26
Jul
2010
Mad Men: Season 4, Episode 1
Public Relations
Jordan
Its November of 1964, which means just under a year has passed since the climactic events of "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" and "Public Relations" opens up with the question that hangs over pretty much every episode of this series in one way or another: "Who is Don Draper?" Is he a married man from the Midwest with two kids and a distaste for talking about himself? That's how he puts himself forward in the interview with Advertising Age that opens the season, and yet we, much like the interviewer, know that this is a shield he has put up to keep the world from getting in.

Don Draper is a man in upheaval. Working at the head of a new agency where its admitted that everyone came to work in large part for him, Don is a man at the cutting edge of his field. The offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Price (or SCDP as a sign behind its front desk calls it) reek of newness and promise, and the staff within is largely young, witty, and committed. Don knows that he has command of this new office in a way he never did at Sterling Cooper, and he seems to be using that power to truly drive the organization he is working in. The Don of yesteryear resisted contracts and lived life in a way he would feel comfortable abandoning in order to protect his hard won freedom; the Don Draper he has become chooses instead to use his (forgive the pun) agency within the new agency to make it truly his own. Rather than remaining free by staying untethered, this Don wants to preserve his freedom by exerting control over his life. When Jantzen, a bathing suit company who wants to sell bikinis but maintain a wholesome image, rejects his entendre-laden campaign, instead of making the hard sell, Don rejects them. In this new company, Don has the power to decide what type of organization he is working in, and he wants SCDP to look forward, not backward.

Don Draper is a man of contradictions. When he leaves his shiny new office every night, he retreats to a bachelor pad furnished with antiques; Don, it seems, likes he private life the way he likes his liquor: old fashioned. We have seen Don deal with this crisis before as he has been torn between the traditional way of doing things that part of him treasures and the new way forward that his freedom craving side adores. Don used to express this inherent paradox through his marriage to Betty and his dalliances with a series of self-possessed brunettes that really understood him (or at least tried to. They can't all be Rachel Mencken after all). Yet his marriage with Betty is over now, and Don seems slightly unsure of how to move forward. Should he retreat to the old patterns by pursuing Bethany, a young dancer who seems like a more self-possessed Betty? He agrees, reluctantly to a date with her, but is clearly left unsatisfied and is driven to pay for sex with a prostitute who is willing to slap him around. Don needs a woman who challenges him, and in the absence of one who mentally stimulates him, he may be forced to settle for one who is willing to oppose him physically. And in the wake of that encounter, Don seems physically spent, and perhaps even satisfied. Yet satisfaction in the moment is a far cry from true happiness, and no one knows that better than him.

Don Draper is a man struggling for control. In his new life he has too many strings that tie him, to his new agency, to his children (who he seems more committed to if only to oppose the cold force that is his ex-wife), and to those who have been loyal enough to follow him. Don has discovered a way to liberate himself not through fleeing from commitments, but through attempting to shape the world around him until it fits his comfort level. He wants SCDP to be an agency on the cutting edge, and any client who can't get on board with that can walk right out the door. Yet it's impossible to say that Don has seized full control over his life, as is evident when he sits smoking and quietly seething in his old house, now occupied by Betty and her new husband Henry Francis, waiting for them to return. When confronted with the question "Who is Don Draper?" at the beginning of the episode, Don falls back on his old pattern of refusing to be categorized, of struggling to be free by avoiding easy categorization, but in his new life that doesn't make Don a man of mystery; it makes him a failure. By the episode's end, Don knows this, and it's clear in his interview with The Wall Street Journal that Don also understands the new way forward. He may no longer be able to avoid the question of his identity, but he is now in a place to shape it, just as he was when he assumed the Don Draper identity. So finally, he has an answer to the question that hangs over this episode: Don Draper is the head of a scrappy upstart advertising agency, which crawled out from under a corporate chain and has forged a place for people who want cutting edge advertising that looks to the future.

It is criminal of me to pretend that this episode only dealt in Don when we were treated to so many other great moments. I could spend just as long as I digressed on Don looking at the new Peggy, who feels at home enough in SCDP to drink like one of the boys, to flirt with and boss around Joey (who may be the art director in Sal's stead, but definitely works in the art department) like one of the boys, and to stand up to Don after he bullies her. Peggy is more confident and self-assured than we've ever seen her before, and perhaps the best thing about her is she does all this while maintaining her essential femininity. Peggy is a new kind of woman and I can't wait to see what the season has in store for her. Roger seems to be writing a book, drinking a little too much (shades of a crumbling marriage, or is that wishful thinking?), and quipping often as ever. Bert seems slightly uncomfortable with his new role of actually having things to do, Harry is sunburned from his time out in Los Angeles, Pete seems to be as sycophantic as ever, and Lane looks British and disconcerted, which is really the role he plays. Joan is tucked away in her own office, making sure everything runs smoothly, but from a position of greater respect and authority than ever before. I can't wait to see how she deals with this new position either. Finally, Betty seems to be increasingly cold and distant (as if that's even possible). Her mother-in-law constantly (and rightly) criticizes her, Sally acts out and fears her, and Bobby (fuck you, New Bobby) is trying to make himself the most likeable person in the room, not that his mother will even notice.

"Public Relations" does the work of any premiere of Mad Men. It reminds us of the show's major themes, starts laying ground work for new season long arcs, and plops us headfirst into the world of SCDP, an agency that plans to remake the advertising world while it remakes each person within it.

Grade: A-

Notes:

-Sorry for the late posting on this, but last night's premiere party festivities kept me busy. Generally I'll try to get the reviews up by about two hours after the episode ends.

-Oh, Roger: "They're so cheap they can't even afford a whole reporter."

-"He thought the circle of chairs demands conversation"¦" ""¦About why there is no table."

-"You hit it off, come Turkey Day maybe you can stuff her."

-Another great Don and Roger exchange on the interview: "Well I learned a lesson"”stay away from one legged reporters. "Yeah, I was thinking about that. Who is he to criticize?"

-"I wish we really had a second floor so I could jump off of it."

-Lucky Strike is 71% of the business at SCDP if I heard correctly. Not only is that, as Lane puts it, untenable, but it also means we're less likely to get Sal back in the art department anytime soon.

-I can't wait for next week, when I promise I'll do a little more plot summary and a closer look at other characters, and a little less Don Draper dissertation.
Tags: Mad Men
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