Monday, July 26, 2010

Mad Men - Season 4 Episode 1: "Public Relations"

Hello! Welcome to the first (and hopefully not last) of my weekly posts about Mad Men. I'm still getting a feel for how I want to structure these recaps/reviews/observations, so I suspect things will evolve with time. But there's one thing I can guarantee right off the bat: I'll never post spoilers about a given week's episode before the cut. As my previous post will have made clear, I have total sympathy for people who choose to fit TV to their schedule rather than the opposite. If you've got something to do on a Sunday night that's more important than watching television, you should be able to do it without sacrificing the pleasure of finding things out as they happen.

So what's become of Don Draper, his colleagues, and his family since we last left them in mid-December of 1963? And when exactly do we rejoin them?

We'll take the latter question first. "Public Relations" opens during the run-up to Thanksgiving, 1964, nearly a full year since last season's exodus resulted in the creation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. And a successful year it seems to have been, as the gang have moved out of the cluttered hotel-cum-office space they were using when we last saw them, and into some cramped-but-modern office space. The money's still tight, as Bert and Lane remind us throughout the episode -- the Lucky Strike account makes up about 71% of the firm's income -- but as the episode's title suggests, it's all about keeping up appearances.

This theme plays out over a couple of this episode's storylines, and while the show has always highlighted the conflict between appearances and reality, this episode seems to deal with the potential consequences of a bad public image. Don gets coy with an interviewer and the resulting unflattering (and largely inaccurate) portrait in Advertising Age may have cost the firm the Jai Alai account Harry sunburned himself to shore up.  Peggy, Pete, and new part-time copy writer Joey set up a faux fight as a PR stunt --behind Don's back-- to boost the confidence of a wavering ham account. When the fight they stage brings unexpected legal and financial obligations, Peggy has to own up and pay Don a painful Thanksgiving Day visit. But not all PR efforts go wrong; the others at SCDP continually refer to their office's fictitious second floor in order to seem like a more impressive and competitive operation, and the gimmick seems to stick. And, despite the ensuing ugliness, Peggy's PR stunt works and doesn't drag the young agency's name through the mud.

Don's own image seems to have undergone a bit of a change since his divorce. Roger tries to set him up with one of Jane's young friends, who reveals that Roger and Jane think Don hasn't been dating at all. And, certainly, this image would be justified if they ever saw Don's raggedy, dark "bachelor pad." Peggy, Joey, and Pete pity Don, imagining him all alone on Thanksgiving. They aren't too wide of the mark, either, though they fail to account for a visit from the prostitute Don has, apparently, been hiring to slap him around (I KNOW!) We also get a scene with Don's new maid, who I THINK is the show's first Hispanic character, a nod to the still-changing racial make-up of mid-'60s NYC.

Meanwhile, Don's erstwhile other half is finally in the dominant position in a relationship. New husband Henry Francis (boy, he really likes making out in locked cars, eh?) spends a lot of time defending an icier, more controlling Betty to his mother and family. Betty appears to have dropped some of the languid childishness that had (unfortunately) come to define her character over the last two seasons, replacing it with a dash of spite and a rekindled libido. In one stroke she provokes Don by not letting him see baby Gene, and indulges herself on a romantic weekend getaway with Henry. But, by remaining in the Draper house past the date agreed upon in the divorce papers, Betty puts herself in a position Henry had pushed her to avoid: being in debt to Don. The Draper kids seem to take the standard "divorced child" roles, with Sally being willful and mildly rebellious, while Bobby plays nice in a transparent effort to keep the peace.

We only get hints about the home lives of the rest of our characters, but at least a couple of these hints suggest interesting stories waiting to be told. When Peggy turns up at Don's door on Thanksgiving, she's accompanied by a young man called Mark, who steps up to defend her and calls himself her fianc√© (to Don's surprise and Peggy's consternation; they are not engaged). I look forward to finding out just who Mark really is, and whether Peggy's dalliance with Duck ended when she joined the SCDP rebellion rather than leaping into his arms at Grey. Peggy's growing confidence and playful (even flirtatious?) relationship with her underling Joey suggest that the change has done her some good.

We also get anecdotal inferences that Roger and Jane are on somewhat better terms than we left them, so perhaps there's a story there as well. As to whether Pete and Trudy's renewed bond has endured since last season, or how Joan's marriage has changed after Greg's decision to join the army, we'll have to find out in the coming weeks.

In the end, though, this episode is all about Don, and how his image impacts SCDP. "We are all here because of you," a backbone-infused Peggy tells him, hammering home one of the series's key themes. Don still thinks of himself as a whoreson farmboy from the Midwest, an impostor at work and a failure at home; perhaps that's why he gets off on being punished. He takes his talent and its value to his company as points of pride, beating the rich city boys at their own game, but his private shame has prevented him from embracing his power in a way that serves both his ego AND his company. The final scene, a bookend to the failed episode-opening interview, shows Don talking to Bert's friend at the Wall Street Journal, actively selling himself (and, by proxy, the company) in a way we haven't seen before. He's finally internalized a piece of advice he once casually tossed to Peggy: He IS the product.

Random Thoughts

  • Nice to see Jared Harris (Lane Pryce) and Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper) billed as main cast members this season. This isn't unexpected for Harris (his name is on the door, after all!), but is surprising and welcome for Shipka, whose role I feared would suffer in the aftermath of the Draper divorce.

  • Speaking of names on the door, is it too "film school" of me to wonder whether the shot of the front door, with "Sterling Cooper" static on one side and "Draper Pryce" swinging on the other is indicative that this new arrangement may not be as permanent as we think?

  • And speaking of names in the credits, Aaron Staton is still a main cast member (even though we don't see Ken Cosgrove this week) but Michael Gladis and Bryan Batt are MIA. Batt's absence is understandable, since he largely disappeared from the show after Sal's late-season firing last year, but if Ken is (presumably) still working at McCann-Erickson, shouldn't Gladis's Paul Kinsey be with him? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

  • Jared S. Gilmore also returns as Bobby Draper, making him the first actor (I think?) to play that role for more than one season. He's also adorable this episode. I wonder whether he'll get off of the second page of post-episode credits and climb the ranks like his on-screen sister.

  • As I noted, this was a largely Draper-centric episode, but John Slattery still found time for some classic Roger lines: 
    • "This is a missed opportunity! You turned all of the sizzle from Glo-Coat into a wet fart." 
    • "She liked you; maybe you should have fondled Peg-Leg Pete."
  • For a Thanksgiving episode, it didn't seem like a ton of thanks were being given, aside from Sally and Bobby's reprimand-induced "Thank yous" at the Francis family Turkey Day dinner.
  • It was nice to see Joan back at work, confident again and in HER OWN OFFICE for once. She always had the opposite of Don's problem: she knew her worth, even though no-one recognized her for it. It's about time that changed.
  • Finally, did anyone else think the scene with Joan and Harry might have been laying some early ground work for an unlikely pairing?
Anyway, that's it for this week. I'll try to do this again next week (though perhaps more concisely) when, if the title is any indication, Christmas will be in the air. Enjoy!


    1. I was convinced at the end of last season that, with the troubles between Roger and Jane and Greg going off to the Army, Roger and Joan would end up back together, at least a little bit ...

    2. I don't think you're far off, Jen. It's pretty likely, and I wanted to hint that maybe blowing off some steam with Joan is what's let Roger and Jane's relationship. Just couldn't say it concisely enough to fit anywhere. Still, guess we'll find out!

    3. * is what let Roger and Jane's relationship STABILIZE, I mean. Can't go leaving off verbs, now. Sheesh...