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July 5, 2015

Early Look: 'Mad Men' Resets Itself in Season 4

by Joel Keller, posted Jul 19th 2010 1:00PM
Jon Hamm in the Season 4 premiere of 'Mad Men'
The longer 'Mad Men' is on the air, the tougher Matthew Weiner's job gets. As well as he knows the world he's created and the characters within it, it has to get tougher to keep the show from repeating itself. There are only so many cigarettes Don Draper can smoke, only so many whiskeys the staff can drink, only so many butts for Roger Sterling to pat before the show becomes a parody of itself. Even Draper's deep introspective moments have the potential to get old if nothing else is going on.

Perhaps Weiner sensed this as well; he made a smart move at the end of season 3 by throwing much of what viewers knew about the show and its characters out the window. Season 4, which debuts on AMC on Sunday, July 25 at 10PM ET, picks up that trend, and while the season premiere is entertaining -- and actually laugh-out-loud funny at times -- it leaves a viewer excited and a little scared at the same time.

(Minor spoilers ahead...)

If you're a regular viewer, you know that the end of season 3 had both Don Draper's personal and professional lives in tumult. Betty couldn't take Don's lies anymore, and seeking to break free of the domestic prison she put herself in, she divorced Don and flew to Reno to get married to Henry Francis.

In the meantime, faced with the prospect of the firm they love being sold by their British owners to a much larger firm, Draper, Sterling, and Bert Cooper ask Lane Pryce to fire them. Pryce, who's about to be shipped to India, quits and joins them. The four of them form a new firm and snag Sterling Cooper's best folks -- Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, Joan Holloway, and Harry Crane -- to form a new firm, which begins its business from Don's temporary home at the Pierre Hotel.

Season 4 picks up a few months down the line from that point, with the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in a more permanent situation than that hotel room but still struggling to establish itself. Draper, on the other hand, knows what he is: he's an ad guy, a creative genius who knows how people think. Yes, he's been that guy for the last three seasons, but now there's nothing standing in his way: he's a founding partner in a firm, he doesn't have a wife to go home to (or cheat on) every night, and he only sees the kids on weekends.

The season premiere examines what that change means to Draper, and how the guy who's spent the last decade really trying to figure out who he is and how it fits within the Don Draper persona he's built for himself deals with these changes. By the end of the episode, both he and the viewer seem to have a much better idea of how Draper is going to act going forward.

But that's what scares me about this season premiere. There are some genuinely funny moments in the episode, many of them involving Peggy, who seems to have grown up before everyone's eyes. But much of the deep introspection that has made the show a must-watch wasn't there. Not saying it won't be there in future episodes, but now that the worlds of 'Mad Men' are being split even more than they have in the past -- Betty's world with Henry, Don and the new firm, Don dealing with his new life, possible interactions with the old Sterling Cooper -- there's a worry there that Weiner will fall into the trap of focusing on all the changes and not what made the show one of the best on TV for the last three years.

Then again, Weiner being the writer he is, I'm sure he's got a ton of surprises up his sleeve for season 4. There's the country's changing mores to deal with and the fact that, by the mid-'60s, television was becoming much more dominant in the advertising world.

Can Don and Roger go out drinking, smoking and womanizing like they used to? Is Don finding the adventure and risk he needs now that he can sleep with whoever he wants out in the open? Will Betty continue to morph into a Westchester County version of Joan Crawford as she navigates her latest domestic captivity? 'Mad Men' has a tough act to follow after last year's rousing finale and the incredible season of its Sunday at 10PM ET slot-mate, 'Breaking Bad.' I'm looking forward to seeing if Weiner and company are up to the challenge.

Tell us: What are you looking forward to seeing in season 4 of 'Mad Men?'

(Follow @joelkeller on Twitter.)

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