Mad Men returns with "Public Relations," in more ways than one. Lots and lots of it. Naturally, there be spoilers ahead.
Season 4 of Mad Men got off to a cracking start Sunday night with an episode called "Public Relations," and darn if that doesn't mirror what the best show on television is getting a lot of.
After its very consequential Season 3 won the top prizes for a dramatic series from the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild, and the Directors Guild, Mad Men picked up 17 Emmy nominations a few weeks ago, the most that the two-time winner for best drama on television has ever garnered, this time with six members of the show's cast nominated for acting honors. Especially after Lost's disappointing series finale, it has to be the favorite to win a third straight Emmy for best dramatic series. The show has had a lot more PR than that, which I'll get to after running through the exciting season premiere.
It's November 1964, not quite a year since the end of Season 3, and change continues to be very much in the air, at least for most of the characters and the country as a whole. There's sprightly, jazzy music early on, which a reviewer for Entertainment Weekly identifies as music like that of the theme for The Name of the Game, which the writer mistakenly thinks was a 1964 TV series. It actually ran from 1969 to 1971. The music helps establish the new scene for a new ad agency in a new time.
Unlike last season, where much of the action, as it were, early on focused on the home front, Season 4, at least so far, is squarely focused on the advertising milieu. And specifically on one Don Draper and his search for a genuine identity, or at least a sell-able one, to meet his needs and the needs of his new ad agency.
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, established so spectacularly in the Season 3 finale, is flourishing but still a somewhat endangered start-up. And Don is, even more than ever, the key man.
That's why the season begins with that most redolent of questions, "Who is Don Draper?," posed this time by a profile writer for Advertising Age. Don's creative work, which is flowing with the changing times, is getting even more attention. Now he has to sell it, and himself, to generate business for himself and his partners.
But talking about himself is one of his least favorite things, so Don blows the interview and ends up with a backfiring piece portraying him as an arrogant cipher. His partners aren't pleased, especially since Lucky Strike, home of that closeted sexual bully who forced the firing of poor Salvatore Romano, is still 71% of agency billings.
The truth be told, Don is flourishing and independent, moving forward creatively, but also stuck in some big ruts. The man who had no trouble picking up women when he was married to the beautiful, complicated, closed-off Betty suddenly has no game. Or isn't very interested. Perhaps because, to consult the philanderer's handbook, his assignations now might mean something. He no longer has the built-in failsafe, the perfect escape hatch, in his head of being married.
(No, he's not with lovely proto-hippie Suzanne, daughter Sally's beloved former teacher who turned out to be good for him, and not at all the Fatal Attraction horror show of so many fans' fevered imaginings.)
He dates so little that the young wife of Roger Sterling, Don's running mate/rival now back in the foreground with the funniest lines, has made it her mission to fix Don up. As Jane used to be Don's secretary before fatefully hooking up with Roger, setting in motion the events that brought the old Sterling Cooper to its demise, and is all of about 23 years old, this is a little awkward for Don. But he has a decent first date with one of young Jane's friends, who is concerned about the recent murder down South of civil rights worker Andrew Goodman.
Less promising is what looks very much like a regular liaison, at his not especially cool Greenwich Village flat, with a prostitute who delivers some slapping around to our studly protagonist. Is Don headed for the fate of Jack Nicholson's character in Carnal Knowledge, a measure of his own loathing and self-loathing?
But that potential fate is far off. Don is getting in tune with and maybe a little ahead of the times, creating movie-like advertising and pushing sexual boundaries, both in his own sex life and in his work.
As with a bikini manufacturer that wants to pretend it doesn't, well, sell bikinis in this period of social transition that is late 1964. After they gush all over his creativity, the firm's execs balk at recognizing the emerging sexual frankness of the period, so Don creates an ad that spoofs their prudishness. When they balk again, he throws them out of the office.
Of course, this assertiveness comes after dealing with Betty, now married to Henry Francis, whom we met last season as the top advisor to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, whose presidential aspirations as one of the last of the liberal Republicans have crashed and burned before the ascendant Sun Belt conservatism of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, whose old seat John McCain is trying to hold on to today against a far right challenger. In today's GOP, Goldwater would be a pragmatic moderate conservative. Yet I digress.
Betty is still living in Don's house out in Westchester County, with Henry and the kids. (What happened to Henry telling Betty to take nothing from Don?) Betty, who has acquired a distinctly disapproving mother-in-law, and whose dubious parenting skills have, if anything, seriously deteriorated, seems to content, in passive-aggressive fashion, to stay on past the agreed upon deadline for them to move.
Don, who is paying a lot in expenses on the place, and really should sell it, finally tells the not all that happy couple that it's time for them to start paying rent if they intend to stick around. Henry tells Betty that it's a good idea for them to move.
With that, and having then thrown the modest bikini-makers out of the office, Don is ready to take another big step forward: "Call Bert Cooper's man at the Wall Street Journal," he tells his secretary.
This time, for this make-good profile in a bigger publication, Don is ready to embrace his own public relations and craft a new, more aggressive image to present to the world. "Last year, our agency was being swallowed whole," he tells the reporter. "I could die of boredom or holster up my guns. So I walked into Lane Pryce's office and I said, 'Fire us.' Within a year, we'd taken over two floors of the Time-Life Building."
Except, they really only have one floor. And, since he really is not Don Draper at all, but Dick Whitman, he is very decidedly embracing risk. But that's PR.
In any event, by the season premiere's end, Don is evidently through getting slapped around. Though we'll see how his liaisons with his hooker pal progress, or not.
Change, clearly, continues to be in the air. In the society as a whole, it's only accelerating. Though in classic Mad Men fashion, the references don't hit one over the head, and in some cases are absent altogether. But you know they will manifest themselves in the show, big time.
JFK is a fond memory, with Lyndon Johnson elected in a landslide. But the just held presidential election isn't highlighted, nor is most of the other big political developments that have taken place in recent months. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, now viewed as the critical pretext for the big Vietnam War build-up, was just a few months earlier. As was something that is referenced, the murder of a white civil rights worker.
The Beatles are absolutely huge in America now, but aren't referenced yet. The current Beatles album as this episode takes place is A Hard Day's Night, also a smash hit movie starring the Fab Four which helps trigger a looser, cheekier form of cinema.
James Bond movies are all the rage, with From Russia With Love having just exploded across American movie screens, and if anyone is to be a Bond aficionado, along with Roger Sterling, it's Don Draper. But come to think of it, I do see a new watch on his wrist, which looks suspiciously like the Rolex Submariner sported by Sean Connery in the Bond films.
There's plenty of other action, as well, with Don's protege/sometime whipping girl Peggy Olsen newly assertive with Don in the new agency's flattened hierarchy. She comes up with some amusing PR of her own, a manufactured incident with two women purportedly fighting over a ham to boost a lagging account.
Joan Holloway is a major power player in the agency. Clearly, it runs far better with her, which was always the case in the old Sterling Coo days, but now she's shed the secretarial mantle for her rightful executive track.
And most of the others in the key ensemble cast have their moments as well as we see how the new agency functions in its new abode in the Time-Life Building.
So the "Public Relations," while mixed, is generally good.
As is the case with the show itself, and its key players.
Jon Hamm is Emmy nominated again for best dramatic actor. Hopefully, he finally wins this time, after his fabulous performance last season, especially with the revelation of his shattering secrets and the big breaks in his personal and professional lives. He's also emerged as one of the best hosts of Saturday Night Live, so it's no surprise he again has an Emmy guest actor nomination for the top comedy series, 30 Rock.
January Jones is rightfully Emmy nominated for best actress. Betty Draper is a frequently thankless role, that of a Grace Kelly beauty stuck in the suburbs, a perfect trophy wife whose education and high intelligence, potentially a massive asset for a would-be international executive like Don, went tragically untapped as we saw in last season's Rome episode with Conrad Hilton. Jones has probably acquired more tabloid attention than she'd like, but she'll survive.
Christina Hendricks is finally Emmy nominated for best supporting actress as Joan. She's a great favorite, as she should be, and garnered off-season magazine attention as the ideal woman.
Elisabeth Moss is again Emmy nominated, this time for best supporting actress, for her career striver Peggy Olsen. Her character is an archetype in the making before our eyes.
John Slattery is Emmy nominated for a third straight time as best supporting actor for his priceless Roger Sterling. I was concerned there wasn't enough of him last season, but he came on strong at the end. He also made a strong impression in this summer's blockbuster Iron Man 2, as the visionary, somewhat disreputable father of Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark.
Robert Morse, the old pro who tore up Broadway in the 1960s in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, is Emmy nominated for his eccentric old power broker Bert Cooper. His character provides the continuity back to Madison Avenue's earliest days as the show heads into the turbulence of what we generally think of as the '60s.
With all this attention, which includes attendant influence on fashion, design, and general conversation -- an interesting book or two about the show is out now, too, which I'll get to next week -- there's always room for a backlash. So far, Mad Men, with the guidance of creator Matthew Weiner and the rest of the writers, has avoided that with its continued high quality. That ultimate safeguard has continued as Season 4 gets underway. I can't wait to see what happens next week.