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Friday, 16 of April of 2021

Mad Men – “Public Relations”

“Oh, good. I got you while you’re vulnerable.”

I don’t like to read the advance reviews of a show, not necessarily for the spoilers but because I don’t like things to skew my perspective, making me pay attention to things that are within the bias of a reviewer that gets paid to consume. That’s not to say anything bad about professional reviewers. It might end up that I become one someday for all I know. This is mostly a warning for you, the reader. I did not receive an advance copy of this episode like so many did weeks ago, as evidenced by some hub-bub over a reviewer’s responsibility with spoilers, so my thoughts on the episode might be rudimentary and not as thoughtful as those who have been able to ruminate on content of season premiere.

Did that come off spiteful? I didn’t mean for it to come off spiteful.

Although there is a lot of spite in this episode so maybe it’s rubbing off on me. With the divorce and Betty and Don sniping at each other plus everyone in the office being angry with Don for a botched PR opportunity compounded with Don getting angry with clients for being prudes, and we can even say the new agency itself is in spite of their former corporate owners, this is an episode based in spite. Even the actresses Peggy and Pete hire for a publicity stunt are spiteful toward each other.

Oh, did I mention that, with all the hype going on about and around Mad Men that I assume you don’t mind a spoiler or two if you’re reading this review? I didn’t? Oh well. You should be watching it live anyway since it probably is the best show on television never to get above a 1.0 in Male 18-49. Let that be your lesson.

The best thing about this season so far started last season. Although I appreciated the merger storyline, I always felt like the folks at PPL were portrayed with a Monty Python-esque silliness to them, like some goofy, low-brow Brit caricatures. They might as well have been drinking tea, wearing monocles, and snacking on crumpets the whole time. Pryce might have been the least jokey of those from the other side of the Atlantic and even he is a bit of a stereotype, stiff upper-lip and all that.

That’s different from the last three seasons where everything in his life is grand and he (multiple recipient of the Nate Fisher Award for Excellence in Jackassery) constantly pushes the boundaries trying to ruin himself.

Besides that, though, it felt a bit lackluster, possibly due to my expectations. The close of last season showed all my favorite characters (except Kinsey) in a hotel room together, hammering out the details and the beginnings of a new agency. I kind of wanted to see them grow the company, working elbow to elbow in that small space for an episode or two. Instead, we skipped ahead almost a full year to after they already have a new space, people are more established, and we have a crop of new cast. I appreciated how they are different being in a “start up” agency, especially in the confidence level of Pete and Peggy. Disappointing but not enough to sour the episode.

What did confuse me a little is how everyone expected Don Draper, the most secretive man in television that isn’t a former or current federal agent, to be open and honest with a newspaper reporter about his life and work. This is a man that hid behind the brass and corporate structure at Sterling Cooper his entire advertising career and, suddenly, they want him to be talkative, outgoing, and play figurehead to this fledgling operation. I know that no one else would want to do it (maybe Roger) but I don’t know what they really expected of Draper. He is a man of no past, quick temper, and is constantly sauced. That’s their front man?

Peggy makes a good point later about Don being the reason they were all there. Draper represents some kind of reluctant messiah, this bastion of charisma he was never prepared to be since the foundation of his life is an act. Shoving this personality forward to the media introduces it to scrutiny that, before, it only took a person peeking into a shoebox to crumble. The folks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce now want him to reveal more of himself, offer up information to the public, capitalize on these press opportunities for the sake of the new company. I don’t think they have the right man for the job.

Especially since he’s so low right now. The home life thread is the least interesting to me now (especially since I really have a distaste for Henry Francis) but, in respect to Don, his kids only being around occasionally (the only people in his life, other than Peggy, that almost understand him), his ex-wife being married and snippy, and he having to resort to a prostitute for sex (what the what?) have to weigh heavy on his ego (fake as it is). The only success he has the entire episode is reveling in the limelight cast by a commercial for a floor-cleaning product that “tells a story.” The man that constantly preached getting rid of “and thens” and trying to boil a message down to its lowest point so housewives would understand is now innovating by creating story-motivated commercials people will talk about, essentially the great-grandfather of viral video advertisements. Everything else in Draper’s life is crap.

That’s different from the last three seasons where everything in his life is grand and he (multiple recipient of the Nate Fisher Award for Excellence in Jackassery) constantly pushes the boundaries trying to ruin himself. The video for the opening credits have never been more apt as a man tumbling yet distracted by his industry. I like the change since I felt his time with the school teacher last season was just a rehashing of his cyclical philandering storyline, where he does what he pleases and it ends up biting him but not destroying him. A humbled, pathetic Don Draper in his personal life sets him up for grandeur and boasting in his professional life to compensate. The swim suit company he pitches, the one that shills garments specifically designed to bare skin yet tries to pull away from the reputation of enabling half-naked ladies, is an apt metaphor for how he sees himself: an emaciated wolf wandering in the life of a family man. That life is now shattered so all that’s left is this pathetic-looking predator. I’m really trying to not say he’s hungry like the wolf. His refutation of the paradoxical swim suit company is like the shirking of his own robe paradox. He tries to accept who he is, demonstrated by the cock-swinging he does for the WSJ article at the end.

That life is now shattered so all that’s left is this pathetic-looking predator. I’m really trying to not say he’s hungry like the wolf.

Noel has mentioned several times that Sally Draper is his touchstone to caring about the series and I feel like, especially now that she’s older, she will continue to be a driving force for some. But, for me, it’s about the people at the agency, since they are the only ones remaining that care to explore Don Draper. Betty doesn’t care anymore and the children are just that, unable, unwilling, or ill-prepared to fall into the rabbit hole that is our protagonist. That is not to say he is a complex man since his complications are superficial. In fact, I might argue that his complexities are only constructed by those around him. But his home life has stopped trying to find out who he is. People like Peggy, Joan, Pete, and even Roger are still willing to cater to Don’s whimsy and are still fascinated by him, even if Peggy feels more on his level since following Draper to the weird, sterile office.

I like where this season is going, even if it kind of feels like a more dramatic version of the Michael Scott Paper Company, especially if it catapults Don into a spotlight he is in no way ready to be under. Some folks and I discussed on Twitter how Don could never survive in an age of social networking and constant connectivity (he having a Blackberry and Betty knowing the number would’ve been enough to do him in). Between Google and the democratization of public records, Draper could never live the double life he lived in past seasons (unless he was obsessively careful). He is able to manipulate his time. But making Draper the figurehead of a burgeoning, potentially successful company could put him under the 1960s press version of the microscope everyone else has today. No matter what Betty does or what Roger can do to him, information is Don Draper’s nemesis. This season might (hopefully) pit him against it.

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