Who is Don Draper? That’s what the Ad Age reporter asks at the beginning of season four. It’s a question that’s been asked since season one, and we’ve still yet to get a clear answer. Viewers have seen enough over the first three seasons to draw their own conclusions–creative genius, father, cheating husband, mystery man with a stolen identity–and that’s how it seems things will continue to be. Don’t inability to answer this question, or provide much information at all, to the A Age reporter will prove to cause problems for him and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce–the new agency started at the end of season three—when the article runs and turns what could’ve been a nice boost for the agency into a black cloud that Don spends the episode trying to get out from under.
This isn’t the only black cloud in the episode. In fact, the whole thing is pretty dark. While Don is still at the top of his game creatively—seemingly, a TV spot he created for Glo-Coat floor wax is a big reason Ad Age was talking to him in the first place—everything else is in a shambles. Now divorced and living in a dingy apartment in Manhattan, Don employs a housekeeper called Celia (sounds like Carla!) whose food he doesn’t eat and who he scolds for cleaning, seemingly only there to provide some sort of semblance to his old life. He finds himself being set up on awkward blind dates and even pays for sex (and some roughing up!). Betty has the kids and she and her new husband, Henry Francis–who comes complete with a calls-it-like-she-sees-it mother–still live in the old Draper house and only mildly seem to be warming up to the idea of vacating when Don is forced to confront them about it.
At the office, which is smaller than the Sterling Cooper offices, but seems to be just as bustling, things are going as well as they can go for an upstart agency after a year. Everyone seems to be taking charge of their roles and doing what they can to make the place a success. Pete and Peggy (she smokes now!) and her hairdo even start incorporating their own ideas instead of running them by Don first–something that will come back to haunt them later on in the episode when he actually does find out.
The Pete/Peggy idea is a publicity stunt to boost sales for Sugarberry Hams. These are the kinds of antics Don refuses to stoop to. But when it’s evident that he’s lost his step a bit in the Jantzen meeting (I loved his ad though; I think it was perfect for the time when things were starting to get a little more suggestive) when his complete disregard for the client’s brand and image, he has a blow up and kicks them out of his office (presumably because he couldn’t kick Betty and Henry Francis out of his house the night before), his partners inform him that the way he operated before is not the way he can operate now, and suddenly publicity stunts aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
The episode closes the way it began: with an interview. This time, it’s Don talking to the Wall Street Journal. And everything he didn’t want to say to Ad Age—the things all creative directors were saying to Ad Age at that time (and probably still)—he’s saying now. This change in the way Don works seemed to be the final piece in his complete reinvention. It’ll be interesting to see how all of this works out down the road.
I love the direction the show has taken in this first episode. It seems like everything is more modern, from the décor to the attitudes, to the people themselves. But I’m guessing the past isn’t done with Don Draper and his compatriots. When the Ad Age reporter stood up from his chair after the interview with Don, it was revealed that he’d lost a foot in Korea… when Dick Whitman became Donald Draper. I wonder if this man who asked “Who is Don Draper” is going to do some digging and actually find out? When the season opens with a question like that, I think that by the last episode it might be answered. At least, more than it has been before.