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AMC's "Mad Men" Returns, Starting with Four Brilliantly Weighted Words
July 23, 2010  | By David Bianculli

Sunday's season premiere of AMC's period drama series Mad Men begins with Jon Hamm's Don Draper being interviewed by a reporter for a trade journal, who asks Don an innocuous puffball question as preparation of a profile about the successful advertising-agency executive. But because of what we know about Don's past -- and what most people around him DON'T know -- that puffball turns into a potential hand grenade.


The question the reporter asks, to begin season four of Mad Men, is this:

"Who is Don Draper?"


The quizzical look on Hamm's face (at top above), reflecting the slightest nervousness about what may or may not be coming next, says it all, while Don himself, at first, says nothing.

Series creator Matthew Weiner wrote the opening episode, and his opener to that opener couldn't be more on point, more tantalizing, or more inviting to multiple interpretation.

On one level, Don Draper is the name of the dead Korean War soldier whose identity Dick Whitman stole on the battlefield -- a secret that Dick, now the Don of Madison Avenue, does not want to be discovered (even though two of the people who know that secret continue to work with him at the new agency).

But on a deeper level, "Who is Don Draper?" is a question Don has to confront the entire episode, and presumably the season, even if he can dodge it when posed by a friendly reporter. It's like a nesting doll of meanings within meanings. Who is Don to his colleagues? To the image-obsessed world of New York advertising? To the family that once signified success, but now is torn apart? And finally, who is Don Draper to himself?


After reinventing himself AS Don Draper, now he has to reinvent Don, too. And while I'll reveal nothing about when this new season takes place, what happens or where it begins to lead, I will say this: The first episode is bookended by Don being interviewed with reporters, and the difference between the two signifies the beginnings of a new answer to the question posed at the start.

Who is Don Draper? Like Mad Men, he's a work in progress -- always moving, always changing, always smarter and slicker than most of what surrounds him. And, also like Mad Men, he's fascinating to watch.

(You can hear my NPR Fresh Air with Terry Gross report on Mad Men and other summer TV treats, which was broadcast Thursday, by clicking HERE. Mad Men returns Sunday night at 10 ET on AMC.)




Eileen said:

Thanks for the heads-up on Burn Notice-Burt Reynolds. As usual, you were right on target.

Where to begin with Mad Men? Every character is so multilayered, it's a thrill to watch them. Aside from the always fascinating Don Draper, I can't wait to see where the Betty story lines go. And Peggy, always morphing. Pete -- the guy we love to hate. And, apparently the Emmy Awards agree. Talk about robbery. Joan, always in control and command.

Aside from the wonderful characters and their ever evolving stories, props are truly in order for the set designers and the stylists. Having been a product of the 60s working world, they have everything covered. It's an amazement.

Looking forward to Sunday. (Read Mark's comments. He's a doll. Hope to read him here sooner rather than later.)

Comment posted on July 23, 2010 1:51 PM

Tausif Khan said:

David, nice piece. One of the things you mentioned in an on air piece on Fresh Air is that you value watching something as it is broadcast and the immediate responses. I was wondering if you have considered adding live blogging to the site for television events like Mad Men?

Also, television critics have been discussing Matt Weiners dictum that television critics should not talk about the screeners they receive of the premiere eppisode of Mad Men in any specifics. Myles McNutt a grad student at University of Wisconsin wrote a piece on his blog (Cultural Learnings: memles.wordpress.com) about the critical position of the pre-air review and whether they were necessary for established series (http://cultural-learnings.com/2010/07/19/to-each-their-own-thoughts-on-mad-men-and-the-state-of-the-pre-air-review/). How do you feel about this topic?

[I actually agree with Weiner, to some degree, and I hope anyone who reads me with any regularity knows that when it comes to writing advance reviews, I take great pains to reveal nothing significant, other than to make clear my enthusiasms when warranted. The Mad Men review is a perfect example: What I haven't mentioned in that review, including the list much less the fates of supporting characters, could fill volumes.

On the other hand, we critics do have the right, I feel, to hone in on examples of what makes a work of art distinct or memorable, so it's a tightrope. Every time, I try not to fall off. -- David B.]

Comment posted on July 23, 2010 2:08 PM

Avi said:

I think that you have discovered what I love most about the character of Don Draper. He's fresh, he's new, he's ahead of the crowd. It's become part of the normal function of life to live and feel in cliches. I feel more and more that there is a decreasing number of people who can detect this. I feel that the character of Don Draper tends to resonate most in those of us whom understand how little cliches tend to connect and/or portray emotion or thought. We should all be striving to re-invent ourselves on a minute to minute basis.

[I agree completely. No, wait, I don't. Hold on a minute -- now I do again. Hmm... -- David B.]

Comment posted on July 23, 2010 9:48 PM

Eileen said:

I've followed you for years, first at the NY Daily News, and then on this blog from its inception.

In all those years, I've never known you to "spoil" a show with revealing too much information.

I think we all find critics we agree with, and stick with them to guide us in the right direction relative to tv viewing choices. That's always been the case with my tv choices and your reviews.

You, Tom B. and the Dianes have done a masterful job in both championing shows and mentioning shows which might have gone unnoticed save for your reviews.

So, thank you all.

[And thank YOU, for being a TVWW charter "member." Maybe I should have some decoder rings made, and send out secret codes to the ultra-faithful: 8 - 5 -12 - 12- 15 !!! -- David B.]

Comment posted on July 24, 2010 1:11 PM

Angela Siegfried said:

Hi, Great write-up! Now I'm finally psyched about Mad Men again! Not sure why I wasn't before, but at least this did it for me.

You also reminded me that I never did listen to your Fresh Air piece with Connie Britton. Did I miss your announcing it being available? If so, oh where or where can I find it? ;-)

I did find a new

Comment posted on July 25, 2010 7:36 PM

shauna said:

I never wanted to watch Mad Men before, possibly because it was just too "real" and the sexism, bigotry, etc was more than I could handle, but this summer I decided to see what the hype was all about and dvr'd all of the 'Best-of' Marathon that has been showing for the past couple of weeks. After the first couple of episodes, I still wasn't completely sold, but after spending the weekend staying up until the wee hours of the morning to try and reach the end of my recordings before the season started last night, I can officially say I'm addicted. I still don't really know why, since I find most of the characters absolutely despicable, but then again, maybe that is why. Maybe it's the fact that they are painfully human and the stories are so engrossing that I just have to keep watching - even when I have to watch through squinted eyes to keep from feeling too much disgust and shame at them. Glad I listened to your suggestions and jumped on the band wagon with this one.

[I am, too. Welcome to the 'Mad Men' party! And thanks for the trust. -- David B.]

Comment posted on July 26, 2010 2:40 PM
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