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Give 'Em the Old Razzle Dazzle

By Sarah Carlson | TV | July 26, 2010 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | July 26, 2010 |

“Who is Don Draper?” is the question that opens “Mad Men’s” fourth season, asked to Don himself by an unenthusiastic, one-legged reporter from Advertising Age. Don can’t answer, even if he wanted to, and I can’t either, at least not without using the standard adjectives of “cold,” “amoral” and “borderline-sociopathic.” The question I would have asked Don, and have asked myself more than once, is, “Why do I watch ‘Mad Men’?” Why do I tune into a beautifully crafted yet emotionally unavailable Social Studies presentation each week, especially when I know how the ’60s will end? (Badly.) But things have changed in the “Mad Men” world, especially with the Season Three finale “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” in which the major players of the series broke off from Sterling Cooper advertising agency to form Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — an almost Sorkian plot twist where your favorite characters find a way to stick it to the perceived man and invent their own agency with stolen supplies and clients and a few winks and grins.

Creator Matthew Weiner and crew found a way to change the story but also bring it back to its origins: The agency. Don’s (Jon Hamm) home life was falling apart — wife, Betty (January Jones), asked for a divorce and headed to Reno with boyfriend Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley) to make the procedure easier — but he wouldn’t let everything in his life crumble when he learned Sterling Cooper would be sold for the second time in a year. He begged boss Roger Sterling (John Slattery) to come with him and Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), as well as subordinates Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), and even played nice with Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), one of the Brits who took over the company first. And in his honest groveling we finally saw a glimpse of the humanity we so desperately needed to keep us going. With Sunday’s aptly titled Season Four premiere “Public Relations,” Weiner appears to be still at it, finding a way to make the acclaimed series not only fresh, but engaging. We know the 1960s sucked; we don’t need a history lesson. We need to see real people leading real lives that just happen to be unfolding in a tumultuous era. We need a PR campaign to give us a reason to watch, and Sunday, that’s what we got.

At Thanksgiving 1964, the show picks up almost a year where it left off, with Don, Roger and Pete at a sales call, trying to pick up the business of Jantzen swimwear. Don does his usually smooth talking and the three return to the SCDP offices in New York’s Time Life building, a significant upgrade from the hotel room where the break-off company began. The offices are bright and bustling, and we catch glimpses of Joan (Christina Hendricks), now with her own office, and Peggy at work, as well as new faces, such as Joey (Matt Long), the cute, sweater-vest wearing art guy. The Jantzen reps were impressed with Don’s work on a Glo-Coat Floor Wax commercial, an ad that went for a narrative style over immediate sales pitch and shook up the ad creative world. That’s why reporter from Advertising Age, Jack Hammond (Chris McGarry), wanted to talk with Don, but even with that success, SCDP is still growing. “We’re the scrappy upstart,” Pete says to Don. “You don’t say that to the clients, do you?” he replies.

It’s all about appearances — getting the message across to any type of client or consumer that you can be trusted to create a great product because you yourself are a great product. But in his interview with Hammond, Don was aloof and vague, seeing his work as the product, not himself. Hammond leaves without much information, and the profile he writes is more brutal than honest about the genius behind the Glo-Coat ad, going so far as to imagine Don having his own Dorian Gray-like portrait in his attic doing his aging for him. Roger and Bert and most everyone chastise Don for not taking the interview seriously enough and potentially hurting the young firm’s chances at attracting clients before they’ve even been open a year. Burt even wonders if they can do another interview, this time with The Wall Street Journal, to get better press. This was supposed to be an advertisement for the agency, and Don missed the boat. Clients are upset, and soon the partners learn from Pete that they’ve lost the Jai Alai account they brought over from SC because Don didn’t mention them in the interview — he didn’t mention any of his clients, actually. That leaves Lucky Strike/American Tobacco comprising 71 percent of the agency’s billings, Lane points out — not a sustainable position. Now is not the time to act like you don’t care, Don. Or, as Roger said, “You turned all the sizzle from Glo-Coat into a wet fart. Plus, you sound like a prick.”

Don’s social life isn’t any better. He’s living in a dingy New York apartment and has what appears to be less than joint custody of his children, Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and Bobby (Jared Gilmore). Betty and Henry were supposed to have vacated his house by Oct. 1, as Don’s lawyer points out, but Don isn’t in a hurry to push them out. Thanksgiving with the new couple is an awkward affair, mainly because Henry’s mother, Pauline, is no fan of Betty’s or her children. I can’t blame her for not liking the wretched Sally, though, even if the kid hadn’t thrown up part of her dinner at the table in front of the extended family. Pauline is convinced the kids are terrified of Betty and that her son shouldn’t have even bothered marrying her. Just a sample: “Well, I know what you see in her, and you could have gotten it without marrying,” and “I don’t know how you can stand living in that man’s dirt.” Classy, grandma. Betty and Henry keep Don waiting one night when he returned the kids from a weekend as his apartment, and this finally prompts Don to ask when the newlyweds are hitting the road. Betty says she hasn’t found a new place yet, but later tells Henry that it’s not fair to uproot the kids and that they’re not ready for the change, etc. Henry acquiesces, which in one way is a nice change from Don’s bullying, but also could prove dispiriting if he lets Betty run over him.

They seem happy for the most part, which is something Don isn’t. He invites over a prostitute he already knows well for Thanksgiving for some loving and … slapping? Yes, she knows what Don wants, and it’s to be slapped. Don’s crisis from Season Three of not knowing who he is and wanting to have control over his life — helping build his own company so he can have something to show for his life — is still here a year later. He’s desperate to feel alive in any way. Roger set him up on a date a few nights before this with a friend of his wife’s, Bethany Van Nuys, played by Anna Camp, of “True Blood” Season 2. She’s 25 and perky, but not an idiot. In the cab ride home after dinner with Don, she tells him she wants to see him again, but not that night. “Let me walk you in,” Don says. “No, I know that trick,” she replies, for the win.

Back at the office, Peggy and Pete, who now work together swimmingly, concoct a plan to hire actresses to fight over a canned ham at a supermarket right before Thanksgiving to drum up business for the ham company, one they’re afraid they might be losing as an account. The stunt works and drums up business and newspaper stories, until it doesn’t, when one of the actresses injured in the faux fight presses charges against the other. Peggy has to turn to Don for bail and hush money for the actresses, a set of scenes that provide Peggy with great lines and a chance to laugh, a refreshing take on her character. Don is pissed about the ham plan, him being above those kinds of games, and he berates Peggy on Thanksgiving Day as he gives her the bail and hush money. A man, Mark (Black Bashoff of “Lost”), with Peggy interjects, telling Don to lay off Peggy before he says that he’s her fiance. He’s not, of course, but I assume they’re dating? Back in the office after the holiday, Peggy apologizes to Don for not informing him of the scheme, but when he tells her “You need to think a little bit more about the image of this agency,” she has the better line: “Well, nobody knows about the ham stunt, so our image remains pretty much where you left it.” Well played, and the third woman of the night to give Don a bitch slap, either physically or verbally. Watching Peggy’s growth has been one of the more entertaining plotlines of the series, and now at SCDP, she has a stronger voice, authority and confidence. And a better haircut.

Don lets her get her jab in, but he doesn’t want Peggy in on the Jantzen meeting. In it, he pitches a slightly risque ad for the swimwear company that labels itself a “family business” and whose owners want something more “wholesome.” They sell a two-piece bathing suit, they say, not a bikini. The two piece is for modest women; the bikini is the downfall of society. (“Do you want women who want bikinis to buy your two piece, or do you just want to make sure women who want to buy a two piece don’t suddenly buy a bikini?” Don asks them at the beginning of the episode.) They don’t like his pitch, and Don doesn’t care. He walks out of the meeting with Roger on his heels, the loses it when Roger asks him to rethink the campaign. Pete is trying to talk to the Jantzen reps, but Don storms back in and kicks them out of the office. He’s not willing to sacrifice his creativity, but he also knows he needs to work on his image. Get him Burt’s connection at The Wall Street Journal, he says. Cut to a final scene similar to the opening, where Don is back with a reporter answering navel-gazing questions. This time, he’s ready for the spin — ready to market himself. He takes credit for the creativity of SCDP, and especially it’s creation. When he learned the previous year SC was being sold, he told the man, he thought, “I could die of boredom, or holster up my guns. So I walked into Lane Pryce’s office and said, ‘Fire us.’ ” Well, that’s kinda what happened. But the reporter eats it up, and Don is back in the game.

“Public Relations” kept the momentum of the Season Three finale and even picked it up a pace, adding more touches of humor and pathos than was present in most of the first two seasons. Breaking up the Draper household was a smart move on Weiner’s part, allowing us to still explore the family dynamic but in a manner that doesn’t retread the same stories of Don cheating on Betty and Betty looking bored. We’ll see if Don’s newfound understanding on how to market himself along with his craft will lead him to opening up in relationships, or just make him better at manipulating them — whether the answer to “Who is Don Draper?” will be the truth or another PR campaign. That SCDP is a “scrappy upstart” also makes for more compelling stories; no one wants to watch a show about the guys on top forever. The ad men and women are back to figuring out the game as they go and as it changed, mirroring how society had to figure out how to change along with the 1960s. It’s almost a year after Kennedy was assassinated but still before some of the bigger Civil Rights movement events. At dinner with Don, Bethany mentions Andrew Goodman, one of the three Civil Rights activists murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Miss., on June 21, 1964. “The world is so dark right now,” she says. “Is that what it takes, to change things?” We know the answer is “Yes,” but for now, we have to watch the “Mad Men” characters figure it out for themselves. And finally, I care about tuning in to watch that happen.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh Corgi.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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