Here Comes Season 4 of Mad Men -- What Will Don Draper Do Without His Wedding Ring?

AMC's 'Mad Men' starts this weekend. Will Don Draper finally pursue the kind of relationship that makes him happy, and what about Betty Draper's remarriage?

At the end of season three of the AMC TV series "Mad Men," most of the main characters were closing out 1963 by starting a new phase of their lives as the nation watched the dream of Camelot die. Most of the characters, unwilling to go along with the sale of Sterling Cooper to McCann Erickson, decamped to a hotel room to start a new agency named Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The tumultuous Draper marriage came to its end with Betty Draper, baby in arms and new man by her side, flying to Reno for a quickie divorce. The first three seasons can be viewed, in retrospect, as a meditative farewell to the 1950s, an era that dragged on and badly needed to end, much like the Draper marriage.

Shop ▾

The finale of season three signaled a shift in the world of "Mad Men." Viewers have no doubt that when the curtain comes up, the advertising industry players will find themselves living in the nascent days of the Swinging Sixties of our collective imagination: miniskirts, the British Invasion, the birth control pill, desegregation, and of course, the creative explosion in advertising. But trust in the writers that as the hopefulness of the 1960s ground into despair by the end of the decade, so will our beloved characters find darkness on their personal horizons.

What can we expect in season four?

Sexy Don Draper without a wedding ring and with a Manhattan apartment. Draper's charming attraction to clever, ambitious women has always been offset by the ugly realities of his infidelities and casual cruelties to his wife Betty. Without his marriage holding him back, will Don finally pursue the kind of relationship that makes him happy? 

Not likely. For Don, clever women have always been a fantasy of escape, not a realistic option for commitment. He may have changed agencies, but Don won't be able to break out of his personal habits so easily. Knowing he had Betty at home always gave Don more confidence as a ladies man; we saw a glimpse of his slightly insecure self when cast in the role of seducing his own wife on their trip to Rome. The slightly mysterious air to Don evaporated with his marriage, and the Don who's left will almost surely drift about, unsure of what to do next.

Remarried Betty Draper. Slate published a lovely article and slide show documenting the real life examples of the journey that Betty was last seen heading toward on a plane. Like many Reno divorcees, Betty will get her six-minute divorce and walk across the courthouse to marry husband number two. As the rest of the characters rush toward the new sexual landscape of the 1960s, Betty will find herself on the hamster wheel of marriage, trading one husband for another but stuck in the same kind of marriage. It wouldn't be surprising to see her character eased out of the show. If not, the writers would be wise to show Betty grow increasingly bitter and hardened, and react with jealous anger at the burgeoning movement of liberated women, representing the kind of housewife anger that was later harnessed by Phyllis Schlafly and the Moral Majority to halt feminist progress.

Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Will they succeed? If they do, it will be because Don begged his youthful colleagues Peggy and Pete to come along with him. As I wrote last year, the 1960s was an era where advertising not only borrowed from the youth culture, but also worked to create it, turning the "counterculture" from a genuinely subversive threat to a corporate cash cow. Season four will show Peggy and Pete tapping into the zeitgeist, creating ad campaigns that embody feelings of liberation, rebellion and ironic humor, all to sell the public on the same old cars and cigarettes.

A new Pete Campbell. At the end of season four, we saw Pete come to the quiet realization that he was becoming a meaner version of his older male colleagues he alternately worships and despises. Going in to season four, Pete is the biggest question mark. His creative thinking and best urges are often stymied by the blindness brought on by his privileged upbringing. He wants to be smarter, more adventurous and a better husband. But his worst instincts still have a grip on him. He could be the Kennedy voter who grows sour and votes for Nixon. Or he could make a break with the past and really become a man of the '60s.

Peggy Olson, budding feminist. If Pete is the most unpredictable character going into season four, Peggy is the most predictable--she chases her ambitions in advertising with a single-mindedness even Don Draper has to envy. But it doesn't make her one whit less intriguing. She's a gifted copywriter because she grasps intuitively the competing whims of the new American woman, the desire both to be liberated and to be comforted, to be a sex object and to be taken seriously, the gushing wish to have it all without even know what "it" is. Peggy doesn't have second-wave feminism as a tool to analyze these competing desires. But she will continue down her path of being the woman who made second-wave feminism possible, and not just because she has sexism to fight in the workplace. Hopefully, the writers will show her creating women-oriented campaigns that express the desire for something more, a desire that would grow political and feminist by the end of the decade.

It's easy to be glib and assume that many Americans will tune in to the season premiere Sunday night to see the lovingly recreated colorful and innovative design and fashion of the 1960s. But "Mad Men," more than almost any other narrative before it, illustrates the massive cultural changes of the era, from the breakdown of the social contract to the workaday feminism to the cheeky turn in pop culture. We still grapple with the fallout of those changes to this day, and we watch "Mad Men" not just for the fashion, but because we feel, as we watch it, that we're a little closer to understanding why the 1960s still loom so large in our imaginations.