At 9 p.m., millions of Americans will gather around their cathode ray tube TV sets in smoke-filled living rooms to watch the Season 5 premiere of Mad Men, AMC's brilliant drama about the 1960s advertising world. What's that you say? You haven't seen a single episode, but really have been meaning to? Fear not, for we have managed to condense the first four seasons into one, succinct, Cliff's Notes-caliber synopsis. Now wait are you waiting for? The clock is ticking!
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1960, Manhattan. Don Draper is a dashing creative director at Sterling Cooper ad agency, whose biggest account is Lucky Strike cigarettes. He has a wife, Betty, at home in the suburbs, but gets some on the side from Midge, his artist mistress. Betty is cluelessly raising their two kids, Sally and Bobby. Peggy is a new secretary at work who is shown the ropes by Joan, a curvy firecracker who runs the show. Pete is an ambitious young exec who is instantly smitten with Peggy, despite being engaged to Trudy. Don has an affair with Rachel, a Jewish department store heiress. Pete ends up sleeping with Peggy on his office couch. Ken, Paul and Harry are junior execs who treat women badly. Sal, the art director, is a closeted gay man. Everyone hates Ken when his short story is published in -- yes! -- The Atlantic Monthly. Peggy shows when she refers to a trashcan of lipstick-smeared Kleenex as a “basket of kisses.” Freddy, an old-school copy guy with a drinking problem, has her put on the account. Bert and Roger, the two partners of the firm, want to throw their support behind the Nixon campaign. Roger is married to Mona and has a daughter named Margaret, but has been carrying on an affair with Joan for years. Bert makes Don a partner. Don brings in Duck to head up accounts. Pete confronts Don about his secret past: He’s actually Dick Whitman, and fake-Don swapped tags with real-Don’s charred remains in Korea to escape the war. Bert doesn’t care. Peggy gets promoted. Don won’t go to Thanksgiving. Don pitches brilliantly to Kodak for their Carousel. Peggy finds out she’s pregnant, delivers, and turns her head when presented with her baby.
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February 14, 1962. Trudy wants a baby but can’t have one. Paul has an African-American girlfriend. Pete’s dad dies in an American Airles crash. Jimmy is an insult comic starring in an Utz chips campaign. Jimmy’s wife Bobbie is hot for Don. Barrett insults Mrs. Utz. Don digitally stimulates Bobbie in the restaurant powder room. Father Gill is a priest who befriends Peggy. Joan gets engaged to a doctor. Don and Betty have a drunken car wreck on the way to have sex on a beach. Bobbie recovers at Peggy’s house. Don ties Bobbie to a hotel bed when she says she’s been gossipping about his sexual prowess. Jimmy tells Betty about Don and Bobbie. Freddy pees his pants and is fired. Don punches Jimmy at the afterhours club. Don and Pete go to California and Don has an affair with a jetsetter named Joy. Roger decides to divorce his wife and marry Jane, Don’s hot secretary who Joan fired but Roger re-hired. Don visits the real Mrs. Draper and they bond. Joan’s fiance Greg rapes her on Don’s office floor. Sterling Cooper agrees to a buyout by a British firm. Betty becomes pregnant as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds. Betty sleeps with another man. Peggy reveals to Pete she gave his child up for adoption.
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Early 1963. Lane is the new CFO, and he’s very British and uptight. Don and Sal go to Baltimore on business and Don gets wise to Sal and the bellhop. Pepsi wants an ad just like Bye Bye Birdie for Patio, a diet cola. Betty’s dad moves back in, and has mild dementia. No one likes Roger’s new wife Jane, and so the throws a big country club party, where he performs in blackface. Betty meets Henry there, an aide to Nelson Rockefeller, and the two are smitten. Sal does a dance for his wife and she realizes he’s gay. Duck, now at Grey, tries to lure Peggy and Pete away. Pete tries to sell Admiral Televisions to the African-American market, and pisses everyone off. Betty gives birth. Ken shows up at the office on a John Deere riding mower. A secretary loses control of it and runs over the foot of a British hotshot brought in to take over the company. Joan left the company thinking Greg was becoming Chief Resident, but he is passed over, forcing her to take a job at a department store returns counter. Don is contacted by a guy he met at the country club party who it turns out is Conrad Hilton. Connie wants Don to sign a contract, Don refuses. Henry kisses Betty. Lee, the Lucky Strike scion, tries to have sex with Sal in the editing room, and is rebuffed, leading to Sal getting fired from the firm. Don starts sleeping with Sally’s teacher, Suzanne. Betty unlocks Don’s drawer and finds a box proving he’s actually Dick. She confronts him and demands a divorce. JFK is shot and killed the day before Roger’s daughter’s wedding. Sterling Cooper is up for sale, Connie tells Don. Don, Roger, Bert and Lane concoct a plan to get themselves fired, then steal all the files to start up a new firm. They bring Joan along, and Peggy, and Pete, who they make partner. Betty and Henry fly to Reno for a quick divorce. Don relents and moves into a small apartment in the West Village.
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Fall 1964. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is in a new building, and looking for clients. Don screws up an Ad Age interview by being too aloof. Don dates Jane’s friend Bethany, who doesn’t put out. Sally befriends Glen, a boy next door who Betty once gave a lock of her hair to, angering Glen’s mom. Freddy is hired because he brings along the Pond’s account. Dr. Faye is a researcher. Lee humilates Don at the Christmas party. Don sleeps with his secretary Allison, then is horrible to her the next day. Don goes to California because Anna is dying of cancer. Don and Lane spend New Year’s Eve getting drunk on the town, and hire hookers to cap it off. Pete convinces his father-in-law to give him the Vicks account. Trudy gets pregnant. Allison sobs during a Dr. Faye interview, then throws a paperweight at Don and storms out. Ida, an old, senile woman, is put on Don’s desk. Ted, Don’s rival, taunts him. Roger screams at the Honda executives, then Pete screams at Roger. Sally cuts off her hair and is caught masturbating, and sees a psychiatrist. Don wins a Clio for a Glo Coat commercial, which was Peggy’s idea. Stan, an obnoxious new art director, has a strip-off with Peggy. Peggy stays in the office on her birthday and has it out with Don, while her family waits at a restaurant with Mark, her boyfriend. Don pukes, Duck tries to poop on Roger’s chair, then punches Don. The next morning, Don finds out Anna died. The new hires are mean to Joan, and Peggy fires one, but Joan is angry about that. Ida dies. Joan gets pregnant with Roger’s baby after the two have post-mugging sex in an alley. Don is investigated by the government, but they don’t find out, with Pete’s help. Lucky Strike fires the firm, and all hell breaks loose. Trudy has the baby. Everyone freaks out. Don takes out a full-page ad in The New York Times saying the firm will never take on a tobacco account again. Everyone freaks out more. Betty fires Carla, the kids’ longtime nanny, and Don asks Megan, the beautiful receptionist, to come along on a trip to California. He proposes to her, then tells the office when they get back. Everyone is shocked.
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[With thanks to AMC.com, and plot-condensing champion Tim Surette of TV.com, who crushed a season's worth of Game of Thrones into one sentence.]