Sunday, July 25, 2010

MAD MEN 4.1--"Public Relations"

"The winner of the ham battle is you."

It's my blog--I'll review Mad Men if I bloody well want to. I will, in deference to all y'all who are soon to embark on watching the first three seasons, I'll tread as lightly with the spoilers as I can manage.

Last year, in one of the best season finales ever, everything you knew about Mad Men (assuming you did, in fact, know about it) got blown up--Kennedy had been assassinated, our nominal protagonist Don Draper's "secret identity" got outed as his marriage crumbled under the weight of revelation and Sterling Cooper, assumed to be our entire base of operations was no more. Along the way, a few feuds got resolved and some characters that had drifted off came back to the fold at the head of a new agency--Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce--in one of the most effective "Holy shit, they're going for this" moments since Shane Douglas threw down the NWA belt.

It was an oddly happy cap to what had been a really dark season up until then, and I like to think there was a bit of an examination of Draper's line from earlier in the season that change wasn't good or bad--it just is. A repeated element of the show is how people respond to seismic changes, macrocosm and microcosmic, the world and their personal lives. How do you live with the ground shifting under your feet all the time?

Needless to say, given how things were left--broken, dissolute, uncertain, but oddly hopeful--waiting for Season 4 took a bit of willpower.

But now it comes and here we go--Mad Men is here again. We join our gang in Thanksgiving 1964 a year after the formation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, now ensconced in swank new offices that eschew Sterling Cooper's teal and pink pastels for frosted glass and steel. Despite their sleek, mid-60s reinvention, all is not exactly perfect.

For one thing Don is feeling trapped, and when Draper is trapped, he will do stupid things both personally and professionally. It begins at the outset with him evading various questions put to him by an interviewer from Advertising Age in which the interviewer (who is a Korean war vet, a fact which is significant if you know Don Draper at all) asks The Question on which the whole series has pivoted: "Who is Don Draper?" (For those who came in late, any time you hear this question--and I can think of three places off the top of my head--nothing good comes of it) Because Draper can't (or won't) answer, the overall thrust of the interview paints him as a nondescript cipher and the interview fails to bring SCDP the good press it needs as an up and coming ad agency. Draper, being evasive as all hell as an integral element of his survival, isn't up to being the "face" of SCDP and can't self-mythologize himself enough to sell the narrative of them being iconoclastic hotshots.

Personally, he's a bit dislocated--he lives in a claustrophobic apartment (seriously, for a show that sticks people in spacious living areas full of 60s design, it's like a goddamn closet) and financially tries to cut the final ties to ex-wife (and three-year World Champion Most Awful Mother, New York Division) Betty, who continues to treat her kids with the care and gentility of Ike Turner if Ike had been a child psychiatrist. The main problem is Henry and Betty won't get out of his house, won't pay rent, and won't buy the damn thing, thus freeing up some desperately needed cash and allowing Draper some closure.

Moving forward, things aren't going much better. A date set up by Roger's wife (who has made getting him a new wife "a project"--there's a rather perpetual stigma about divorcees to overcome) goes badly for him, which is kind of a big thing as Draper doesn't often get cockblocked. It's slightly uncomfortable to see him totally fail to pick up on signals, as for the previous three years we've seen him be able to win over people and make it seem effortless, both personally and professionally. Now there is hesitation and uncertainty where vision and confidence once stood. Perhaps it owes to the fact that he's in limbo--still tethered to his past and finding reaching for the future a difficult prize to grasp.

So he does what any lonely bachelor would do on Thanksgiving: he hires a hooker to slap him whilst having sex. It's as American as football and cranberry sauce. It's odd, as traditionally he's almost always the aggressor in his relationships with women on the show, but whereas before he typified the 60's man's man . . .now he's a bit smaller and sadder this way. It's a microcosm within the macrocosm.

Meanwhile, lest you forget this is an ensemble show, in our "B" plot we have a publicity stunt about ham going hilariously wrong. It serves to leaven the heaviness of Draper's problems by contrast, but also gives us a chance to see where everyone else in SCDP--Peggy has a little more power and is a little more open about speaking her mind and Pete is even more of a wormy little asshole than he was before (then again, it's his job to be so) When these two put their minds on dealing with their client's halfhearted attempts to build an ad campaign in the name of selling ham, they decide to liven things up (and save the account) they decide to hire two women to fight over a ham at the grocery store as a PR stunt. By the time this is all over with, bail and hush money are dished out, the whole mess is an embarrassment internally but it saves the account and everyone gets a free ham.

But it plays into another theme running along in the episode--SCDP is getting the wrong clients (who never seem to want anything adequately creative) The Ham people don't want to spend out for anything adequately creative, the bikini (sorry, "two-piece swimsuit") people want to sell product without playing on the fact that bikinis show more flesh, something which is about as easy as typing out an essay without ever using the "e" key. That last finally sets Don off on a roaring rampage of prickishness that culminates with him stalking off to another interview and acquitting himself slightly better in terms of portraying SCDP as the scrappy upstart, even if he comes off as a bit of a smug douche in the bargain. Then again, it was for the Wall Street Journal, and a good ad man knows his audience.

It was a pretty good episode. Sure, some of the triumph of the end of season three has worn off, but that's to be expected--counterrevolutions always follow revolutions and even blowing up the Death Star was a short-lived uptick on the way to Luke getting his sabering hand cut off, but it's a different sort of place and it's going in an interesting direction: A man who has constantly wrapped himself in one myth (or "lie" to be more on the nose about it) now has to adopt another and find out who he is essentially by himself. I really enjoyed this episode, even if it was uncomfortable--how many TV shows can have their main character slapped around by a hooker, learn what a supernumerary is and weave a plot around a fake fight for ham?

NEXT TIME--Well, there's little point in trying to decipher Mad Men's "next episode" teasers, as they are pretty damn opaque. Suffice it to say, something will happen, then something else will happen. A few times Draper will look pensive about something, Roger will say something bitingly witty. There will be a lot of smoking and drinking. Next time on Mad Men--"Christmas Comes But Once A Year." Destroy everything, connect everything.

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