Bureau Chiefs Roundtable: Mad Men Season Premiere

Public Relations

WARNING: There will be plenty of spoilers in this frank and open discussion of the fourth season premiere of Mad Men, “Public Relations.” So hold onto your hams, because here we go.

BENJAMIN: I’ll just start off by saying that it’s going to be tough to be objective about the entire episode when it ended on such a ridiculously high and thrilling note. Seeing Don grasp the spotlight with both hands with the zeal we’ve previously only seen him have for finding translations for “Hilton” was a practically fist-pumping moment. Nashville Teens’ booming “Tobacco Road” didn’t hurt either. It was like the end of an episode of Entourage only I didn’t feel like stabbing anyone.

That being said, there were a lot of things worth noting and discussing. First off, the show is clearly a lot more overt about its theme of the business of creativity. Usually personified in the friction between Don and Roger, it’s now the thread running through nearly every interaction Don has. Whereas before it was easy to see Don framing himself in the trappings of business — nuclear family, house in the suburbs, successful midtown office — he’s now built himself a bit of a ’60s hipster life. He lives downtown, the firm’s office is a ramshackle ode to modern-at-that-time prefab design, and he doesn’t mind getting into some freaky shit in the old boudoir. As Bert also points out to him, now that he’s partner, every single thing he does in the company is a business move, not just a creative one.

It’s one of the reasons why his reaction to the Jantzen people was so shocking. It’s already been established how important business is to the firm, and Don’s reasons for kicking them out on their asses is so directly tied to a creative choice. (It’s also telling that he refers to the benign and crippled Conference Room as “his office,” claiming ownership of the entire floor [and probably any other fictional additions above or below].) The lie that Don built his life out of has always been a potent reflection of his work, but now that Don needs to be the face of the firm, that lie takes on a greater meaning and a much larger risk.

ANNA: One of the things that I appreciate more and more about Mad Men is the temporal shifts between seasons. By skipping several months in between seasons, many of the characters have developed and the audience is able to appreciate these changes more than if they’d been more gradual. I loved seeing the new, more confident Peggy. In her new position she’s developed a good relationship with an underling and she’s not afraid to stand up to Don. The role reversal is complete when Peggy is forced to call Don for bail money. When Don chews Peggy out she’s not afraid to explain herself and she’s free to needle Don about what he’s done to the agency by refusing to sell himself in his first interview. Her mannerisms, dress and exuberance in her new job signal that it is finally “her time.”

BENJAMIN: She’s also dating Karl from Lost, so she probably shouldn’t walk past any big open windows with him.

On a serious note, though, what I like about the subtlety of Peggy’s character is that her relationship with Don is much more emotional than Don’s relationship is with her (or perhaps how much he’d ever let on). As much as she’s paving her own way, her line about everyone doing their work for his approval (whether or not it might have been true for everyone else) brings her whole Surrogate Father relationship with Don screaming to the foreground. There may always be a part of her that holds back for Don’s approval.

ANNA: I’m wondering if Betty will ever have any redeeming qualities. While it is easy to see how she ended up as the spoiled princess that she is based on her upbringing, she no longer has the excuse of an unhappy marriage with a philandering and secretive husband to excuse her horrible treatment of her children. While Betty and Henry seem to have plenty of sexual chemistry, Betty still seems to reserve her harshest treatment for her daughter. Why a woman so preoccupied with appearances thinks it is OK to force feed her daughter at the Thanksgiving table is beyond me.

I’m looking forward to seeing more of Henry’s mother. She’s pretty accurate about her assessment of Betty’s parenting skills. In contrast, while Don’s parenting habits are nothing to write home about (as he plops his kids in front of the TV in his dark apartment) at least he seems to actually care about his kids even if he’s unable to express it well. He promises to help his son fix is pajama button and lingers in the doorway of their room after putting them to bed. I don’t think Betty’s ever shown to be sharing a quiet moment like that with her children.

MATT: Maybe the most interesting thing in this episode for me was how Peggy and Pete have discovered guerrilla marketing well before the term became part of advertising parlance, how well it worked and how terribly Don reacted to it after Peggy had to reveal their stunt. Don’s trying to push the envelope, but within traditional bounds. He simply tries to make the ad more titillating, then throws a tantrum when the clients, who said that wasn’t what they wanted, tell them again that’s not what they wanted. Peggy and Pete, on the other hand are doing something really new and have got the clients behind them. Don’s just so used to being right, and he’s coasted on his usually terrific marketing sense up to this point. Could this be the season he discovers that his every instinct isn’t always the best idea? I’m not sure how I feel about his big ego-trip statements to the interviewer at the end. On the one hand, it’s a reversal from his tight-lipped asshole approach, but now he’s just being a prick. I’m not sure that’s better PR. It’ll sure be interesting to see how it plays out.

I loved the theme of the episode. The title, “Public Relations,” refers not only to the news story Don is interviewing for at the beginning and its many unexpected repercussions, along with the news story Pete and Peggy stage, but also to how Don is again presenting a facade to the world — the lonely ex-husband — when in fact he’s go so much more going on with his mysterious mistress, the situation with Betty and the house, and his kids. Plus, Betty’s having to do some PR of her own, presenting a good-wife front for her new husband and his family, who don’t seem to be buying it for a minute. Mad Men’s always been a show about how people present themselves versus who they truly are, and I like the portrayal of how things are bumpy when you have to shift the story.

One character that remains seemingly unchanged? Roger Sterling. Man, that guy is just a beautiful asshole. In the first 10 minutes, he had three huge asshole moments: 1) Complaining that Ad Age couldn’t afford to get a whole reporter in regards to the reporter with one leg, 2) the crack about needing “someone white” to carve his Thanksgiving turkey and 3) inviting Don to “stuff” his wife’s actress friend after a few dates. And yet I can’t help but love the guy. That kinda makes me feel awful.

BENJAMIN: I actually thought that stuffing joke was a little beneath Roger’s usual expert wit. I’m hoping this season we see not only more great Sterling comedy, but episodes like the one last season where his old flame came to the firm with her father’s ailing dog food company. The scenes between those two were absolutely fantastic. I want more of that maudlin Fitzgeraldian Roger Sterling!

One things for sure, not too many shows can land a season premiere like Mad Men does. If this episode is any indication, we’re in for a pretty spectacular season.

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