Mad Men, Season 4

Week 1: Don Is a Mess
Talking television.
July 26 2010 5:11 PM

Mad Men, Season 4

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Week 1: Don Is a Mess

Time-Life building. Click image to expand.

"Who is Don Draper?" The Season 4 premiere begins with this question (an indication, Michael, that Matthew Weiner was serious about that identity-crisis stuff), and this week, at least, Don doesn't know the answer. Our usually hypercapable hero is a mess.We find him botching an interview with a reporter from Advertising Age, failing to fully embrace his divorce from Betty (who, sure enough, has married Henry Francis), irritating his SCDP colleagues by throwing a client out of a pitch meeting, and, most deliciously, completely unable to get a blonde into bed. When has Don ever failed at that particular game? The sight of him stewing in a yellow cab like a fumbling schoolboy was unprecedented—and entertaining.

Julia Turner Julia Turner

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast.

Season 4 picks up in 1964, and the Pierre is a hazy memory for the principals of SCDP: The firm is ensconced in the Time-Life building, where frosted glass office walls nod to a new transparency. My first job was in the Time-Life building, and I can see why Weiner & Co chose it—it's an icon of print media at its zenith, and to this day its lobby has a midcentury sheen. SCDP is struggling, however, far too dependent on its biggest client, Lucky Strike, and desperate to scare up new business, a task at which Don proves terrible. He refuses to promote the firm persuasively in the opening interview with Mr. Advertising Age, and refuses to bend his advertising aesthetics in the hustle for clients.

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I'm curious to hear what you two made of Don's confrontation with the Jantzen reps, who request a tasteful, family-friendly ad for their two-piece suit, and are met, instead, with a saucy photo of a topless sunbather, her breasts obscured by a black bar that reads: "So well-built we can't show you the second floor." Are we meant to be rooting for Don and his impatience with Jantzen's fustiness here? Perhaps he wants to build a firm exclusively for the clients of the future—companies that understand his disdain for tradition. Nevertheless, Don seemed churlish, and my sympathies were with the boys from Jantzen.

(For what it's worth, the show gets the cultural distinction between the bikini and the two-piece just right: I've written before about the history of the bikini, and by 1964, the two-piece, which had a full bottom that covered the navel and had long been considered a less scandalous, all-American alternative to the skimpy continental bikini, was a dinosaur. 1964 was the year when Sports Illustrated launched its swimsuit issue—with a girl in a white bikini on the cover.)

Meanwhile, Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell are in cahoots, launching a viral marketing campaign for canned ham—a staged fight in a Queens grocery store—that ends disastrously when the squabbling "housewives" threaten to squeal. The incident left me wondering about such stunts—were ad firms really pulling them in the '60s?—and set up an intriguing dynamic between Peggy and Don, casting Draper as the stodgy traditionalist. Although he's understandably upset that the ersatz ham brawl backfired, jeopardizing the account, he also seems instinctively squeamish about the underhanded nature of the sell. He bawls Peggy out, laying it on a bit thick, and though she's chastened, she also reminds him: "We're all here because of you."

The encounter galvanizes Don, helping him realize that he needs to lead his fledgling firm—defining its mission and pitching it to the press. As the episode closes, he's found confidence in his new persona, presenting himself to a Wall Street Journal reporter as a debonair ad-world iconoclast, a man who takes pleasure in blowing up his forefathers in the name of starting something new.

Don also seems fed up with Betty by the episode's end. She has installed Henry in the familiar Ossining home (keeping the kitchen décor intact but springing for a new headboard—no sign yet of the fainting couch). Although Don is at first reluctant to kick her out, he finds his nerve by the end of the episode, when he's returning the kids from their weekend in the city and Betty and Henry keep him waiting for them in the darkened living room. He glowers like a Dad with rebellious teens on his hands. And the episode teases that Betty's marriage to Henry may just be a phase: She's been dragging her feet in the search for the new Francis homestead. (Plus, Henry's mom is no Betty fan: Betty-haters must have loved the line about how she terrifies children.)

Intriguing, too, I thought, how Don's date resembled Betty: blond, prim, proper, brittle. I hope Bethany sticks around: Anna Camp is a terrific actress—her brow had a perfect, Betty-esque crinkle—and I've loved her turns on True Blood and The Office. Perhaps now that Don can have whatever he wants, he wants another Betty. (With hookers on the side.)

Finally, I have good news for John Swansburg: Aaron Staton's name appears in the opening credits, which can only mean that Ken Cosgrove, Swansburg's favorite character, will be with us in Season 4. Here's hoping McCann Erickson goes after the Lucky Strike account.

Julia

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