A new season of “Mad Men” is finally here, and I’m really damn happy to be talking about the show again. For those of you joining us late, you can find all of my reviews of the first three seasons at my old blog, and you can find my interview with “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner about the events of the season four premiere, “Public Relations,” right here.
A review and spoilers galore for “Public Relations,” coming up just as soon as I have a lot of tsuris with Lucy and Desi...
“It was going great... until it wasn’t.” -Peggy
“Public Relations” picks up about 11 months after the events of “Shut the Door. Have a Seat”(*), with the creation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and the dissolution of the Draper marriage. It’s Thanksgiving 1964, and Don has seemingly gotten everything he ever wanted professionally, and lost nearly everything he ever thought he wanted personally.
(*) I had briefly forgotten exactly when in ‘63 the finale took place, until I recalled Lane Pryce’s delightful, “Very good. Happy Christmas!” kiss-off to St. John Powell. Good times.
But things on “Mad Men” are never quite that simple. Don is a name partner and the clear power at SCDP, but with great power comes great responsibility, and headaches, and having to give Peggy bail money on Thanksgiving day, and having to make sure every minute of his non-nap time is devoted to making money for the company. And despite the celebrated success of Don’s cinematic Glo-Coat commercial, the firm is barely hanging on financially, working out of a swank but small office in the Time-Life building with no conference table and (despite claims to the contrary by everyone but Bert Cooper) no second floor. They’re still too dependent on Lucky Strike for survival, and the attempt to turn Don into a creative celebrity butts up against Don’s paranoia and disdain for talking about himself.
In part because he’s always afraid someone else will find out about Dick Whitman, in part because of how Archie and the others raised him, Don doesn’t want to be the center of attention. But just as the men from Jantzen stubbornly try to hide behind the use of “two-piece” to pretend they aren’t making flesh-baring bikinis(**), Don needs to accept that in this changing world, he has to prepare himself for full exposure. He’s not the delicate genius in the corner office anymore. He’s the public face of SCDP, and if that means sitting down for an interview in which he brags on himself(***), then he will.
(**) I was pleased to see that the official Jantzen website of 2010 does refer to bikinis from time to time. The times, they were eventually a’changing.
(***) We, of course, remember how the actual “Fire us” moment went in “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” - that it was an idea born of desperation, not confidence - but Don gets the basic details right. He’s embellishing, not dissembling.
That Wall Street Journal interview isn’t going to solve everything. I’m dubious of Harry’s ability to charm Ho-Ho into coming back (really, I’m dubious of Harry’s ability to do anything but get a sunburn), and of course they’re still one Lee Garner Jr. tantrum away from losing American Tobacco and falling apart altogether. But the creation of the new firm hasn’t just been a cosmetic excuse to move most of the actors onto a new set (even if Dan Bishop’s gorgeous, open and glased-in set got a splendid waltz-like introduction accompanied by some more of David Carbonara’s Rat Pack-style score).
Things have changed. There are fewer people, fewer barriers (both physical and political) between the partners and everyone else, more of a sense of common purpose. Pete and Peggy try their ridiculous publicity stunt with the hams because they can’t afford to lose another account, and when Don chews out Peggy when the gag almost blows up in their faces, she’s now strong enough to argue back. (And earlier displays that she has multiple strategies - albeit not always successful ones - for shielding herself from his anger.) Joan has an office now, as all the unwritten parts of her job description at the old firm are official and oft-acknowledged. Roger has come back to life, Bert Cooper is more active, and this feels very much like a place where “Mad Men” isn’t going to be telling variations on the same old stories as the show moves into middle-age.
Away from the office, Don is very much adrift. He has a nice apartment in the Village, but he’s lonely, and he’s hungry in every sense of the word. He doesn’t eat the food his housekeeper makes for him, doesn’t seem interested in dating women like Jane’s friend Bethany - nor can he close the deal with her(****) - and instead has taken to employing prostitutes to work out his self-loathing issues. Back in season one’s “The Wheel,” Betty told her therapist, "The way he makes love -- sometimes it's what I want, sometimes it's obviously what someone else wants.” When Don pays for it, he doesn’t have to factor in anyone’s desires but his own, and those desires aren’t necessarily pleasant to witness.
(****) In our interview, Weiner suggests that Don runs into trouble because he’s single now, and Bethany therefore views him as boyfriend material rather than someone she can sleep with and move on from. But there’s also a sense that as the ‘60s move along, the kinds of women Don used to have an easy time seducing are getting stronger and smarter, and the Don Draper playbook from 1962 won’t work as easily on a 1964 woman.
And the former Mrs. Draper? Who’s refusing to move out of the house on Bullet Park Road, even though she’s already married Henry Francis? Well, she also got everything she thought she wanted - a husband who’s more attentive and respectable than Don - but she’s more miserable - or at least more monstrous - than ever. Betty has never been one of the series’ more likable characters, but at least when she was married to Don, you could feel some sympathy for her because you knew what a lying, manipulative SOB he was. With Don mostly out of the picture, Betty’s least appealing traits - her chilliness, her petulance and her bullying of her kids (here literally shoving a marshmallow into Sally’s mouth, creating a much bigger scene than if Sally had just confessed to not liking Henry’s mother’s cooking) - are all in full bloom. Henry seems to be growing understandably frustrated with her - he has to recreate their early kiss in the car to remind himself of why he chose to marry her - and even he doesn’t understand why she won’t look for another house already. I’m hoping that as Betty gets more distance from her marriage, Weiner finds a way to humanize her. (And if he can’t, then I want to see a lot less of her, even if she and Don are sharing the kids.)
A lot of TV series do status quo-altering season finales, then take a handful of episodes at the start of the next year to reset things to the default(*****), and “Mad Men” could have very easily done that here. Betty has already taken Don back once and could do it again, and while the new firm lacks Kinsey and Sal and some others, enough of the familiar faces have relocated there that it could easily become, as Weiner puts it in our interview, “Sterling Cooper in a new office.”
(*****) Even great ones sometimes prefer to fall back on old rhythms. On “The Sopranos,” Carmela did eventually take Tony back, after all, though at least there it was thematically consistent with the show’s belief that people are usually too selfish to truly change anything about their lives.
But even though Don expertly throws Henry’s words back at him by telling him, “Believe me, Henry, everybody believes this is temporary,” it’s clear that the end of the Draper marriage, and the professional changes going on at the new firm, are permanent. “Public Relations” signals a show that’s looking forward, not back.
I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Some other thoughts on “Public Relations”:
- Joan doesn’t get a lot to do in the premiere, but that first glimpse of her office as we enter SCDP for the first time felt triumphant, and she gets one of the funniest lines of the premiere, when she assures Harry the buffoon that she won’t reveal his secret about the jai alai special, insisting, “I won’t even tell people after it’s aired!”
- Roger, of course, gets plenty of great lines as well, particularly at the expense of the one-legged reporter from Advertising Age, who came out of Korea far worse than Don did. And maybe the best joke of all is Pete saying, enthusiastically, “I could use my expense account if I say they’re whores!”
- Joey, Peggy’s new partner in crime (but not, for now at least, her boyfriend, since she has milquetoast Mark as her “fiance”), is played by Matt Long, probably best known for playing one of the leads on the WB’s short-lived “Jack and Bobby” (and, more recently, the lead on ABC’s even shorter-lived “The Deep End”). The two are frequently quoting the soap opera parody “John and Marsha” by Stan Freberg, the man credited for introducing the concept of satire to the world of advertising.
- Note, too, that whatever tensions existed between Pete and Peggy last season over him learning about the baby have seemingly vanished. Either he’s accepted that he really is happy without a child in his life, or he’s matured enough to recognize there simply isn’t time (or space) to hold a grudge in the cramped, scrappy world of SCDP. (And the two actresses they hired for the Sugarberry stunt do enough fighting for the four of them.)
- Bethany’s played by Anna Camp, who was one of the religious cult leaders last year on “True Blood.” It’s a very “Mad Men” touch that Bethany’s an actress whose job is to be living background scenery - there to make the picture look prettier, but not to be noticed on her own, and to be paid with comp tickets.
- Sad to have lost (for now, at least) Paul, Sal and Ken (and Ken’s haircut), but it was nice to see that Don was able to lure Allison over to continue as his secretary. Other than Joan’s brief fill-in during season two, she’s the only strong support he’s had at that desk.
- The song over the closing credits was “Tobacco Road,” which was originally recorded in 1960 but became a hit again in 1964 when recorded by the Brit pop band The Nashville Teens.
So go read the Weiner interview, where we go into why we resumed at this particular point in the story, the symbolism of the reporter’s wooden leg, and a lot more. And then - keeping in mind the usual ground rules about not revealing spoilers (including discussion of the previews for the next episode), being respectful to other commenters, etc., etc. - what did everybody else think?
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