Wednesday 28 July 2010

Mad Men - My job is to write ads, not go around talking about who I am.

Mad Men: 4x01 Public Relations.

“Who is Don Draper”, asks a reporter from “Advertising Age” in the beginning of the episode. We know that the man sitting opposite him is, first of, a Don Draper impersonator, a man who has built his life on a stolen identity. Don shows his disdain for the idea of telling a story about himself – “I’m from the Mid-West. We’re taught that it’s not polite to talk about yourself.” Nobody at Don’s now one-year old firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is happy with the resulting article which paints a picture of Don as a handsome “cipher”, and they lose a client over the fact that Don failed to mention them. The article is just one of the signs of a shift in corporate culture (and naturally, culture in general) that has taken place in the years we’ve followed Don so far. The episode is aptly titled “Public Relations”, a reference both to the personal relationships portrayed on the show, and the shift from advertising to PR, from telling a story about a product to telling a story about yourself, first and foremost.

“Do you want women who want bikinis to buy your two-piece or do you just want to make sure that women who want a two-piece don’t suddenly buy a bikini?”

The father-and-son from the modest family company trying to sell more two-piece bathing suits without employing the same “girly magazine” advertisements their competitors go for are just one catalyst for Don’s complete change of mind by the end of the episodes. He designs a campaign that completely ignores all their wishes for modesty; when they explain, still in awe at the great Don Draper and his magic abilities (one of his tv spots is currently widely talked about), that they want something else, he tells them to leave. Don says “You need to decide what kind of company you want to be. Comfortable and dead, or risky and possibly rich.” – which is exactly the decision SCDP has to make too. The offices might be modern now, with milk-glass windows for transparency, lighter furniture, a chair-circle instead of a conference room, but Don’s reaction at Peggy’s and Peter’s idea for a guerrilla marketing campaign involving two actresses fighting for ham points at a deeply rooted conservatism about their profession (exactly the sentiment he expresses in the beginning to the reporter).

“Before you ask me all the questions you have to let me finish one glass.”

Since Betty is now newly married to Henry, things have changed for Don too: He doesn’t go out and sleep with the glamorous, interesting women and relies on the fact that his wife is back at home, taking care of the children. He isn’t willing to talk about it, but Don is clearly not coping well with the new situation. His apartment is dark and looks small (although he claims to be rich, it’s a hole compared to the place Pete inhabits), the woman he goes out with turns him down when he offers to walk her to her apartment (“I know that trick”), and he is now paying for sex, since he presumably couldn’t even ask the innocent opera super Bethany to hit him if they got together.
Still, the scene at the restaurant and the conversation they have is one of my favourite parts of the episode. First of, she looks almost exactly like Betty, but the conversation takes an unexpected, serious turn that clearly leaves Don baffled.
Bethany: “Jane has made you her personal cause.”
Don: “And there are so many real problems in this world.”
Bethany: “I know. The world is so dark right now. The country. My goodness you made me feel very serious all of a sudden.”
Don: “I don’t know if I can make you feel better about the world.”
Bethany: “One of the boys killed in Mississippi, Andrew Goodman, he was from here. A girlfriend of mine knew him from summer camp. Is that what it takes, to change things?”
I wonder whether Don, when he says “There are so many real problems in this world”, is also thinking that advertising seems like a relative unimportant thing considering the assassination of a president, a looming war, and the killings of Civil Rights Activists in the South (Andrew Goodman was one of three Civil Rights Activists who registered black voters in Mississippi and got killed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964). We don’t really know what Don thinks about the world, about politics, and it catches him by surprise that his 25 year old dinner date should say something that resonates with him.

“You know something? We are all here because of you. All we wanna do is please you.”

This is an episode about image and change, about how we present ourselves to others (like Betty, desperately trying to force Sally to behave at the thanksgiving dinner table, Don expecting a superficial conversation with Bethany and instead getting something he didn’t expect at all, the bathing-suit company trying to maintain a modest image in a world where modesty doesn’t sell anymore).
At the end of the episode, Don realizes that “Who gives a crap what I say anyway, my work speaks for me” isn’t true at all anymore. His second interview with the Wall Street Journal reporter almost sounds like a pitch for an advertisement; after all, Don knows how to tell a story, he was just reluctant so far to tell one about himself.
Reporter: “There is always a name in every partnership that defines who they are. In the case of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, would you say that’s Don Draper?”
Don: “Yes.”
Reporter: “Really?”
Don: “Last year, our agency was being swallowed whole. I realized I had two choices. I could die of boredom or holster up my guns. So, I walked into Lane Pryce's office, and I said, fire us."
It is a great origin story for the company (as the final episode of last season proved), and it’s a story Don deliberately decides to tell.


Betty Draper can’t be an easy role to play. If anything, the divorce from Don and the new marriage has left her even more incompetent – the dinner guests at Henry’s family observe in shock how she treats Sally, and Henry’s mother later says “They are terrified of her”. It’s almost like Betty secretly wants a complete clean break, but at the same time, is unable to let go of her old life (she is unwilling to move out of the house, and isn’t looking for a new one). Henry seems equally frustrated, although that’s not really explicit here. Subtlety has always been one of the greatest strengths of “Mad Men” – Henry doesn’t sleep with Betty in their bed, but once they are in the car, he almost ravishes her, as if she was still married to Don and they were still having an affair (his mother tells him “you could have gotten that without marrying her”, and possibly he realizes that right now, that he would rather have an affair with Betty than be married to her).

Random notes:

When Peter finds out that the one-legged reporter from “Advertising Age” is a Korea veteran, he quickly jumps up to say “we’re grateful for your sacrifice”. I really, really wonder how the Vietnam War is going to influence the male employees at the firm. I believe the military draft was introduced in 1965? 

The introduction of Peggy and “the new guy” (Jamie?) was hilarious. They play off each other well, and finally, she seems to have found an environment in which she can work well. We also see that she might just grow up to be just as good at this as Don is (when she comes up with the “Our hams are worth fighting over” thing and Peter just marvels at her).

Peter, about the two actresses for the stunt: “I can use my expense account if I say that they’re whores”.

I remember watching American television shows when I was younger and noticing how the TV was just always on (I believe they don’t really do that anymore now, energy crisis and all that), but Don just really, really embraces the notion.

I didn’t even realize last season how much I love the interaction between Peggy and Don. The entire storyline with the ham fight is played for comic relief, but at the same time, the scenes in which Peggy has to confess to Don what they did without his permission (and ask him for bail and hush money) are priceless. (also her desperate “Do you think you’re my first call”).

The chair circle is one of my favourite things ever. I hope Don gets plenty of more chances to kick around those beautifully modern swivel chairs in the future.

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