TV

'Mad Men' keeps us on the edge of our couches without mayhem

The Mad Men cast, from left: Robert Morse as Bertram Cooper (seated), Jared Harris as Lane Pryce, John Slattery as Roger Sterling, January Jones as Betty Draper, Jon Hamm as Don Draper,  Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell, Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, Christina Hendricks as Joan, Aaron Staton as Ken and Rich Sommer as Harry. The show's fourth season begins Sunday.
The Mad Men cast, from left: Robert Morse as Bertram Cooper (seated), Jared Harris as Lane Pryce, John Slattery as Roger Sterling, January Jones as Betty Draper, Jon Hamm as Don Draper, Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell, Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, Christina Hendricks as Joan, Aaron Staton as Ken and Rich Sommer as Harry. The show's fourth season begins Sunday.

Killing people on television is all the rage. Whether it's via stunning accident or premeditated mayhem, shows routinely snuff out characters to send shock waves through our couch-bound bodies. They want to make us feel.

AMC's Mad Men doesn't play that game. It dwells in the sedate 1960s glory days of Madison Avenue, not the back alleys of Tony Soprano's New Jersey. The bloodiest thing to ever happen on Mad Men was last season's freakish office mishap that saw some poor sap lose his foot to a runaway tractor.

The violence in Mad Men is emotional — and effective. Watching the turbulent marriage of Don and Betty Draper (Jon Hamm and January Jones) implode during the show's outstanding season three finale was as harrowing as a Soprano whack job. So harrowing, in fact, that we've needed all year to recover.

Now, as the critically adored drama returns, on Sunday night, Don and Betty have their freedom from a sham of a marriage — but at what price? Meanwhile, on the work front, our dapper ad man is struggling mightily to put some oomph into his risky start-up agency after he and a few companions declared their independence from the Brits.

Last season, Mad Men stagnated at times, with plot lines that seemed to run in place. In stark contrast, tonight's opening episode, "Public Relations," delivers some jaw-dropping moments. But because we've been coerced by Matthew Weiner's AMC henchmen to avoid being spoilsports, we won't go there.

It's safe to say, though, that as season four unfolds, Don is clearly out of sorts — and prone to un-Don-like behavior. It's understandable considering that this is a man who methodically constructed a glossy identity for himself only to see it dramatically obliterated.

Still, it's significant that Don is fighting to retain any remnant of that identity. When agency cohort Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) describes their new company as "the scrappy upstart," he looks at him incredulously and replies, "You don't say that to the clients, do you?"

If Mad Man has taught us anything over four years, it's that image is everything.

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