July 25th, 2010
“It was going great until it wasn’t.”
Mad Men has always been a series grounded in duality, logical since Dick Whitman’s double life represented the central conflict within the series. Very rarely did the series ever move beyond the existential, largely avoiding direct action in favour of short glances, conversations with unintended prescience, and the growing sense that the balance could no longer hold. At the end of the third season, that duality was broken: Don’s secrets were revealed, Betty ran off with Henry Francis, and even the identity crisis at Sterling Cooper – caused by PPL’s influence over the company’s holdings – was eliminated when the pending purchase led to the formation of the independent Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
The third season was Mad Men’s two worlds finally colliding, and the fourth season premiere, “Public Relations,” demonstrates how that collision has never truly stopped. The direct conflict the series has always avoided has become something these characters fetishize and desire, and unfortunately something that has become untenable within the new business world in which they operate. Before, Don Draper was a sly yet self-destructive force operating with what he considered a safety net, and now he’s a sly yet self-destructive force who refuses to change his behaviour despite the newfound risk. And so his entire life becomes a collision, sometimes to his benefit and most times to the detriment of his business, his sanity, and his personal relationships.
However, the benefit of a collision is that you ask yourself important questions, wondering what went wrong and re-evaluating just what you want from the world around you. “Public Relations” is Don Draper seizing the day, choosing to stop running into the same brick wall at every turn and steer the car in a new direction – it’s possible that a collision waits just the same down this new path, but it’s a collision he can control, manage, and perfect.
And until it isn’t, it has every chance of being great.
I’ve always been a fan of when Mad Men uses accounts to tell its stories, and the Sugarberry account is no exception. Weiner is incredibly smart, as the P.R. stunt performs multiple tasks which are important to the episode’s success. First of all, it introduces us to the basic working environment at SCDP: while we see Joan working her skills as office manager, and Harry continuing to be a royal ass, the Sugarberry campaign introduces us to Joey (Matt Long, late of Jack & Bobby), shows us how Peggy and Pete are working together, and lets us see that Pete’s description of SCDP as the “scrappy upstart” is really quite accurate. There’s a looseness to Joey and Peggy’s interaction (with their John and Marsha bit), and while the space is technically small as far as agencies go there is a sort of open concept feel to the place which makes it feel more collaborative. While I realize that it’s technically a disadvantage for the agency to be so small, the close quarters feel puts the focus on the characters occupying the space – this is especially apparent, of course, in the lack of a table in a conference room, leaving no space for Don to doodle on a piece of paper or for anyone to sit silently in the corner. What I loved about that opening scene is that, to us, the agency is transferring from a hotel room, and so the names on the door, the logo on the wall, and the line of secretaries actually seem impressive. However, they’ve been living in this space for a while, and they’re still dreaming of the imaginary second floor, and so the Sugarberry story works towards mediating our perception of the new agency and the perception of the characters.
The second is that it helps, along with the Jantzen campaign, to show us just what the agency is working against. They pull the stunt with the ham because they are trying to turn mole hills into mountains, to turn a small ad buy into something larger, effectively acting on the advice which Don gives Jantzen later in the episode in terms of the balance of risk and reward. Pete and Peggy’s plan is highly dangerous, and ends up costing them more than they bargained for, but it sells hams, and it sells advertisements, and it was (as Peggy puts it) going great until it wasn’t. That seems like the motto around SCDP, as every potential client seems like it’s in their hands until they realize that the other agencies can promise more, throwing six guys onto a project that SCDP can barely handle (especially if Joey is their only artist, which seems to be the case). They love Don’s Glo-Coat commercial, and they love Don as a creative director, but ultimately they will be enticed by the bigger agency, overwhelmed with potential rather than being blown away by an actual good idea. What Pete and Peggy do is turn a campaign which is slipping away from them into something they can work with, using “shenanigans” that they wouldn’t have had to use with the strength of Sterling Cooper behind them.
Which, of course, brings us to Don Draper, who is resisting such shenanigans despite the fact that last season’s finale was filled with what I think everyone and their mother would consider to be shenanigans. That opening interview with Advertising Age is a painful exercise, the old Don colliding with the new agency in the worst possible way. Here is a man who lived his life in secrets, afraid of revealing the truth about his past, being asked to talk about himself for what amounts to a fluff piece – Roger and Bert should have known that this was a mistake, should have seen that he was not prepared to step into the limelight. While we’ve seen Don’s work inside the boardroom, pitching creative with intense passion, his name has never been on the door: he has been someone else’s weapon, a tool which helped elevate Sterling Cooper but which to some degree remained anonymous. At the new agency, Don misses that anonymity: while he offers a smug, self-satisfied smile as his commercial for Glo-Coat appears on his television, he wants that commercial to speak for itself, or at the very least he doesn’t want to be the one explaining it.
There has always been a distinct link between Don’s personal life and his work, going back to the “Carousel” pitch in particular, but I’m fascinated by how Don’s personal and professional lives have unfolded in the wake of last season’s conclusion. You’ll notice in the episode’s editing that Don’s life is not unlike a dream: there are numerous quick cuts from one day to the next, from morning to afternoon, which seem to indicate time lost. He spends much of his time in the office lying on his couch and daydreaming, as if he doesn’t know what to do with his time, and when Sally and Bobby come to visit it goes by in a flash without any sort of impact. By comparison, Betty’s time with Henry Francis’ family is all about moments extended too long, as we watch Betty try to force feed her daughter sweet potatoes before taking her into another room to pinch her or when the moment of passion in bed is interrupted by Sally and subsequently dissipates. Don’s life seems to flit from moment to moment, constantly moving from one place to another without time in between, while Betty is trying to remain in stasis, not even bothering to look for another place to live. It’s as if both are caught in a dream, and yet Don has every reason to escape while Betty has every reason to want to remain asleep so as to ignore the reality of her situation.
That reality is that Henry Francis is not that much different from Don at the end of the day. Don was always one for the chase, engaging in affairs because it offered a sense of danger which seemed to satisfying his sexual desires and complement his double life; it’s why, we presume, he prefers that his regular prostitute hit him during sex, helping him regain that sense of wrongdoing which is now absent after his divorce. That’s actually one of the biggest shocks of the episode: suddenly, Don is having sex with another woman, or going out on a date, and it’s no longer an example of Don’s adulterous ways. His behaviour here is more sad than it is deplorable, and it takes a few moments to realize that we can’t judge him as we once did for these sorts of actions. And yet, we could perhaps judge Henry Francis, who shows no interest towards Betty until Don shows up to pick up the kids, at which point he’s all over her before the car even exits the garage. His mother is ultimately right: what he wants Betty for does not involve marriage, but rather the thrill of stealing another’s man, of rescuing her from an adulterer by turning her into one. Betty isn’t ready to leave her home and admit that her perfect life with Henry isn’t going as she planned, while Henry isn’t willing to buy into that dream and purchase the house himself. Don may be biased in this case, but he’s right that it feels temporary, which Weiner nicely draws out in Henry’s time with his mother: in his relationship with Betty, the leaves from the table are in the pantry, not the basement, because nothing has its proper place, as a life has not yet been established.
Don, of course, has yet to establish a new life either (although it’s a non-life which he insures in the episode), which is why that opening question is so meaningful at this point in time: Don Draper was a charade built to fool the world, while Dick Whitman was the man living that charade, and now there’s no real need for the theatrics. Without Betty, Don is free to live whatever life he wants, and his new position of power at the agency has offered similar freedom, or at the very least the illusion of freedom. Suddenly, someone whose life was once determined (if not dictated) by those around them has been placed in a position of power over his personal and professional lives, and he doesn’t really know how to channel it. He knew how to channel his energies when he was constantly walking a tightrope, but now that he is able to chart his own path he’s losing his grip on the reality of the situation. He seems nonplussed about Lane’s pragmatic billing concerns, and is perfectly willing to let Jantzen leave as opposed to massaging their campaign week-in and week-out in order to satisfy them. Perhaps he’s wary about working to please people because it reminds him of the life he lost, or perhaps he simply lost sight of what it was that got him to this point; either way, the Don we see through the bulk of “Public Relations” is colliding with the rest of the business, much of which exists to fuel his creative desires.
It’s only fitting that it should all be captured in a conversation between Don and Peggy, as Peggy has always been the one character who can cut through Don’s outer shell. Yes, Roger is capable of getting him to go out on a date with Bethenny so he can begin to discover what the dating scene is like for a divorced man, but Don rarely takes Roger’s suggestions to heart (and they are rarely intended in that fashion). By comparison, Peggy is able to provoke Don in the best possible way, reminding him that the entire office is only trying to please him, and that the image of the agency which he claims she and Pete put at risk is ultimately dependent on him. He wants the work to speak for itself, and yet we learn in that early meeting with Jantzen that everyone outside of New York thinks the Glo-Coat ads came from a bigger agency. When Don answers the Wall Street Journal reporter’s question about whether he is the central figure at the agency, it isn’t the same self-importance which informs his satisfied little smile as he watches his own commercial unfold; rather, it’s a man taking control of the part of his destiny which he can control, just as he took control of the “Carousel” campaign or any other multitude of pitches. And so Don uses the scrappy underdog story of “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” to sell the firm to the papers, even perpetrating the mythical second floor which Harry desires to jump from.
Last season’s finale clearly set the stage for much of this to happen, offering that collision of forces which creates the potential for something great. However, much as Peggy and Pete’s supermarket tussle creates unexpected consequences, so too do parts of “Public Relations” head in subtle but surprising directions. Notice, for example, that Peggy no longer has her own office, and that Lane seems to be as marginal as he was back at Sterling Cooper. That heist of sorts in “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” sold a very exciting image for the future, and one that Don will surely build up for the papers, but Mad Men’s pace is not such that its potential could ever be captured. There are also cards which have yet to be played, like those left behind at Sterling Cooper (some of whom remain in the opening credits), or details on how the home lives of Pete, Lane, and Joan are handling the move (Peggy has a fake fiance, and Roger’s relationship with Jane seems pretty solid). By transporting us from the exciting early days to the point where one must rely on the nostalgia for the early days in order to remain viable in the future, the series resets us back into the methodical, fascinating pace in which Weiner tends to operate, and I’m certainly glad to have it back.
This isn’t to say the episode is perfect. I think Weiner really nicely captures the state of Don and Betty as characters, which is especially impressive considering how little screen time the latter has in the episode, but I think the Jantzen campaign ended up being one of those thematic anvils that sort of pulled me out of the episode. As noted, you can take the Sugarberry campaign and see clear connections with Don’s experience and the need to think outside the box in terms of how to sell himself and thus the agency, and the Jantzen campaign echoes these qualities while showing another side to the agency’s struggles to bring in accounts. However, the problem I have is with the ad copy itself: “So Well Built, We Can’t Show You the Second Floor” is so on-the-nose in terms of selling the agency, right down to the reference to the imaginary second floor, that it took me out of the “reality” of the situation. There were plenty of more subtle convergences between character and story in the episode, and that bit of copy went a tad bit too far.
But otherwise, 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.
And so, we look forward to those moments where it will be going great and those near-tragic moments where it will not.
- Some strong work from Phil Abraham here: it wasn’t the flashiest of directing jobs, but he nicely captured the strength of the new set design as well as the dream-like state of Don’s existence, which were integral to the episode’s success.
- Also, while I don’t mention it specifically above since I’ve sort of taken it for granted, great performances from all involved, in particular Hamm, Jones and Moss (who get the big moments in the episode).
- I was so spoiler-averse I was even avoiding the episode title, so I had a good laugh when I realized how perfectly the “Public Relations” title speaks to Weiner’s recent clashes with the media. There’s a heavy meta element to the premiere, but I’ll largely avoid it since I think the biggest problem with the huge kerfuffle is that it could take away from the fact that Weiner’s making damn good television. However, in the future, it will definitely be something interesting to return to.
- Matt Long isn’t the only familiar male face featured in the episode: while it’s only a small role, Peggy’s new beau (who she brings with her to buffer her collection of the bail funds from Don) is Blake Bashoff, who readers of the blog likely know best as Karl, Alex’s beloved, on Lost.
- Some really funny stuff here: I was especially taken with the conversation about the lack of a conference table, everything out of John Slattery’s mouth (I hope we get to hear more about his book), and the John and Martha runner. Sure, I don’t entirely “get” the latter, but Moss and Long had too much damn fun with it for me not to laugh every time I say the names to myself like a dork as I sit here writing the review.
- And, of course, there was also the utterly disturbing force-feeding: at first I thought it was funny, but then the food just sort of hung there, and then it fell, and then I was just really uncomfortable. Kiernan Shipka, added to the main cast this year, has grown quite a bit between seasons, but it befits what is growing closer to a mother/teenager dynamic, and her addition to the cast indicates that she is likely to continue to play an important role as we push further into the decade.
- Brief note while I think about it: when Don was sitting in the dark (which he does a lot, considering how little light there is in his apartment at night) at Betty’s waiting for them, I had presumed that he had been waiting for hours. Instead, it was only about 45 minutes; rather than simply showing Betty’s disrespect (which is certainly present), it also shows Don’s impatience, and how he wanted that to become a fight because he in some way desired the conflict. It may have been 11 months, but things are not close to civil between these two, and that sign really captured it.
- In this week’s “Hey Look, It’s the 60s!” moment, we have Peggy suggesting a culturally sensitive image of Thanksgiving for the Sugarberry commercial – really, though, it depends on who wins as far as its sensitivity goes.
- The larger historical picture is largely absent here, but Bethany brings some of it to light, discussing Andrew Goodman’s lynching in Mississippi and asking “is this what it takes to change things?” I’m guessing we might see more of this as the season goes on, as it only gets worse from here, but I’m definitely intrigued to see how this develops.
- For yet more on the episode, check out reviews from Keith Phipps and James Poniewozik, interviews from Alan Sepinwall and Jace Lacob, and even a podcast from Maureen Ryan and Ryan McGee.