Editor's Note: Mondays suck. That's why we're going to let you fritter away a little bit of your 'settle-in' time recapping the best show on television (maybe ever?) with our Mad About Mad Men blog. Feel free to agree/disagree in the comments section.
Don Draper's life shrank.
His shrinking living quarters. Scarsdale trophy home to Lower East Side one-bedroom apartment which more closely resembles Travis Bickle's squat than a Saturday Evening Post-ready picture of Post-War perfection.
His office is shrinking. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's (Sterling Cooper is soooo 1962) digs (decidedly showcased with fan-boy precision in the season-opener's first five minutes) are small, without any kind of notion of the firm's lions' storied past.
Missing: trophy art and a bullpen of secretaries and also-rans. The new cave of the forgotten scions of Madison Ave., starting with Draper's office and ending with a semi circle of the Big Dogs' chairs and no table, bears no passing resemblance - liquor cart notwithstanding - to a modern glass and steel cage and all of its buttoned-up trappings (see: carefully crafted lies) of the first three seasons.
It is all in the present for the truth-telling/seeking Tiny Draper (present = 1964 - yes, a whole year's gone by since Season III faded black).
For the viewer, the ultimate sigh of relief, moving on from the forced innocence and pedantic time of shell games, false identities and general malaise garnished with mistrust beneath the veneer of consumption, cocktails and the joke of security. Oh, it was a slow, satisfying sip of single-malt but its melt long overdue.
SCDP occupies one floor (first floor, no views) in Midtown (with a myth of a second floor - the season's first running joke), no conference table (or place for one); metal doors instead of oak and, well, an office for Joan and a makeover for Peggy - nice touch.
The real-life legend of creator Matt Weiner grew incongruously to Draper in the show's offseason. Weiner, erstwhile Sopranos Wunderkind, was the subject of more think pieces in the show's brief hiatus than our current Nobel Prize-winning president.
The significance of Mad Men's place in the zeitgeist, from a line of suits at Brooks Brothers, to the 20-somethings embracing, once again, the art of being dressed (juxtaposed with Dad's Steve Jobs jeans and mock-t model) also flourished; the show in Season IV remains implicitly important because these are, after all/yet again, history-defying, ego-stripping times of upheaval and uncertainty.
Weiner's narrative of yesterday becomes our shrinking tome today (right? Doesn't it?)
...And his narrative arc swings so soundly to portend the future of not only the 'modern' agency (think of SCDP and its bare-bones mentality and take-on-the-big-guys sensibility as the very purposeful precursor to Weiden + Kennedy, McCann Erickson and Waggener Edstrom) though Don himself might find his career shelf life similarly withering within the next eight years regardless of SCDP's success or failure.
Knowing Draper's ultimate fate (baldness, blandness, obsolescence) only deepens our current fears.
You know, the one-out-of-five-jobs-being-'lost'-and-never-coming-back, devaluation of education and general corporate take-over to the detriment of government offloading, finally, the last of the middle class into the dustpan of history with it. His uncertain future gives us some solace.
If a man of Don's stature - in other words - can fade in less than a decade, than the rest of us have an excuse, at least.
Then there's Betty.
Betty is remarried to Henry - the arrangement suits her poorly and she seems even more detached and prosaic than ever.
One would assume Weiner is lovingly setting up Betty for a massive Three Mile Island-sized meltdown sometime in the next season and a half.
Don, meantime, gets his mojo back when confronting Betty and Henry at the leftover/hangover end of a long Thanksgiving weekend where the broken-home Boomer kids are batted around like Monopoly pieces vacuumed up from the carpet.
Prior to his appearance in his former lair, dog by his side, Don hires a hooker to slap him, puts the full-court press on an eager 25-year-old (ex-gymnast, current failed actress) who, indeed, is also smaller than Betty ...and even spots Peggy a fistful of $20s on Thanksgiving morning for a publicity stunt gone awry. Not a bad day's work for a man in flux.
Don also zings Henry in a way all men who have been replaced by a newer, inferior model should, setting up for Betty & Don's ultimate reunion (see: post-meltdown).
Skeletons are out but neither has demons fully exorcised, that you can see in Betty's Stepford posture and Don's so-on-it's-scary demeanor in the opening ep.'s final scene: cloying and brackish grabbing the mantle once more by recounting to a WSJ reporter how, during the purported best of times, he demanded he and his team be fired - released into a brighter, less-certain tomorrow.
His ego, unshrunk. Which plants a seedling of hope Tiny Don may grow.