As the fourth season of AMC's "Mad Men" opens, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) faces a familiar question, one he's long avoided answering: Who is Don Draper?
It has been 11 months since Don led the Sterling Cooper revolt, creating a new ad agency with Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) and Brit Lane Pryce (Jared Harris). The season premiere opens as Don submits to an interview with Ad Age magazine, where he faces that tricky question, which may suggest the new season's theme.
"If the roles we play define us, what happens when they're stripped away? Who are we then, and who do we become?" says series creator Matthew Weiner, who wrote Sunday's episode (10 p.m.).
In many ways this return to the "Mad Men" universe, set a year later (somewhere around November 1964), strikes familiar notes. Don continues to berate his smartest employee, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), although she's grown more confident and willing to speak her mind. Betty (January Jones) continues to showcase characteristically poor mothering skills, particularly with daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka).
But change is also evident.
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has new digs that look more mid-1960s -- check out the suggestive, oversized paperweights on Roger's desk -- and Don's relationship with estranged wife Betty takes more quarrelsome turns.
The episode, titled "Public Relations," focuses on the growing pains of a new agency, problems complicated by a hot-headed leader who suffers few fools.
It's reassuring to see favorite characters back on the job, most notably Joan (Christina Hendricks), who left Sterling Cooper midway through last season only to return to help launch this startup agency.
Television department head Harry (Rich Sommer) made the jump to SCDP, too, but Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) is nowhere to be seen, and Mr. Gladis is not listed among the show's cast. The same goes for departed art director Salvatore Romano (Bryan Batt). Ken (Aaron Staton) continues as a series regular, but he does not appear in the premiere.
Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) takes on a more integral role in the new agency, working closely with Peggy, who has made some advances in her personal life and has developed a friendly bond with a new co-worker, Joey (Matt Long, "Jack & Bobby").
With the Don and Betty story front and center, Mr. Weiner delves into another piece of social history that became more prevalent in the 1960s: the growing divorce rate.
"That's what's become of this country," bemoans a family matriarch over turkey dinner. "Everyone has two Thanksgivings to go to."
Don and Betty's interaction with their children is not much different: Don ignores the kids while working (using TV as a baby sitter); Betty seems annoyed to look after them, eagerly pawning off the baby to enjoy an unencumbered date night with Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley).
As in the past, "Mad Men" continues to plant "momentary red herrings," suggesting briefly that something might be terribly wrong before easing into a less drastic resolution.
Mr. Weiner also seems to be steeling himself for a more critical backlash. At one point, Don complains about his own media coverage, noting, "They raise you up and they knock you down."
Viewers who cringe at pathos may miss the occasionally lighter tone of earlier "Mad Men" seasons. The characters at SCDP face more pressure than ever in their fledgling firm; their livelihoods are now at stake. Couple that with the divorce plot -- especially seeing what Don's up to in his post-divorce apartment -- and "Mad Men" might seem a tad downbeat.
But these are the circumstances the characters find themselves in. Besides, at this point in a series' run, most viewers are tuning in for the character stories, where some grace and positivity still pop up.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.