Mad Men the Morning After: Critics Relate to “Public Relations”
July 26th, 2010
When I was somewhat incredulous about why anyone even the least bit afraid of spoilers would read pre-air reviews of a show like Mad Men, part of that response came from the fact that I think pre-air reviews are a horrible medium for capturing the complexity of a show like Mad Men. I am a firm believer that the best analysis from television critics comes after, and not before, an episode airs, and so while I avoided reviews before “Public Relations” aired I spent the morning (or, more accurately, the early afternoon) reading some really intelligent thoughts from the critical community.
And, as I’ve done in the past with other shows, I figured the intelligence of those comments warrants some further discussion, so let’s take a look at what the critics are saying about Mad Men’s “Public Relations.”
As always, I start with my own review, only so that you can get a sense of where I’m coming from with the commentary I’ll add below. Of course, this is slightly less necessary since pretty much everyone seemed to like the premiere quite a bit, but let’s stick with tradition.
…The episode managed to focus heavily on Don without making the other characters out to be supernumeraries, which demonstrates the delicate balance which may no longer neatly reflect Don’s existence but nonetheless remains a hallmark of the series. It’s always exciting when a series has that sense of starting over, of renewal or growth, but it’s always even more exciting when a series seems to be achieving this without losing that which defines its success. There may come a point as the decade continues where Mad Men’s perspective collides with history, and Don Draper will again be caught in a dream from which he desperately wants to wake up, but for now he seems to have come to terms with his reality, and now the challenge is just living with it.
As noted, the episode is heavily focused on Don, and that is not surprisingly something that every single critic focused on within their reviews. The episode opens with “Who is Don Draper?”, so it’s only logical that critics would take some stabs at answering the question themselves. Nick at Monsters of TV, which has been working overtime covering the summer’s television offerings, points out that the expectations placed on Don in the episode in some ways confound the logic of the character.
Draper represents some kind of reluctant messiah, this bastion of charisma he was never prepared to be since the foundation of his life is an act. Shoving this personality forward to the media introduces it to scrutiny that, before, it only took a person peeking into a shoebox to crumble. The folks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce now want him to reveal more of himself, offer up information to the public, capitalize on these press opportunities for the sake of the new company. I don’t think they have the right man for the job.
The leap in time eleven months forward raises some questions of how long they’ve been trying to get Don to step into this role, and as Nick rightly points out it doesn’t seem like the sort of job that Don is ready for. However, you can see the various strategies which they employ in their efforts to get him on the right track: Roger tries to fix his personal life, Lane gives him the cold shoulder, and Peggy just comes right out and points out the obvious. It seems like it’s the last one which works more effectively, but the point remains that they’re asking Don to be something he isn’t, which is expressly hard for someone who doesn’t know who he is.
As for that last scene with Peggy, TIME’s James Poniewozik points out that this is a scene we’ve witnessed quite a bit in the past, which potentially limits its impact.
If I had one problem with the episode, it’s that here it seems to be repeating itself, with another scene of Don taking out his frustrations on Peggy–a recurring event last season, before he had to court her to jump ship with him–while she reminds him how badly everyone in the office wants his approval.
I think James is right that the scene feels a bit familiar, but I think that its familiarity is very purposeful. I think this is the scene which really turns Don around largely because of how similar it is to past sequences, waking up a purpose in Don that before that point simply wasn’t present. He was daydreaming on his couch when Peggy came in to see him, just as he was unconscious in bed before Peggy called to ask for the bail money, and his conversations with Peggy get him fired up in a way that is absent in the rest of his life to this point. There are also some subtle differences within Peggy and Don’s relationship which emerge in that final scene, helping capture how their basic interactions remain on the same playing field but the words are slightly different, and that playing field is just a bit more even. I think this is the scene where we see Don tapping into the sort of passion which makes him the right person for this job, hinting at the Jantzen blowup to follow and the eventual performance for the Wall Street Journal reporter.
However, as always, this side of Don is only one part of a complex personality, and his triumph at episode’s end does little to overwrite the mess which is his personal life. In his review, HitFix.com’s Alan Sepinwall offers a really effective take on the scene with the prostitute and Don’s interest in mixing pain with pleasure which got me thinking about just what Don desires.
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.
I hadn’t thought about this before, as it’s been a while since I’ve seen “The Wheel,” but Alan picks up on one potential reading of the scene: that this is what Don most desires, and what he was searching out with Bobbie, and what he secretly always wanted from Betty. However, thinking about it, what if this is less an unfiltered glimpse into Don’s desires and more an image of what he thinks he deserves? His aggressive behaviour with Bobbie was rightfully read as a desire for power and control, reflecting his rigid control over his own identity, but allowing himself to be dominated (in a sense) places him in a helpless place which feels like a reflection of his current predicament. One wonders what he would of asked of a prostitute before he was divorced, just as one wonders what the sex would have been like with Bethany had he been successful in courting her. Don’s desires are, I would argue, not the same as they were before, changing in kind with his identity during this tumultuous period.
Televisionary’s Jace Lacob picks up on the slap, and ties it in with the climactic scene with the Jantzen campaign, comparing and contrasting the old Don with the new Don.
That slap also connects to his mistreatment of the potential clients from Jantzen at the end of the episode. The old Don would have taken Roger’s tack and told the clients that creative would come up with some new pitches; he would have been forced to create the campaign he derides to them–one in which women play volleyball on the beach as a little girl builds a sandcastle–in order to meet their vision of modesty. But Don’s done building sandcastles, really.
I like Jace’s image of building sandcastles, as it ties into just how much of a “Fixer” Don was before. He was the person who took his own creative vision and sold it to people who thought they knew what they wanted, blurring the line between client (who you aim to please) and customer (who you aim to manipulate). Before, he would have taken the sand they offered him and built them a sandcastle with which he may have been satisfied, but now he knows that people are offering more satisfying building materials, and he knows that he could go out there and get them. Don may mistreat the clients, but he does so in order to stop mistreating himself; while the slap in bed seems to put Don to sleep, the slap in the table-less conference room seems to wake him up, and is certainly a key moment in the episode for Don as a character.
There’s plenty of material on Don from the premiere, but it seems as if critics as a whole are wary of the new Betty. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Tim Goodman nicely captures why, emphasizing the sudden lack of context for Betty’s behaviour.
What also stood out is the level of Betty’s bitterness, meanness and unhappiness. Now, everybody’s known that was present. But in the past, Don was the easy answer to explain it all away. Now that Betty has her Dream Marriage version 2.0, what do we see? That she’s a cold, perhaps unloving mother. That in under a year she’s got Henry wondering what the hell he got into.
In the first season, Betty was a victim of Don’s adultery, a young woman unknowingly part of a charade and emotionally stunted by the experience: she never got a chance to develop in a truly functional relationship, and so she finds herself living up to society’s standards and colliding with her unsatisfying reality at nearly every turn. Back then, we cheered her moments of independence (like “Shoot,” for example), but now that she has truly struck out on her own we can’t help but feel uncomfortable. She’s still defining herself based on her relationship with Don, acting more out of spite than out of personal expression. Yes, it is true that Don made Betty wait on numerous occasions, but that she is incapable of being the bigger person in this situation creates an odd circumstance where Don is the victim. We can see why Don is so miserable, or why Don acts in the way he does, but Betty has been given a second chance and even then reverts back to the kind of behaviour for which Don’s adultery was a convenient excuse. It’s evocative, and well-developed in the episode, but it is making Betty into a starkly unlikeable character who may not be sustainable, and one which we’ll be spending considerable time with this year considering that Kiernan Shipka was added to the main cast.
However, as always, Mad Men is about more than psycho-analyzing its characters and their actions, and the production side of things is equally important. Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker rightfully points this out, emphasizing how the writing of the episode works to quickly establish both how things have changed in 11 months and what has remained the same.
Weiner was kind to the fans, allowing us to simply enjoy a lot of snazzy dialogue, and to introduce a new character such as Peggy’s new partner-in-copywriting, Joey. Weiner shorthanded the working intimacy that has grown between them since we last saw the show by having them share an in-joke, moaning “John!” and “Marsha!” to each other — a reference to a then-popular routine by Stan Freberg, the great comedian and himself a superb ad-man.
The episode does a nice job of using the snazzy dialogue as fan service, certainly, but I like Tucker’s use of “shorthand” as a way to describe Joey’s introduction. The “John and Marsha” bit has a few extra layers for those who know Freberg’s role in introducing satire into advertising in the 1950s, but most importantly is establishes that rapport which captures the closeness of the current SCDP employees. It’s the same way that Pete calling Roger by his first name demonstrates his increased role in the new agency, or the way that Lane’s demeanor indicates that he is less than pleased with the current situation with the agency’s billings. In dropping us into things eleven months later, Weiner could have relied on simple exposition, but instead we learn things through things as small as conversations, which remains one of the series’ best qualities.
And, as always, the art department remains a key part of Mad Men’s appeal, and the production team can look forward to more Emmy nominations next year for their work on the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices. The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan nicely captures the set’s impact on the episode in her review.
The new, “modern” offices are much more stress-inducing — there is more white, brighter lights and see-through walls, and mixed in with older-looking furniture are accessories and decorations that give off hard glares. The new office decor reflects the employees’ images right back at them, and those glass walls show much more of what’s going on in the inner sanctums. The discreet, paneled offices of Sterling Cooper have given way to the well-lit, revealing environment of the new firm, where spin, surface and image are everything.
That the transition between seasons would be reflected in the set design isn’t a surprise, considering how much of the series relies on its period aesthetics to establish key themes and even characters. Even Peggy’s hairstyle feels like it’s making a statement, but Mo is right that the office makes the biggest statement of all. I love the sort of open concept creative room, with Peggy and Joey working on the Sugarberry campaign in a way which allows Pete to just sort of walk in and join the conversation. Peggy might not have her own office anymore, but she is unquestionably at the heart of the office. While Mo is right that there are some hard glares, there is a warmth to parts of the office which seems like it has the potential for true collaboration, and I’ll be curious to see how that influences those within the agency who may not take to that sort of environment.
However, I think it’s not the only important set we are introduced to in the episode, and Keith Phipps at The A.V. Club nicely captures how Don’s bachelor pad is similarly designed to emphasize key story elements.
So who, in this gleaming new world, is Don Draper? I don’t think, as the episode opens, even Don knows. And certainly the year of transition he’s been through would be enough to shake anyone’s sense of self even if their identity wasn’t largely fictional. In many ways he’s a man divided. The world he’s constructed for himself in his new apartment looks nothing like the office. If I had to choose a word to describe the décor it would be “Midwest antique shop.” Don swings from the ultra-modern to yesteryear between office and home. He likes his reluctantly acquired bachelor pad like he likes his drinks: old fashioned.
In some ways, Don’s double life has faded into the background, as his charade is no longer necessary in terms of keeping his marriage afloat. However, as Keith points out, his bachelor pad nonetheless feels like an entirely different world, perhaps because he still has ties to his children, and he still has that other life in the back of his head. The episode captures this to an extent, but I love the notion that his apartment is a reflection of himself – it stands as a relic of his past life, perhaps because he decorated it in the weeks and months directly after the divorce. He lives in a museum exhibit for his old life, but he’s wary of falling into old patterns (like having dinner ready when he gets home, or having his things put away for him in his absence) that remind him too much of what he’s lost.
EDIT: Considering the classy nature of the show, I’ll resist a “New Challenger Approaching” riff here, but there’s a couple of folks who don’t normally do weekly reviews who are stepping into the arena for Mad Men’s fourth season. First up, Salon’s hyper-intelligent Heather Havrilesky builds on her earlier review of the season with her take on “Public Relations.”
Down to his casually sexist brushoff, Don is the ultimate dysfunctional American patriarch: He can’t resist his ego-driven compulsion to be a leader, but he balks at the responsibility it entails. But Peggy is smart enough to know how to take the wind out of Don’s Mean Daddy sails. The notion that everyone in the office seeks his approval makes Don’s face crumple into that old familiar worried, confused expression. Despite his swagger, Don Draper is a man who questions his own worth at every turn.
Don as patriarch is an interesting image, and it reminds me that the one part of the episode which feels entirely functional is Don’s role as father: he wants to see his children, and while he doesn’t do anything particularly special with them he does tuck them into bed, and even bristles when Betty refuses to allow him to see baby Gene. He holds onto his image as father because he wants to maintain that connection and hold onto some part of his own life, while his paternal role at SCDP is new. It’s sort of like watching a new father get used to the responsibility of raising a child, except that this child looks (on the surface) like it should be capable of raising itself.
I’m also incredibly excited that Matt Zoller Seitz, who has been all over the place recently, will be reviewing the season for The New Republic. His take on “Public Relations” includes some really interesting discussion of the historical context of the season, and how the premiere shows the series has “delivered its first curveballs.”
“Mad Men” flat-out looks and feels different than it used to. The show is more cluttered and claustrophobic. The scenes have a choppier rhythm (or, at least, it felt that way to me after watching all of Season Three on BluRay DVD as a lead-up to writing these recaps). And many characters seem less-guarded, more frank—newly prone to brusque, at times even crass, comments and behavior. I would call all of this a “makeover” if the word didn’t imply deliberateness and caution. This is more like an un-makeover—a series of tweaks that add chaos and instability to a show that became a cult hit partly because it was so meticulous and deliberate.
I noted the choppier rhythm in my own review – I was even tempted to compare it to the editing in Inception, but I figured that would be a bit of a stretch – but Matt really captures the way the series introduces elements of instability without wildly changing its trajectory. SCDP is like Sterling Cooper but not like Sterling Cooper, as the company is competing for the same types of accounts but having to go about it in a different way from their new position. I think it allows for the series to feel as if it has evolved without seeing Weiner’s fingerprints all over it: it almost feels like all Weiner did was choose where he would return to the story and then simply let things play out from there, allowing the instability created by last season’s finale to prosper or fester as he thought it would. It’s deliberately not deliberate, and it really contributed to the premiere’s success.
- For a bit more of an academic take on the episode, Mike Z. Newman offers some thoughts on Mad Men as “Quality TV” at Zigzigger.
- Big week for Mad Men podcasts: Maureen Ryan and Ryan McGee turn their regular podcast over to the series in honour of its premiere, while The A.V. Club brings together Keith Phipps, Noel Murray and Scott Tobias for a discussion of “Public Relations” on their A.V. Talk podcast. Also, Alan Sepinwall chatted with Bill Simmons on a special TV edition of the BS Report.
- If you’ve read anything more about the Mad Men premiere that you think people should check out, do post it in the comments below so we can check it out.