The end of 1964 has the geometrical forms of a Mondrian painting, the gleaming white surfaces of a department store kitchen display, and a hum of optimism in the air. It’s a busy place, where young, smiling people push ideas unthinkable to previous generations within clean-lined spaces. It looks like the future. And the future looks bright. At least that’s the impression given by the office of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and if there’s one lesson to take away from “Public Relations,” Mad Men’s fourth season premiere, it’s that impressions count for a lot.
Don learns this the hard way, and quickly. It’s November 1964 as the season opens. Almost a year has passed since “Shut The Door. Have A Seat,” which found Don leading a mutiny against the about-to-be-swallowed Sterling-Cooper and without offering a breakdown of their client list, “Public Relations” quickly fills in the blanks as to what’s transpired for the new company. They’ve found success, but success of a precarious kind. An innovative new TV spot for Glo-Coat has caught the attention of Advertising Age, but SCDP is still forced to do a cattle call for the Jantzen account. They’re a viable ad agency but hardly the only one out there, a name that’s just starting to make an impression, but only just. What they need is a face to match the name. That’s where Don comes in, or should. But, in the words of the reporter that open the episode, who is Don Draper? He gives the best interview to Ad Age he thinks he can give without revealing his unusual past and naturally ends up coming off like a cipher. He’s used to doing the man-of-mystery-who-steps-out-of-the-shadows-only-when-required routine and that’s not going to work anymore.
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.
Maybe he’s leaning back on the comforts of an earlier time because his own present has grown so uncomfortable. “Public Relations” finds him meeting with his lawyer over drinks in the afternoon to talk about the last loose ends of the divorce, which includes getting Betty and Henry out of the house. His private life has gotten complicated as well. After agreeing to go on a date with Bethany—a set-up engineered by Roger and Jane, whose marriage is, somewhat surprisingly, still a going concern—Don makes a last check to make sure his sheets have been tucked in properly before leaving. This turns out to be an act of overconfidence.
Don’s not someone who’s ever had trouble meeting women, so it’s somewhat surprising that he agrees to the date in the first place. Is it the degree from Mt. Holyoke that makes him relent? The gymnastics experience? Either way, the evening doesn’t go quite as he most likely imagined it. Bethany’s giggly and girlish but confident enough to order a potentially messy meal of chicken Kiev and to drop a line like, “Don, I want to lift a shadow off this evening” without sounding as if she’s rehearsed it too much. She girlishly shows off her dress but also makes it clear she’s breaking a rule against seeing divorced men this evening. The date goes well, at least from her perspective, but it doesn’t end as Don planned.
Why is that? Is Bethany of a new generation of woman, one Don’s yet to figure out? She plays courtesans on stage but seems determined not to repeat the role in her own life. Has the divorce made him less appealing? Or, is it possible that Don has lost some of the charm that made women fall into his arms with seemingly little effort? The Glo-Coat’s still there, but perhaps women can see some grit beneath it. Has Don ever looked as deflated as he does at the end of that evening?
Not that he’s without female companionship. I’m not sure what to make of Don’s Thanksgiving visitor. Though the episode’s not entirely clear on this point, it looks like he’s now paying for sex. Well, not just sex: a particular kind of sex, the kind that gets him slapped around a lot. He’s been in this sort of situation before with Bobbie Barrett, but there more on the giving end than the receiving end. Where does this new predilection come from? Is it even new? Whatever the answers, the encounter leaves him spent, unable even to hear, much less answer the phone when it rings. But he seems to sense that satisfaction and comfort are two different things.
Later, though seething, Don never looks as at home as he does waiting for Betty and Henry to return, later than promised, following Don’s post-Thanksgiving weekend with the kids. He may be a man without an identity, and one who’s lost more than he’s gained in the year since he revolted against Sterling-Cooper, but he looks oddly at home on the couch, smoking with the dog at his feet. He’s angry but, for once, at ease; confident that he’s been wronged by a woman who can now only shrug when he expresses his desire to see his baby. It’s a testament to how good this show is—and let me just come out and say that “Public Relations” kicks off the fourth season without missing a beat from last year’s killer finale—that I found myself thinking that in spite of all Don’s done—all the lies, infidelities, betrayals, and callousness—he doesn’t deserve this.
There’s so much going on with Don—and more to discuss before we’re done—it’s easy to lose track of everyone else. We learn little about Roger other than he’s writing a book and, if I’m reading Pete and Don’s frustration correctly, drinking more. That said, John Slattery gets even more quotable lines than usual, from “I’ve spent some time with your catalog” and rolling on from there. Pete has, if anything, become more of a suck-up than before. Harry burns easily. Bert appears a bit exhausted by his new obligation to be out in the world. Lane looks concerned. Joan, as expected, keeps things running. (I love that the inner sanctum-like qualities of her new office make her resemble a queen bee more than ever.) Others are conspicuous by their absence, particularly Sal (somewhat expectedly), Paul, and Ken (though Aaron Staton remains in the credits.)
Peggy’s the person who’s changed most notably over the last year. I’m not sure which came first: the new hairstyle or the added confidence, but both are hard to miss. She drinks at work like the boys and, when asked to come up with a tagline, goes into a Don-like trance as she searches for inspiration. She bosses Joey around and tells him when he’s gone too far. And she’s not afraid to get creative to sell ham and wants credit for her idea, even if it encounters a minor disaster along the way. Most significantly, she’s standing up to Don at every turn now. He bullies her in front of her “fiancé” but hears about it later. And she provides a devastating mixture of admiration and chiding when she reminds Don that everyone at SCDP is there because of him and out of a desire to make him happy. It cuts enough that he leaves her out of the meeting, but I don’t think Peggy and Don are done sorting out the new boundaries of their relationship.
That’s a problem Don has on the homefront, too. Betty has a new life, but it’s still tangled up with his. The issue of her not leaving the house is more than a matter of convenience or wanting the best for the kids, no matter how much she protests. Despite her marriage to Henry, she’s still defining herself in relation to Don, even if now she’s mostly acting to spite him.
As for Betty, she’s lustier and more relaxed than before but just as cruel. If anything, she’s grown crueler. Henry’s mother says one nasty thing after another, both in front of Betty and behind her back, but she’s not wrong. Sally and Bobby are afraid of her. Sally acts out, but only up to a point and Bobby responds by trying to make himself as likable as possible to everyone around him. (Well, he likes sweet potatoes, doggonit.) Parts of Henry’s desire have started to give way to fear, too. He clearly wants out of the house, but defers to her and lets her take the lead in dealing with Don. I’m not sure he’s regretting his marriage yet, but I suspect that regret will come, if he ever again turns back into the sort of man who makes decisions.
Don, on the other hand, remains a man of action, at least in the office. I’ve watched “Public Relations” twice now, and I’m convinced that he orchestrated the climactic blow-up with the Jantzen people before he walked into the room. He knew the account was a non-starter and that he could define SCDP—and himself—by his adamant rejection of Jantzen and its backward-looking attitude. Notice that as soon as he walks out of the office he sets up the Bert-suggested meeting with the man from the Wall Street Journal. He’s got a story to tell now. It’s the story of a scrappy upstart ad agency that broke with a stodgy old company to take over two floors of the Time-Life building (well, sort of), shine it up to look like the future, and take on clients who want the most forward-thinking representation 1964 has to offer. Who is Don Draper? He’s the guy who made that happen. At least for now.
• “I’d like to see him.” [Shrug.] So cold.
• “John! Marsha!” Puzzled by that? Peggy and Joey are riffing on “John And Marsha” by Stan Freberg, a song satirist and, significantly for our purposes, the man Advertising Age called “the father of funny advertising.”
• Glo-Coat was a real product that, the best I can tell, no longer exists. Its name has been taken over by a dog shampoo. They did have some peculiar ads in the 1960s:
Then brought in Loretta Lynn in the 1970s:
• The final song, “Tobacco Road,” was written by singer/songwriter John D. Loudermilk, who drew on his experiences growing up poor in Durham, North Carolina. The Nashville Teens turned it into a hit. They’re an interesting footnote of a band. The Nashville Teens weren’t from Nashville at all, but Surrey, England. Like a lot of British bands, including the Beatles, the Teens cut their teeth gigging in Germany. That’s them barely keeping up with Jerry Lee Lewis on the immortal Live At The Star Club album recorded in 1962. It was the British Invasion—a cultural trend otherwise unacknowledged here—that swept them, briefly, to stardom with a pounding, hardscrabble tale of American poverty. It’s a thrilling way to end the episode and a thematically apt one as well. Here’s Don reinventing himself again, this time as the public face of SCDP. He’s got his own rags-to-riches story that he can’t really tell. So he tells some other story, a cover version of his own life remade to suit the trends of the times. And it sounds like a hit.