Sunday, July 25, 2010

"Mad Men" recap: A conversation about why there is no table

Spoilers on the season 4 premiere of "Mad Men" below. Don't click through if you don't want to know.

"Who is Don Draper?" asks the Advertising Age reporter gently grilling our beloved anti-hero in the opening scene. True to his character, he doesn't know what to say. As loyal viewers, we know that's likely because he doesn't know who Don Draper is. Heck, he's not even Don Draper. In all fairness, how was he supposed to answer that question?
But Don's inability to properly pimp himself in what's supposed to be a fluffy piece of promotion for the still-young Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is just one obstacle facing the burgeoning firm. The premiere takes place nearly a year after last season's finale, in which Don, Roger and most of the other main characters left Sterling Cooper and formed a new agency. The good news is that they've moved out of the hotel they occupied at the end of last season and into some nice office space.
Also, they have at least one good campaign -- Don's commercial for Glo-Coat, an admittedly brilliant Western parody -- under their belt.
Yet Don, Roger and Pete are still showing up for cattle calls and begging for business. And Don's lackluster interview has the potential to ruin the firm (as does Peggy and Pete's ham stunt, though that, at least, turns out to be success -- albeit one that ends up costing poor Don $280 in bail and hush money).
Even the spacious-by-comparison-to-a-cramped-hotel-room office space has serious short-comings. The conference room has no conference table, which embarrasses the employees and makes clients uncomfortable. And, of course, there's that non-existent second floor.
In fact, throughout the entire episode, it's evident that there are major elements missing, not just in the office, but in the lives of the characters. The most obvious example is the reporter interviewing Don, who has lost a leg in Korea.
But Don, as always, has major elements missing, too. Like the reporter, he uses prosthetics to compensate for the loss of his wife and children. These prosthetics are mostly emotional. He has a maid, who seems to exist primarily so Don doesn't come home to an empty apartment each night. He doesn't eat her food, and doesn't appreciate it when she straightens up. The importance of the hooker who visits on Thanksgiving is more obvious. She offers sex, but also the kind of physical punishment that an angry, self-hating man like Don might crave -- particularly with the loss of Betty's constant reproach.
Betty, meanwhile, has married Henry and has the children (including baby Gene, who isn't there when Don comes to pick up the kids -- another missing thing), but their life is also full of holes. They don't even have their own home, and continue to live in Don's house.
In fact, no one seems to be totally whole. Peggy seems to be happy and is still a creative dynamo, but she gets frustrated when she can't keep her difficult clients happy, and when Don calls her out for the ham stunt. Pete is more powerful, and more confident, than when he was at Sterling Cooper, but he still has a baby tantrum when things don't go his way.
It's not that this is surprising. A change of scene doesn't change what's inside you. But, at the very least, the gang has to make their new venture more solid if it's going to last.
Anyway, here are some more thoughts on "Public Relations."
* In addition to Don, Betty, Roger, Peggy and Pete, we also saw glimpses of Lane Pryce, Bert Cooper, Harry Crane and the ever-luminous Joan, now back in her rightful place -- offering encouragement and making this fragile office seem whole. If only we saw more of her.
* In spite of all his angst, Don does get one bright moment, his date with the Virginia Mayo lookalike played by Anna Camp, perhaps best known for her work as Jason's anti-vamp fundamentalist lady love on season 2 of "True Blood." Don, as we learned from his encounter with Miss Farrell, can't resist a woman who pushes him away. And when his blind date refuses him little more than a smooch, we know he's hooked.
* Of course, the date is the work of that world-class match-making team, Jane and Roger Sterling. Roger cajoles Don into the date with a typically awesome Sterling-ism: "If you hit it off, come turkey day, maybe you can stuff her!"
* In fact, this episode was filled with Roger gems, including this insight about Ad Age: "So cheap, they can't even afford a whole reporter." Or this take on Don's disastrous interview: "You turned all the sizzle from Glo-Coat into a wet fart!"
* But it's the always deceptively wise Bert Cooper who finally drives home to Don the importance of self-promotion. Roger Morse didn't get that much screen time this episode, but he did have this wonderful line at the tale end the scene in which the gang learns they've lost the Jai Alai account due to Don's interview: "Turning creative success into business is your work -- and you failed."
* Indeed, Don completely ignores the request of the Jantzen people to come up with a modest campaign for their two-piece bathing suit. They're not interested in his provocative campaign, and Don refuses to compromise for them. Is he right? In his defense, he probably wasn't going to get the account anyway, so why compromise his creativity? On the other hand, his job is, on some level, to give the client what the want. At thriving Sterling Cooper, he had the luxury of being audacious. At a struggling "scrappy underdog," he needs to do a little more sucking up.
* Ever since watching the episode, I've had the song "Tobacco Road" -- the Nashville Teens version that plays over the final scene -- stuck in my head. What a great song.


The Home Spa Goddess said...

Roger did get all of the good lines this episode.

My jaw was on the floor after the slapping hooker! I also remember Don's date as the wife of the Light of Day leader from True Blood:)

Great recap! I'll have my video recap up tomorrow on my Episode After Party youtube channel.

Bill Scurry said...

I'm so cagey about how this is going to unfold, after feeling burned by last season's weirdness -- but I did enjoy this greatly. However, I feel like the entire Betty/Henry subplot is unnecessary, mostly owing to my not caring or believing anything about either of them.

Lee Steele said...

All the in-office drinking started to drift into self parody. A Times interview of a real "Mad man" from the time says that people drank at lunch and at Happy Hour, but never from bar carts set up in the office. Brilliant of you to connect all those "missing elements" into a meaningful theme, Amanda!