Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Public Relations" (season 4, episode 1)

Mad Men - "Public Relations" (season 4, episode 1)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. The last season will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on July 25, 2010/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Phil Abraham): If the season two premiere showed Don subtly slipping from the dominant perch established in Mad Men's pilot, by November 1964 he has reached his nadir. A lonely bachelor in the city who spends Thanksgiving with a prostitute (Erin Cummings), Don visits his children at his ex-wife's convenience while Betty refuses to move out of the house that he still owns (and where she makes love to her new husband in the garage). As he prepares for a slightly embarrassing date with Bethany (Ann Camp), a friend of Jane Sterling, Don catches his own bleak visage in the mirror and appears to be little more than a shell of a human being. And yet Don should be triumphant. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, while uneasy in its less-than-impressive new quarters, rides entirely on his reputation which has only grown since the bold stunt he pulled last fall - hijacking his former agency's star talent before the British buyout took hold. Don is still relatively young, another couple years until forty by my count, and Bethany's reaction to their Chicken Kiev dinner suggests he's still catnip for women of any age. The housing situation may be frustrating but he holds the cards there given the mortgage (cards he attempts to pull when finally demanding Betty and Henry vacate, buy, or pay rent); as Don remarks to his accountant, on paper he's a wealthy man...even if it doesn't feel like it.

What Don lacks is not status or power but that most fragile commodity, the one that has haunted him for three seasons: identity. In fact this psychological black hole eventually threatens his social and material capital. A disastrous interview with Advertising Age, intended to humanize the industry legend and polish the firm's sheen, backfires because Don refuses to give the clearly frustrated writer anything to work with. Because the article fails to mention him, the agency loses that flaky heir whose athletic campaign Pete backed last season - right after Harry bought a television special to promote it. Roger, Bert, and Lane fear further fallout and pressure Don to schedule a rebound sit-down with a friendly Wall Street Journal reporter but Don resists. What else could he do differently? His reticence represents the old-fashioned masculine ideal - achievement speaks for itself and bearing one's soul to earn a little extra coin is considered gauche (Don obviously has his own reasons for this reserve, between his Dick Whitman past and recent divorce). But with New Journalism just a few years away, and edgy mid-sixties pop culture sneering at stodgy stoicism, it's time for a change of pace. After dramatically expelling a couple prudish would-be clients, Don agrees to the Journal interview and presents an entirely new persona: brash and boastful as he takes full credit for the company's creation and success, tactically deploying a fuck-you smirk that's entirely new to his ever-evolving defensive arsenal.

My Response: Writing about the episode has clarified its strengths for me, but I was underwhelmed while watching. Part of its acclaim (critics apparently called it "a return to form," whatever that means) is probably due to its plunge right back into the bustling ad world milieu after the shake-up of season three. For me, however, the air of familiarity felt like treading water - something of a letdown after all the possibilities opened up by that finale. Even the eye/ear-catching bookends can be slightly grating. "Who is Don Draper?" - the episode's opening question over black - is rather on-the-nose especially when this theme has been ongoing season after season, and hardly needs to be reiterated. And the camera pulling back from Don's cocky grin, as the jaunty "Tobacco Road" blares over the closing shot, shades a little too closely to embodying smug assurance rather than merely, and critically, depicting it. Upon reflection, though, a Don who wears his hubris on his sleeve could be a fascinating development. This captures the spirit of the times in an episode which rather unusually avoids zeitgeist indications (alas, the series skips ahead eleven rather than two months so we don't get to experience the thirtysomethings of Sterling Cooper etc etc grapple with the first wave of Beatlemania). And watching this sixties Phoenix arise from the ashes of the quintessential fifties man plays differently fifty-plus years later.

In 2020, the hip show-off embracing self-centeredness as a refreshing form of honesty (maybe Don finally read that Ayn Rand book Bert was trying to foist upon him) isn't a bold form of rebellion, it's the status quo. Sociopolitically, it no longer suggests shaking off the hypocritical values of uptight conservatism but rather shedding any last constraints and embracing an era of hedonistic neoliberalism. A New Don, his always-latent sociopathy divorced from any last desire, however scattershot, to live up to some ideal (if even just the facade of that ideal), could be a fascinating figure to guide us through the remainder of the decade. Given Mad Men's true-to-life (if frustrating) tendency to jerk characters back and forth between breakthrough and regression (Peggy being the prime example so far), I'm curious to see whether Don's turn is just a peek at developments much further down the line or if he's fully shedding his own skin for the rest of the season. I hope they don't just forget this moment, but I also hope they let the inner conflict continue to unfold. When Don blows up at a couple conservative bikini (er, "two-piece swimsuit") salesmen - they reject his teasing advertisement as still too provocative and he has them literally escorted from the building - some of that rage may be projection. Contrary to the admen's cynical presumptions, these two appear to be utterly earnest in their understated modesty and as Don rejects their refusal to adapt to a leering pop culture he's obviously also exasperated with himself. It's certainly telling that on an earlier occasion he asks Candace, his Thanksgiving guest, to slap him harder in bed. And I almost forgot to mention that the first interviewer is an injured Korean War veteran ("Who is he to judge?" Roger bizarrely sniffs), which itself feels like a callout of Don's circumspection and a subtle hint that perhaps his flippant persona shift is the wrong form of compensation.

Elsewhere, the episode pushes characters into new dynamics. Betty and Henry, still frisky, have yet to find their rhythm as a hybrid family; Sally literally spits her food out at the awkward holiday dinner when Betty pressures her, and new mother-in-law Pauline (Pamela Dunlap) blames the new Mrs. Francis, not her nine-year-old, for the scene. Peggy banters playfully with Joey Baird (Matt Long), a new member of the creative team; Joey offers Peggy both a peer - their parody of a married couple's dialogue suggests kindred spirits - but also, finally, a man whose position is lower than hers so that she can exercise some of the wisdom and authority she's been scraping together for four years. (I admittedly wrote a bit about how Don didn't recognize him outside of the office but later realized I was the confused one - mistakenly identifying her boyfriend Mark, played by Blake Bashoff.) Of course, she'll always be dominated by Don one way or another. Near episode's end, he scolds her for her Sugarberry Ham stunt (fearful of losing the account, she stages a supermarket scrape over the last Thanksgiving ham and the actors end up taking things too far) and tells her he doesn't want her to come to the bikini meeting, ostensibly out of deference to the clients' propriety. Leaving the room, she glumly remarks, "You know we're all here because of you. Everyone wants to make you happy." Don could take this as a spur to responsibility, and perhaps that's how he rationalizes his credit-hogging in the interview. Ironically, sometimes you can only save those who rely on your production by throwing them under the bus. At least that's what we tell ourselves.

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