A New Start for “Mad Men”

Reinvention, in life and advertising, are on tap as show enters brave, new world of mid-1960s

Kris Kristofferson didn't write the lyric, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" until the 1960s were nearly over.

But the line, even with its hippie connotations, seems appropriate when contemplating Sunday’s return of "Mad Men," with the clock set at 1965. The once-conformist characters are charting new, nothing-to-lose courses amid personal and professional turbulence – and a storm blown in by times that are a-changin’.

For most of the first three seasons, the highly stylized AMC drama felt almost like an extension of the 1950s with its man's-world, gray-flannel-suit ethos. But the characters' unspoken unease and secrets simmered just below the buttoned-up exterior – the collective, nagging unrest finally boiling over with the JFK assassination near the end of last season.

Don Draper, the ad and image wizard with a buried past, could no longer control the world he created – losing his proto-Stepford Wife to her own awakening of ambition and his workplace to corporate maneuvering.

So we enter Season 4 with Draper, who started life as a dirt-kicking, emotionally stunted farm boy named Dick Whitman, having to reinvent himself yet again.

You could say the same for “Mad Men.”

There’s a new firm, with Draper, Roger Cooper, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell and Joan Holloway running the show. 

But what are they selling? And who's going to buy it?

One of the most brilliant moments in “Mad Men” history came with Draper’s Season One-ending “Carousel” speech in which he pitches Kodak executives on an ad campaign for their revolving slide projector, painting it as an experience bathed in nostalgia. “This device isn’t a spaceship – it’s a time machine... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”  But nostalgia, Draper notes, “literally means pain from an old wound.”

In 1965,  “Mad Men” – and the country – are entering an era where nothing is black and white anymore, color is shifting toward the psychedelic and old-fashioned Kodak moments are few.

With scenes like the “Carousel” speech, "Mad Men" built the hype it somehow lived up to in Season Two. The show then managed to pull off its most compelling season last year.

That's a tribute to the vision of creator Matthew Weiner, who previously helped bring us "The Sopranos." He knows from his mob days that keeping the story moving is crucial.

New situations and characters are important elements, but the “Mad Men” arc is most closely tethered close to its setting – which Weiner, who was born in 1965, realizes is about a lot more than nostalgia.

We have a pretty good idea of what the year will bring in terms of social and cultural upheaval, but not the impact on Draper and Co.

Which is why, like Kristofferson and his Bobby McGee, we're glad to be along for the ride, wherever it might take us.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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