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'Mad Men' Season 4: Getting past 'Baltimore Problem'

Call it the "Baltimore Problem." And let's deal with it once and for all, so we can get down to the happier business of enjoying the fourth season opener tonight of "Mad Men," AMC's celebrated and style-setting series about life on Madison Avenue in the 1960s.

Last year, "Mad Men" opened with leading character Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and one of his ad agency associates taking a business trip to Baltimore.

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Like many critics, I had praised the series for its rich period detail through the first two seasons. But what I saw in the Baltimore episode wasn't so pretty, particularly in the depiction of Jonathan Myers, the former president and CEO of London Fog, and his father, Israel Myers, who founded the firm known for its raincoats. They were so misrepresented, according to Jonathan Myers, that I felt as if Weiner had in a way misappropriated their very identity — a little like the series back story of Draper stealing the identity of a dead soldier in the war. Other episodes and other details have fallen under similar scrutiny in publications like The New York Times and Playboy.

Understanding that back story is absolutely necessary to appreciate how terrific I think tonight's season opener is. It's so powerful and perfectly centered back on its story-telling track that I don't care anymore if Weiner accurately portrays reaction to the Cuban missile crisis, the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, the crunch of Utz potato chips or why London Fog raincoats swept the nation.

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At the end of tonight's hour, as the first few bars of a driving version of "Tobacco Road" started to play over the closing credits, I literally jumped out of my seat and screamed "yeeeeessssss!"

Titled "Public Relations," the episode, which sets the season in 1964, reminded me of this fundamental truth: The dramatic power and rich cultural resonance of "Mad Men" does not come from its attention to wardrobe details, current events, pop culture imagery or true social history of the 1960s — as much as other analysts and I have said they do.

No, the incredible story-telling energy of this series comes from the dark journey of Draper, its hard-drinking, chain-smoking, sexually addicted, inscrutable central character. With this attractive but monumentally troubled self-made man, Weiner has given TV viewers a character worthy of almost any in American literature in his complexity and perfect embodiment of cultural contradictions and aspirations. I'll take him over Jay Gatsby any day of that week, at any rate, and that puts Weiner in some pretty good creative company.

Those who are hyper-sensitive to spoilers might want to tune out here. In fact, I encourage you to, as I briefly describe how the opening episode of Season 4 puts the ball perfectly back in Draper's court by stripping him down to the bone, forcing the man in the Brooks Brothers suit to reinvent himself once again personally and professionally.

The personal arc is pretty bleak — with Draper living alone in a dreary apartment, sleeping some nights on the couch in his office at the new ad agency he helped found. On Thanksgiving, when most Americans are enjoying home, hearth and family, he's paying a prostitute for companionship. Or, try to imagine Don reduced to trying to cop a kiss and, maybe, a feel in the back seat of a cab with a young woman who lives at the female-only Barbizon Hotel.

Professionally, business at the new agency that is built around Draper's talents as creative director starts heading south after an interview with him appears in a major trade publication. Things only get worse on that front until the ad executive's back is dead against the wall — and he goes on the offensive and starts spinning a new narrative of re-invention, remaking himself once again.

The final scene is a moment of pure TV story-telling mastery straight through to the sounding of "Tobacco Road." And you can feel the surge of energy it releases in Draper's psyche — and the series — practically radiating off the screen.

In 1964, the year the series is now set, The Nashville Teens did have a hit with a pop version of John D. Loudermilk's darker and folksier "Tobacco Road." And the care in the selection and editing of this series is such that the downbeat for the start of that song hits at the precise moment of transformation in the narrative that Draper is spinning on-screen.

And are the words of "Tobacco Road" not an anthem of the self-made man?

"I was born in a trunk / Momma died, daddy got drunk… Grew up, rusty shack / All I had is hangin' on my back."

It's a Southern version of Draper's sparse Midwestern childhood, with echoes sounded all the way back to Erskine Caldwell's Depression-era epic of hardscrabble sharecropper life.

Weiner has played loose with social history and lives of some of the people who lived and shaped the 1960s — no doubt about it. And, honestly, I think the Baltimore Problem last season turned me off the series to the point where I watched it only as a critic and not as a fan any longer.

But the excellence of tonight's hour and the way it re-energizes the Draper story line reminds me of something I myself once said: It is not the details of a bygone era that transport me to another place when I watch a series that reaches as high as "Mad Men" does. It's the art, drama, style and symbolism of the lives of characters like Draper who come to stand for such an important part of our collective history and national psyche. That's where the transcendence comes from – and that's where the focus of "Mad Men" has returned.

I'm back in the fold, as a critic and as a fan.

I hope you'll stop back Sunday night after the show to share your thoughts about the star of Season 4.

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