“Mad Men” returns tonight, and while a few details have escaped series creator Matthew Weiner’s cone of silence — that Betty Francis, formerly Draper, will not appear in the two-hour opener, and that one of this year’s themes, as in every year, is how the characters adjust or fail to adjust to the changing times — little else is known about the upcoming season, not even how much time has passed for the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce crew. Fortunately, the show packs a great deal into its opening sequences, so we can assume tonight’s “A Little Kiss” will drop us right into the action. Here’s a look at the scenes with which the past four seasons started:
Season 1: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
Music: Don Cherry’s “Band of Gold”
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” opens with an explanatory card, noting the origins of its phrase: “A term coined in the later 1950’s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue. They coined it.” It’s one of the few moments of explicit context in a show that otherwise prefers to let history play out in the background as a kind of guideline. We’re dropped into a crowded bar through which the camera glides before settling on Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sitting in a booth, scribbling on a napkin. We first glimpse Don in what will be established as the signature shot for the show’s enigmatic protagonist — of the back of his head. Getting a light from Sam, his African-American waiter, he notices the man smokes Old Golds and queries him about why he chose the brand.
This scene is piled with period details — the cigarettes and cocktails in which Don’s indulging, the casual racism of Sam’s boss interrupting to ask if the man is bothering Don before Sam says a word, the mention of the war. It’s a sequence that aggressively establishes the different mores of the era, most of all through the prominence of smoking. A slow pan through the bar from Don’s point of view after his talk with the waiter reveals that everyone’s got a cigarette in hand, and we’re soon to learn that Sterling Cooper’s working on a new campaign for Lucky Strike, an account with which they’ll have a complicated history. The scene also establishes the remove with which Don leads his life — he’s at the bar, drinking and smoking like everyone else, but he’s an observer, using the behavior of everyone around him as fodder for his work.
Season 2: “For Those Who Think Young”
Music: Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again”
“For Those Who Think Young” starts with a rousing montage of Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Pete Campell (Vincent Kartheiser) getting ready in front of their mirrors (“Now you’re looking good,” Checker sings), putting on their dresses, perfume and cufflinks like they’re armoring up for battle. When we get to Don, however, he’s getting undressed, shucking the businesswear that’s his daily uniform at the doctor’s office where he’s due for an encounter with mortality by way of a checkup. As a counter to the blissful excesses with which season one opened, here we see Don getting warned about how much he drinks (he admits to five a day, which still seems low) and smokes and how high his blood pressure is by a doctor who says, ominously, “It’ll hit you all at once.”
Of course, this is still 1962, and the doc prescribes some nice barbiturates to help Don relax and also suggests he “buy a boat” as a way of dealing with the stress of work, and the nurse who weighs Don in observes flirtatiously that “you’re a big one!” Age and lifestyle are starting to become a concern for our hero, though he insists to the physician that he feels fine, a denial the closed-off Don offers to almost everyone in his life.
We also see, in that opening montage, that Betty’s taken up horse riding, which will shape her storyline in the season, and that they’ve put a lock on Don’s office. Considering all of the non-business appropriate things that go down in there, it’s about time.
Season 3: “Out of Town”
Music: Instrumental score
“Out of Town” opens with Don in the grips of a memory, or maybe more of a vision. He’s up in his pajamas and robe with a cigarette in the middle of the night warming milk for the now heavily pregnant Betty, who’s been kept up by the baby. And half-asleep in the kitchen, his thoughts about the secret past that he’s sought to escape bleed through into his reality, and we see his stepmother insisting she get a look at the stillborn daughter to which she just gave birth, and his father snarling “so you killed another one.” We see the man negotiating with Don’s mother, a young prostitute, over not being able to afford the extra quarter for a condom, and her threat to “cut your dick off and boil it in hog fat” should she end up pregnant. She repeats the threat (giving Don his birth name) even as she dies after having the resulting baby, who the midwife brings to Don’s stepmother, insisting “I told you God would give you a child.”
We’ve already seen how Don Draper came to be in the first season, but this is Dick Whitman’s origin story, a sad glimpse of an infant unwanted by everyone involved, reinacted miles and years away in Don’s comfortable Ossining home. And yet, these aren’t actual memories — Don wasn’t around to witness half of these revelations, and was an oblivious newborn for the rest. Whether things actually unfolded this way and were related to him by his abusive dad or resentful stepparent, or this is just how he imagines them, details like his mother’s fee his own invention, remains an open questions. It’s a sequence of events that obviously still haunts him in his vulnerable moments (which speaks to how few of those he allows himself in front of other people) — so much so that, lost in his reverie, he scalds the milk.
Season 4: “Public Relations”
“Who is Don Draper?” is the line that opens “Public Relations,” such a bald restating of one of the favorite themes of “Mad Men” that Don himself is taken aback, asking how people typically respond to a question like that. It’s an interviewer’s question, one you’d use to fish for a good quote, and Don’s in fact being interviewed by a reporter from Ad Age who’s taking notes in shorthand. He’s researching for a profile piece on Don, and we see that in the four years that have passed in the universe of the show Don’s gotten no better at opening up to people or at understanding why anyone would want to do such a thing.
“As I said before, I’m from the Midwest,” he says. “We were taught that it’s not polite to talk about yourself” — surely the most maddening thing a reporter assigned to write about someone can hear, and also an indication that Don, who’s old-fashioned in his desire to avoid PR and publicity stunts and to just let his work speak, still has things to learn about selling himself. The piece that results from this meeting foreshadows the “Jerry Maguire”-style letter Don will have published in the New York Times at the end of season, demonstrating that he, too, can change. We also get a mention of the Glo-Coat campaign on which Sterling Cooper is riding high, an idea we’ll later learn that Peggy originated, though naturally it’s Don, as the company’s creative head, who gets the credit.
As opposed to the dark, cluttered bar that opened the series, the restaurant in which the pair sit is airy and open and dominated by large windows, though Don is still smoking and enjoying a midday drink. Roger Sterling (John Slattery), when he arrives with Pete, tries to clear a minute for “one quick pop,” while also sparing time for a crack about the reporter’s war injury and prosthetic leg. He won’t prove so jolly in a later episode when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce pursues the business of Japanese company Honda and he shows how many resentments he still bears from World War II. Change may come to everyone, but that doesn’t mean they won’t resist it.