First things first: Mad Men is as gorgeously art directed as ever. It’s dark and lush, the perfect sort of ice-cold warmth, all gray-flannel suits and cigarette smoke, paneled walls and frosted glass, harvest gold sweaters and sofas the orange-red of french burnt peanuts. The weight of the color borders on oppressive–to the point that, when media director Harry Crane arrives midway through the episode, fresh from a trip from California, sunburned and wearing light gray slacks and an almost aggressively drab olive-green sport coat, the effect is comical. That’s really all it takes to make you a buffoon in the world of Mad Men: a little color in your cheeks and a jacket that doesn’t match your pants.

The comic relief is welcome. The opening episode of Season 4 of Mad Men isn’t entirely grim. Far from it; a major subplot involves Peggy’s scheme to goose the Sugarberry Ham business, which includes a couple of less-than-cooperative actresses fighting over a canned ham in a grocery store. It’s the show’s funniest bit since the account executive from London lost his foot in a lawnmower accident–or, perhaps, since Freddy Rumson wet himself out of a job. Which, in itself, says a lot about even the humor of Mad Men. It’s pretty dark.

But dark is Don Draper’s milieu. The first lines of the new season set the tone: “Who is Don Draper?” asks a reporter from Advertising Age who’s interviewing our antihero, and Don is at a loss for words. You can practically see the wheels in his head grinding to a halt; you wonder, when he ultimately responds, whether it’s Draper or Dick Whitman who’s doing the talking. Don blows the interview. Instead of parlaying his breakthrough campaign for Glo-Coat into great PR for his new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, he comes off as a dislikable enigma. Bert Cooper pulls no punches. “Turning creative success into business is your work. And you’ve failed,” Cooper says.

Cooper has reason to fret. The Sugarberry Ham account is going down the crapper. The jai alai business is gone. Pryce reminds everyone that “Lucky Strike is now 71 percent of our business.” The creative hot shop is trying to make it on a dying cigarette brand–and its best new prospect, Jantzen, is run by a couple of prudes who aren’t likely to warm to Don’s brand of provocative advertising. Things are tough all over.

They aren’t much better on the home front. Season 4 begins a year after Season 3 ended. Don and Betty are divorced. He’s living in a dark (naturally), Spartan apartment; she’s already remarried, to politico Henry Francis, and overstaying her welcome in the Drapers’ broken Ossining home. The kids are a mess; Bobby’s in denial, and Sally’s a handful of resentment. Both are, as Henry’s mother points out, “terrified” of Betty–and headed for a lifetime of therapy.

Don, meanwhile, would rather spend Thanksgiving paying to be smacked around by a call girl than dining at Roger’s with an intriguing fix-up: Bethany, a friend of Roger Sterling’s wife Jane. Bethany is smart and engaging and taken with Don. We’ve certainly not seen the last of her.

As Roger, John Slattery still gets all the good lines (“You hit it off, and, come Turkey Day, maybe you can stuff her.”) Peggy has grown into her role as a copywriter; she’s mature and confident and delivers a stinging little rebuke on her way out of Don’s office that appears, more than anything, to be the barb that gets the “who is Don Draper?” synapses firing again. By the end of the episode, Don doing is best to turn around his public relations faux pas. His mask is firmly in place. Dick Whitman and all of his private relations are safe for another week.

As always, the question with Man Men is, “in service of what?” Is this one of those dense, Cheeveresque short stories that can stand outside the series and be enjoyed in its own right, or does it move the larger story forward? The answer is, yes. “Public Relations” keeps unraveling old plot threads and teases out a couple of new ones. But the real accomplishment of the show is the way most episodes are actually about something–in this case, the faces we wear, or refuse to wear, to get what we want. Which depends on what we want, of course: creative integrity or the Jantzen account? The approval of New Daddy or making Old Mommy look bad? Dick Whitman’s dark past or Don Draper’s bright future? And what happens when the answer to your either/or questions is also “yes”?

That’s just good writing, folks. It’s what raises Mad Men high above the level of your average soap opera. Yes, it’s beautiful. But if you think it’s all about the art direction, you’re not paying attention.

And now…a scene from Episode 2,  “Christmas Comes But Once A Year”: