Monday, July 26, 2010

Mad Men 401: Public Relations

There is true audacity in beginning the fourth season of a television series asking a question that one might expect to have been answered long ago or not be worth answering ever. "Who is Don Draper?" When the episode begins, we don't know who's asking it, but know that the question is being asked not merely for the interrogator's benefit, but for ours as well. Long seconds tick by, allowing us to consider the significance of the question. He's a poor boy who stole another man's name and used his talent to become successful, really. Is that the question? No, the deep question is: What motivates this man? What makes him tick? What does he want?

Audacious. It asks us to forgive that the show has run so long and left this an enigma. And also, that it expects us to care. The pause after the question runs nine seconds before anyone speaks. If the viewer gets to the end of those nine seconds wondering, then the question, the episode, and the series thus far have been validated. If one gets to the end of those nine seconds still looking for an answer, then the first three seasons have succeeded. And when Don doesn't answer directly we can wonder if it's because he doesn't want to provide clues to his secret past, or because he's a Midwesterner who was taught not to talk about himself, or if it's because he really doesn't know.

A year has passed since the narration of the last season ended, and in that year, Don scored a signature success with a campaign for Glo-Coat Floor Wax, a product that is designed to coat a surface with an invisible shield that prevents it from picking up any marks while it is in use -- an apt metaphor for Don's impregnable "dignity of movement of an iceberg" demeanor. His behavior in the first three seasons has shown us only that he likes what one expects a man to like, and that he doesn't terribly like making choices that limit his future choices, which is to restate: He likes what one expects a man to like.

The viewer who cares about the answer to that question is in luck: This episode tells us more about Don Draper than the rest of the series up to this point. The events in this episode don't really illuminate the man's character by showing us how he responds to the professional debacle that results from his failure to answer the question. This is predictable, within bounds: He takes his anger out on his subordinates, his ex-wife, and unsympathetic clients; he works overtime even while his children and Ivy League football occupy the background; he overcompensates by giving a better answer in a follow-up interview. And in the interim, he spends Thanksgiving alone (having declined more conventional invitations) for an afternoon tryst with a prostitute; and, that his request of her is to slap him while he occupies the lower position during sex.

The slaps are borne of Don's request, not real anger. This is one act of many we see throughout the episode. Acting is the central theme in the episode, and how the acts fail to hold up. Don's date is an actress, but she only looks pretty and doesn't say anything. In real life, Bethany's pretty smart -- smart enough to know that Don's offer to walk her to her door is also an act.

Besides the prostitute, two other women take money to act: Pete and Peggy hire two actresses to fight over a ham as a backhanded means of boosting a client's sales, which they hope will be attributed to their ad campaign, not the stunt. The act turns too real when the actresses really feud and almost expose the act to the public. Peggy's friend Mark tries to cover her embarrassment by pretending to be her fiancé. Don sees through this act.

Relations in the office are full of artifice: Harry asks Joan not to reveal his good news. Don asks his secretary to get him out of a meeting by paging him with a phony call. And two repeated acts are used as laugh lines: Peggy and Joey's flirtatious recitation of Stan Freberg's two-word "lyrics" to his sly recording "John and Marsha". And, more deviously, covering up the spare budget of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is the cause of frequent references to a fictitious "second floor"; Bert Cooper and Don are both above making that false claim. Later, Don turns it into an in-joke hiding behind the slogan that Jantzen Swimwear rejects: "So well built, we can't show you the second floor."

And so, when Don is on the hot seat for the nearly disastrous consequences of his first interview, his reponse under pressure yields the most revealing moment of the episode, discounting the aforementioned moment in which no one is clothed: In a second interview that is scheduled to make up for the first, Don shows no hesitation in embracing every lie put before him, and in the episode's final words, he garrulously boasts of the fictional second floor.

For a series whose slogan was once "Where the truth lies", it is not a great overhaul of the earlier themes to show people acting and lying for the sake of a buck. This is why Don's mention of the second floor finishes a distant second for the episode's largest revelation. When Don asks the call girl to slap him, he's not motivated to make a buck or impress anyone outside the room. That's just him. That's the most information we've gotten yet about "Who is Don Draper?"


  1. I didn't see Don being abused by the hooker as an indicator of "who is he" as much as it was the least subtle way he's punishing himself about screwing everything up. When he finally regains himself at the end, that is the beginning of us seeing Don Draper.

    The show is fantastic though, it was like this is the show they really wanted to make and the first three seasons were how we get there.

  2. Interesting take on it, Derrick. Maybe it's a question about what the meaning of "is" is. Maybe Don doesn't hold a lifelong desired to be slapped during sex, but part of who he is is to want that in at least that situation.

    Does he regain himself at the end? I think it's another mask. It's only him in the sense that he is whoever he needs to be, and being a cipher had ceased to work.

    I agree, the episode gets us off to a start which is a departure from the past, but if anything an improvement, not a feeling that they unexpectedly earned another season and had to think of what to do with it. It feels more like they expected to get us to this point and are delivering on a the set-up that came in the first three seasons.