone who is very much pro-fidelity -- you wondered if the baggage from his awful childhood and secret past were partly to blame for his behaviour. Plus, as we’ve learned, there’s something not quite right with the former Betty Draper.
New Don, though, might just have the “anti-” part of the hero label removed. He has almost-but-not quite remained faithful to Fay (the fact he resisted his new secretary’s advances for a solid minute counts as progress, right?), in eschewing cigarette business he made a bold Draper-like gambit that may saved the company, unless it killed it, and he’s remained a good father to his children even as Betty turns into the Ice Queen at home.
Or, this being a show as well wriitten as Mad Men, maybe last week’s episode, which felt in many ways like a finale -- the agency hasn’t avoided going off a cliff, but at least it stepped away from the precipice -- was just a prelude to a finale that will include major plot shifts. It’s happened before, including last season when the principals of Sterling Cooper fired themselves rather than be absorbed by a British firm.
Whatever the case, we wait to see where it goes. It feels like the company will at least be around for the start of Season 5, where the pressure to bring in new business could tear things apart anew. It feels like Don, finally, has it all together. Unless that’s a feint. You may have noticed that I am studiously avoiding making predictions here.
I’m enjoying New Don, but admit that it seems unlikely to last. Zebra, stripes, etc. And if he falls off the fidelity wagon for good? Don Draper, cad, was pretty fun to watch, too.
Me: More commentary to come.