The fourth season of Mad Men begins with the line, “Who is Don Draper?” Unable to provide an adequate question, Don sidesteps the question. But, really, no one can say who Don Draper is, not even the man himself or more adequately, Dick Whitman. The layers continue to be peeled back in the season four premiere, “Public Relations,” giving as a new vision in perhaps the most drastic change in the series thus far.
“Public Relations” begins in 1964, almost a year since the formation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. In many ways, the show is the same as ever, in others it’s a reboot of sorts. It’s like the flash-sideways from Lost. Now the top dog at SCDP, Don has nearly free reign, uninhibited by anyone. The problem is, the company needs money–desperately–and the stature of being small company isn’t helping. Their office is larger than what we last saw them in the season three finale and as stylish as ever; however, compared to the rest of the ad agencies, they are next to nothing.
The article published in Advertising Age is Don’s first step into the public spotlight, and it’s not very flattering. With the public’s eyes trained on him, Don comes off as mysterious and isolated, definitely not positive qualities of someone who wishes to connect with regular people. Most importantly, Don’s name is tied to SCDP and what he does reflects directly on the company. The bad publicity and resulting loss of the jai alai account puts even more strain on Don as his colleges press him to make things right.
Don’s first task of the season is to advertise a “two-piece swimsuit,” not a bikini, but a two-piece. What’s the difference? According to Don’s stubborn clients, a bikini is underwear and a two-piece is somehow classy, not serving prurient interests, despite showing ample amount of skin. Of course it’s silly to think that way, and Don unleashes an episode’s worth of frustration on them, telling them they could either do it their way–“comfortable and dead,” or his way–“risky and possibly rich.” You tell ’em!
In his personal life, Don isn’t faring well either. Sterling sets him up on a date with Jane’s friend, and it’s going great, until Don tries to seal to deal. His new status as a single man seems to be blocking what normally be a casual hookup for a married man. Women are expecting something more permanent, and Don isn’t in that place right now. The walls are closing in from all sides, and Don’s only escape–a kinky and startling new revelation–is BDSM with a prostitute.
Ever the woman-child, Betty is now living with Henry–in Don’s house. She shirks all responsibility, managing her children with the distant coldness we’ve in the past and refusing to look for a new home, allowing Don to pay for everything. And this time, Don isn’t there to be blamed. Betty is by herself with her new husband Henry, a perfectly fine man minus some of his creepier behavior last season.
This was Betty’s chance to be better, to show how Don was the reason for her problems, but the writers maintained her character, essentially affirming that she is, in fact, childish and silly. So what happens next? Already, Henry has second thoughts–as he should–having seen the mental side of Betty. Getting rid of her should be skirting the edges of his mind at least and unless Betty truly changes, it’s doubtful anyone will actually like her for who she is.
At the end of the episode, we see Don giving an interview with the Wall Street Journal, except this time, unlike the interview with Advertising Age, Don doesn’t put out his real self–a specter of a man–but an image, exactly as if he were a product to be advertised. In the world of public relations, what people see is rarely reality, and Don has adapted, through the course of one episode, to reinvent himself–and the company.
Because it was solidly a Don episode, “Public Relations” didn’t feature much of the other characters, but Peggy was at the forefront. Brimming with confidence, Peggy is pretty much one of the guys, not holding back on anything. However, that backfires when the duo of Peggy and Pete try a small trick to generate publicity. They stage an incident, involving two women fighting over a ham, without telling Don, and when the situation gets out of control and one woman ends up in jail, Don becomes very angry. Peggy decides to push back, telling him, “You know something… we are all here because of you. All we want to do is please you.”
In her personal life, Peggy is friendly with her assistant Joey, riffing on Stan Freberg’s “John and Marsha” song. When she shows up at Don’s door, there’s a guy behind guy who she calls her fiance, probably actually her boyfriend, and the subordinate one in the relationship.
A couple months ago when Breaking Bad was still airing, I was saying that Breaking Bad was the best show on television. After watching the first episode of this season, I have to reconsider that. I probably shouldn’t have made the statement in the first place since I’m not watching every show simultaneously, but as the familiar dialogue of Mad Men came, I was struck by just how great it was and how much I missed it. The plot of this season is the most enticing to me, placing Don and Betty on opposite sides physically, but close mentally. They’re out of their comfort zones and need major fixing. Through it all, Don still needs to work against the tide and earn money. Welcome back, Mad Men!
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Tags: Mad Men