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Mad Men Season Premiere Recap: Stage Fright

"Who is Don Draper?" These are the first words of season four, spoken by an Advertising Age reporter about the face of the "scrappy upstart" agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. It's an echo of oh-so-many such questions since the show began. Last season started off with the ultimate "Who is Don Draper" in a dirty-joke flashback, when we found out how Dick Whitman got his real name. This premiere yields no flashbacks at all (phew) but instead shoves the story forward. Now it's November 1964, just about a year after Don was asked, "And who are you supposed to be?" while trick-or-treating. The gangs-all-here feel makes for a satisfying sort of reunion show, but in many ways, it's also a show about role-playing: How Don's most challenging creative account is his constant performance and spin — the brand management of himself. Seeing that his old answer to "Who is Don Draper" has become obsolete, Don, and the show, are refreshing and rebranding. Welcome to the reboot.

The last, very busy episodes of season three ejected the British, offed JFK, launched the SCDP, and detonated the Drapers' marriage. The overriding vibe, with its fizzy cocktail-music soundtrack, is mostly bouncy and upbeat: it picks up where the fan-bait wish-fulfillment of last season's finale left off. (All that JFK-assassinating, Rome-burning, gay-bashing dread has been pushed back into the shadows for now). There's a bright new logo on the clean glass doors of the new, smaller office. There's less dark wood, no conference table, and a few fresh faces too. Peggy's lost the bangs, Joan's running a tight ship, Pete's conniving, vests are proliferating, and the secretarial pool is wearing more teal and mustard yellow than we saw all last season. Thankfully, Roger's wiseacre rimshot act is still killing everyone. ("So cheap they couldn't even afford a whole reporter!")

SCDP has fewer accounts and a small margin for error — and Draper needs to put up or shut up: J'ai a'lai is a bust, Jansen swimsuits is a dead-end, and Pete and Peggy have to pull off a stunt behind Don's back to hold onto the Sugarberry ham account. ("I can use my expense account," Pete says, "I'll just say it's for whores!") Peggy seems more confident than ever, and she's still speaking the obvious truths about the office ("We are all here because of you — all we want to do is please you") and coming up with brilliant ideas. But no more Monte Christo sandwiches with Duck? A fiancé? Whaa? She does get her actors to play their roles — only, the ladies can't just fake the fight. The roles become them, the passion turns real, and the two end up in jail. Is this foreshadowing of how the other play-acting will play out?

But this is really Don's episode. At the office, he looks the part, talking the talk — but he's not really getting new accounts. Being the face of the company adds new responsibilities. And as you may recall from last season, Bert Cooper wondered if Don had "the stomach for the realities" of starting his own business. It seems like Don, despite his radical rhetoric, is still playing things "safe and comfortable" at the episode's outset, without the nerve to get "risky and rich." By the end, it seems like he's got nothing left to lose — and that could make him dangerous.

At home, Don's apartment is almost comically depressing: all dark shadows, shoe polish, ugly furniture, and TV static. In last season's premiere, Don effortlessly picked up a stewardess and seemed practically exhausted by being such an awesome Don Juan. (“I keep going different places, and always winding up where I’ve already been,” he groaned, as he groped.) Now he's divorced, which is much less attractive in 1964 than being a hot married dude. And Don doesn't just desire these women now; he needs them. It's both cute and desperate when he shines his shoes and makes his bed, hoping to bring Jane's blonde gal-pal Bethany home. "I'm breaking a lot of my rules by seeing a divorced man," she says, wise to his tricks, then leaves him hanging in the taxi.

Don's trying to figure out his new part, but Bethany senses the drama. She's a supernumerary — one of those actors who fill the stage in someone else's story at the opera, who never gets to sing or speak a word. Is she playing a Betty?

Don's old lines aren't working — not with women or reporters. And Don's old persona — "a man from a town with no name … a handsome cipher," as the AdAge reporter writes — is over. He has to create something new. "Turning a creative success into business is your work," says Bert Cooper. "And you've failed."

After striking out with Bethany, Don calls over a buxom redheaded escort, pays her, and then tells her not to take off that brassiere. "I know what you want," she says. "So do it," he replies. And she slaps him while riding him. Don's still in control, but he wants to play the submissive role. What does he need to be punished for? And, more importantly, can you think of a serious mainstream television show in which a leading man has been even somewhat submissive? (As anything other than a punch line, that is?) Could this be TV's first major S&M relationship?

Related: What is Don Draper's Type? A Guide to His Many Women

And then there's Betty, who looks the part of perfect wife and mother but can't quite play it. Her neuroses are already turning off Henry so much that he actually refuses sex with her ("I'm really full now … "). The mother-in-law understandably hates her. ("She’s a silly woman.") Worse, when Henry and Betty do have sex, it's almost like a flashback to Joan's rape. Henry is most keyed up just after Don leaves the home. Sex, in this episode, is very much about male power — one alpha upping the other. Will it last after Henry realizes that Don doesn't care anymore?

If Henry and Betty's relationship does devolve quickly, will Betty beg to get Don back? There seems to be nothing left but hatred between them, so probably not. But she needs money and doesn't want to leave her home. Betty holds two chips: the kids, and Don's true identity. For years, Don kept a low profile to minimize the risk of his deception. Now that Don's playing the part of a flashy media darling, Betty could use that knowledge to hurt him. Will she blackmail him? Will there be a war?

One more question: Why kick off season four with a supermarket ham stunt and an arty TV ad for GloCoat? At the risk of overreaching, let's note that in 1964, pop art (which has barely touched this show) was booming and the Factory was roaring — as were all those questions about the differences, or lack thereof, between art and products. At about the same time as this episode — between October 6 and November 7, 1964 — the Bianchini Gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was hosting the landmark American Supermarket exhibit, where multiples by Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Claus Oldenberg, Robert Rauschenberg, and others were installed as if they were for sale in a grocery store. For two bucks, you could buy shopping bags silkscreened with Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup can. For $6, you could get your very own autographed can. And there was a massive meat cooler installed with hand-painted wax meats, including ham. Warhol once said, "Lock up a department store today, open the door after a hundred years, and you will have a museum of art." (Lock up an office in 1964, then pop it open on AMC in 2010, and, with a lot of creative license, you've got quality TV.)

In some ways, Don's ad for GloCoat is an inversion of the American Supermarket exhibit — it's his way of taking art-house filmmaking into a TV commercial. But Don's GloCoat campaign could also be read as something more personal — a kind of autobiography. "For the first 30 seconds at least." He dreamed up the image of a little boy, trapped in a romantic, nostalgic dream of the wild west ("Get me out of here!"), saved only by an angelic blonde mother figure — the kind he never had but keeps looking for, in Bettys and Bethanys. Wonder why?

Sitting down with that Wall Street Journal reporter, Don spins a fantasy that echoes that little boy's wild-west dream. "I could die of boredom," he says, "or I could holster up my guns …" Last season, it seemed like Don was facing up to reality, but here he's still a kid who prefers to live in fantasy, to buy the myths he sells. This season, maybe he's just trading one fictional role for another, more exciting one.

Related: What is Don Draper's Type? A Guide to His Many Women

Photo: Courtesy of AMC