For all of the changes we’ve been promised in the wake of last year’s finale, season four of Mad Men begins by reminding us that the heart of the show will always remain the same, singular question of just who this man, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), really is. And at this point the writers seem to be having fun with it. Last season’s “The Gypsy and the Hobo” concluded with a trick-or-treating scene and a character asking Don, “and who are you supposed to be?” Now, the season four premiere, “Public Relations” (directed by Phil Abraham and written by Matthew Weiner), opens on a close-up of Hamm’s face and a journalist’s voice asking, “Who is Don Draper?” as if this were an AMC promo slot, with Hamm about to launch into his analysis of the character.
Of course Don refuses to answer the question, because Don Draper is Dick Whitman, and though a notoriously dishonest man, he’s not one to make his lies more elaborate than absolutely necessary. Though for the audience, Don’s Big Lie almost seems trivial at this point. Betty (January Jones) knows the truth, as does Bert Cooper (Robert Morse). Hell, even Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) knows. We’ve come to a time in Mad Men’s run where there’s not really a lot at stake regarding the one-legged reporter from Advertising Age discovering that Don was an impoverished farm kid who changed his name.
Yet for all his evasiveness, Don reveals who he is through his actions: he’s a recalcitrant “cipher” of a man, and the reporter accurately pegs him as such. In a strange way, dishonesty has bred its own form of honesty. We’ve explored Don’s secret past and watched the fallout of having it exposed, and now, moving forward, Don is whoever he pretends to be. “Who is Don Draper?” remains Mad Men’s central question, but it’s no longer focused on the truth that lies in Don’s past, it’s now focused on the man he’s about to become. And in that capacity, by the end of the episode the dishonesty that has been haunting Don for most of his adult life, and that has been closing in around him through the course of the series, seems poised to become his greatest virtue.
“Public Relations” lands us in Thanksgiving of 1964, with a country, an ad agency and a protagonist all in midst of transformation. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has just moved into a stylish new office, which presents us with the barrage of visual stimulation we’ve been waiting for since the promise of game-changing newness that closed season three. The office is bright, the walls are transparent, the design is angular, and a slick “SCDP” logo emblazons the walls. The dark, formal suits look especially sleek and mod in the bright setting (Bert Cooper’s drab gray jacket aside) and even take on the appearance of negative space against some of the saturated white backdrops. There are shots that look like Saul Bass posters. Perhaps most importantly, we see Joan (Christina Hendricks) in her own office.
Of course, some will argue that, for all the modern design, the change is mostly superficial. Most of the faces remain the same, and, despite Don’s cinematic new television ad, they’re doing the same old work. But in this universe it would be a mistake to discount a superficial change as something trivial. We learned this much back in season one’s “The Hobo Code,” when Don gets high with a group of beatnik stoners in an apartment surrounded by cops. When Don prepares to leave, one of the stoners tells him that he can’t go outside because of the presence of the police. Don just casually slips on his hat and replies, “you can’t.” If the clothes make the man, it’s not a far leap to say that the office makes the ad agency.
After all, as the name suggests, “Public Relations” is all about perception. Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Cooper are worried about how Don presents himself as the face of the company after the success of his Glo-Coat ad. A prospective new client, Jantzen (a family company, we’re told), doesn’t want their two-piece bathing suit perceived as a bikini, even though that’s exactly what it is. Pete and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) concoct their own PR stunt by staging a fight over a client’s ham, which “old fashioned” advertising had failed to sell. The two main symbolic devices of the episode are the reporter’s wooden leg and SCDP’s phantom “second floor,” the latter a lie the firm has circulated to make itself appear more consequential.
That the apparent truth is often based in lies is hardly a new theme for Mad Men, but in the past it has been largely taken up in a negative sense, as we’ve watched identities and fabrications dissolve. Now, as the show opens up to modernity and the future, its thematic analysis of dishonesty has become positive. A time of reinvention is of necessity a time of fabrication. If the primary thesis of the western genre is that civilization is born out of violence, Mad Men takes a more general approach to the idea, positing that we become what we are by means of everything that we are not. By pushing forward towards something new, we’re projecting ourselves as something that we’re not, and in order to become what we’re not, there will be a time when we simply have to fake it.
If Don is going to emerge from his stoicism and become the face of a modern, new ad agency (a “scrappy upstart,” as Pete calls it), he clearly has a lot to fake. His dark, stodgy bachelor pad is everything that his office is not, while his ex-wife lives in his house with her new husband. As his sex life no longer fills the void left by his family-life charade, it’s now boiled down to Don’s basest desires (he pays prostitutes to beat him during sex.) For as much as his home life was a fraud, it nonetheless defined him. Without the Big Lie to maintain, he truly has become a cipher.
Don’s refusal to answer the reporter’s question may have less to do with his desire to hide Dick Whitman than it does with the reality that he simply does not know who Don Draper is. His life, as it is at this moment, is as prosthetic at the journalist’s leg, not because it’s based on lies, but rather because he’s not lying anymore. At the risk of taking a metaphor too literally, in order to take things to the ’next level,’ Don is going to have to do just as SCDP has, and invent that next level.
It’s already becoming clear some of the things Don will have to become. He has found himself at the center of this new company that he clung to out of desperation, that one way or another he is responsible for (at one point Peggy tells him “you know, we’re all here because of you”). Through conventional methods, SCDP can’t compete with the Y&Rs of the world, yet Pete assuredly claims, “creatively Y&R’s not capable of living in this neighborhood,” because of the simple fact that Don doesn’t work there. Out of necessity Don will have to become the public face of his agency, and to do so he will have to be something that he is not.
It is has also become clear that Betty’s parenting skills are becoming worse, and combined with her new husband’s apparent reluctance to have sex with her while the kids are in the house (not to mention Kiernan Shipka being added to the cast as a regular), it will require Don to become something else he’s never really been: a father.
As Don presents his pitch to Jantzen, a sexy bikini ad in which the model’s breasts are covered by the slogan “so well built, we can’t show you the second floor,” it’s obvious that he knows the meeting will end badly; his ad is clearly contrary to Jantzen’s request. When he castigates them for rejecting the second floor pitch, and for their refusal to become something that they are not, he could very well be talking about his own reluctance to become a PR man. By throwing the Jantzen people out of his office, he’s giving himself over to what he knows needs to be done, immediately calling for a second interview with the press, this time with the Wall Street Journal.
Despite his outrage at Peggy’s Sugarberry Ham gambit, and his claim to “stay away from these kinds of shenanigans,” Don is obviously an old pro at false representations, and as such is a natural at PR. Yes, it requires him to be something he’s not, but being something he’s not just happens to be something he’s very good at. Don’s ill-fated meeting with Jantzen is his own PR stunt, and a first step in rebranding himself yet again. Only this time his fabrications won’t be held as reprehensible by a betrayed wife, or used as blackmail by an ambitious co-worker. They’ll probably see him praised as a builder and a self-made man.
And so “Public Relations” ends just as it began: with an interview. Only now Don’s look of consternation has been replaced by a smug smile, as he proudly and explicitly claims to be the face of Sterling Cooper Draper Price. He completes the second floor metaphor while telling the story of SCDP, claiming that, “within a year we had taken over two floors of the Time Life building.” Throughout the episode the “second floor” represents growth, possibility, progress, and change.
And it’s also a total goddamn lie.
1. As it is the most consistent show on television, it’s really easy to take the quality of Mad Men for granted. The cinematography, the scoring and the design are more assured than ever. Phil Abraham’s direction is so graceful you often forget it’s there.
2. Pete, as always, is helpful in the douchiest ways possible, as in his handling of the payment for the actresses of Peggy’s PR stunt: “I can use my expense account if I say they’re whores.”
3. Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) has a sunburn! His future career as production mogul can’t be too far behind.
4. Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) continues on as Mad Men’s most unexpected badass. SCDP loses the jai alai account and Lane immediately calculates that it leaves Lucky Strike as 71% of their business. Yeah, MATH skills all up in here!
5. It’s great to be back, and I’m looking forward to covering season four on The House Next Door. I’m convinced that writing about Mad Men is the most fun a critic can have, and few venues allow a writer to let loose with long-form analysis like the House. Due to a prior commitment I had to push this piece back, but from now on the reviews should be up on Mondays.
Luke De Smet is a freelance writer based out of San Diego, who spent way too much time obsessing about movies and television while growing up in rural northern Alberta, Canada. He’s currently attempting to avoid movies and television long enough to take up surfing, but is failing, miserably. You can follow him on Twitter.