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'Mad Men' Mondays: 'Public Relations'

In a new, unsettling era, Don Draper reinvents himself. Again.

This is the first in TNR’s weekly series of "Mad Men" episode recaps. Caution: It contains spoilers.

“The world is so dark right now,” says Don Draper’s soon-to-be latest conquest in “Public Relations,” the first episode in Season Four of “Mad Men,” which premiered Sunday night. She’s talking about the change in the country’s mood, which was triggered by John F. Kennedy’s assassination (covered in Season Three’s penultimate episode, “The Grown Ups”). But she may as well be talking about the show itself. After three seasons set in a TV universe that was visually, aurally, and rhythmically constant—a world of fabulous clothes, clean architectural lines, and nearly suffocating privilege; one in which the things people didn’t say and do were often more important than what they said and did—the series has delivered its first serious curveballs. 

It’s not just that Don and Betty Draper are now divorced. More broadly, “Mad Men” flat-out looks and feels different than it used to. The show is more cluttered and claustrophobic. The scenes have a choppier rhythm (or, at least, it felt that way to me after watching all of Season Three on BluRay DVD as a lead-up to writing these recaps). And many characters seem less-guarded, more frank—newly prone to brusque, at times even crass, comments and behavior.

I would call all of this a “makeover” if the word didn’t imply deliberateness and caution. This is more like an un-makeover—a series of tweaks that add chaos and instability to a show that became a cult hit partly because it was so meticulous and deliberate. And it all makes sense, considering the timing. Season Four of “Mad Men” is set in 1964-1965 (two years after the last season; “Mad Men” always skips time between seasons). By most accounts, 1965 was a less settled and orderly-feeling year for America’s upper middle class than 1963—which, in turn, felt less settled and orderly-feeling than 1961. In college, I had a history professor who claimed that, when people talked about “the ’40s” or “the ’70s,” they weren’t talking about a decade that broke cleanly on the aughts, but rather, a decade defined by a gestalt that started and ended whenever it happened to start and end, numbers be damned. He believed, for example, that the ’60s didn’t really begin until JFK’s assassination or end until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Assuming “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner and company subscribe to this notion—and, between Weiner’s comments in interviews and what we saw onscreen tonight, I suspect they do—then “Public Relations” marks the first episode of the show that is set in the actual ’60s.

And how would we describe the actual ’60s of “Mad Men”? Well, for one thing, everyone seems a lot less comfortable. It feels as though things are starting to fall apart for these characters—or, at the very least, that they don’t have the safety net (financial or cultural) that they used to, that things could go south for any one of them in a heartbeat, and that they would have more trouble turning things around than they would have in seasons past. The new ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce—created in the aftermath of Sterling-Cooper getting dumped by its British parent company at the end of Season Three—is smaller than its Madison Avenue ancestor, more cramped and jumbled, and generally darker and browner in color. The place even lacks a conference room. (Don hates this, but the decision is consistent with the ’60s urge to have business be less formal and hierarchical and more sensitive and open; the idea of having clients and ad men sit in a circle is hilariously consistent with this line of thinking.) 

After splitting with Don, Betty is now married to Rockefeller adviser Henry Francis, and this episode, set on and around Thanksgiving, contains much dialogue about the psychological effect of divorce on extended families (it’s even blamed for increasing auto traffic on holidays). The country is on track toward the 50 percent divorce rate that everyone would be lamenting (but accepting as a cold fact of life) by the early ’80s.

And am I imagining things, or do the characters seem more brazen and blunt in their language and gestures? There’s Roger urging Don to get to know Jane’s young friend so that, by Thanksgiving, he can “stuff her like a turkey”; a subsequent scene of a prostitute riding Don in bed and then slapping him repeatedly across the face; and the amped-up intensity of Don’s snappish remarks to his colleagues, as well as his episode-ending tantrum. These scenes and aspects of the show all feel new, or new-ish—and, considering what viewers are used to, a bit unsettling. The show had its frank moments before (mostly involving Roger’s alpha male locutions). But the different look and tone of “Public Relations” meant that those moments felt tawdrier and somehow less unusual than before—as if the exception had become the rule.

Most intriguing, though, are the changes that seem to have occurred, or to be occurring, within Don that make him more uncomfortable in his environment—and a more uncomfortable character to watch. His split from Betty was a long time coming, but what forced it to happen was her discovery last season that Don wasn’t really Don, that he had a previous life as Dick Whitman. Now, in Season Four, Don seems to be in the early stages of another self-reinvention.   

In previous seasons, Don was cool and measured, a human question mark, a behind-the-scenes puppet master. But that was a ’50s idea of charisma and power—think Frank Sinatra in his post-“From Here to Eternity” phase. Now that the show has moved into the ’60s, the old Don won’t quite do. The ’60s was the era of anti-stars like Bob Dylan and John Lennon, people who made irascibility, even outright assholishness, a point of pride, and who built bad behavior, even hostility and contempt for others, into what would much later be described as their “brand.” Don has to figure out where to fit into this emerging scheme of power and influence—and he starts in “Public Relations.”

As the episode begins, a reporter from Advertising Age interviews the old Don Draper, a smooth-talking, mysterious character that the resulting article later describes, accurately, as “a cipher.” Roger worries that the profile makes Don seem unlikable and might hurt the new agency, which is already on thin financial ice because it has only a few employees, even fewer clients, and an “upstart” (Pete Campbell’s word) persona. Don then seems unusually edgy and angry throughout the episode. Perhaps because he’s beleaguered and adrift, it is also more easy than usual for colleagues to dispute or attack him (nearly every major character dresses him down at some point). But when Don finally taps into his anger and unleashes it on a client who rejects his pitch and his advice, it feels like we’re witnessing the birth of a new Don with a new purpose: the flamboyantly unlikable artist-antihero, a human logo who both drives and epitomizes the ethos of the new agency. 

The episode closes with Don being interviewed by another reporter, this one from The Wall Street Journal. Rather than ratchet back his new prickly demeanor and do damage control, as Roger all but begged him to do, Don comports himself with a bit of swagger and a hint of sneer—the I-see-through-you-all-and-I-don’t-give-a-damn-what-you-think-of-me brio that we associate with post-Marlon Brando superstardom. Will future clients line up to be belittled and abused by this genius jerk? I’d say absolutely; this is the ’60s, a time when anybody who played by the old rules seemed stodgy and irrelevant. As Don bullshits his way toward yet another identity (one that dovetails so nicely with cultural changes looming on the horizon that it could very well turn him into a pop culture figure in his own right), the camera dollies slowly away from him, and we hear what I’m pretty sure is the first piece of electrified, raucous, truly ’60s pop that has closed out an episode of “Mad Men”—“Tobacco Road,” by the Nashville Teens. Rock ‘n’ roll, baby. 

Matt Zoller Seitz is a contributor to Salon and the founder of Slant's “The House Next Door,” where he has written extensively about “The Sopranos” and other series. 

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