Mad Men, Season 4

Week 1: Don Likes It Rough
Talking television.
July 26 2010 5:11 PM

Mad Men, Season 4

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Week 1: Don Likes It Rough

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Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men

Julia, Michael,

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

You guys haven't mentioned the most surprising revelation of the opener: After three seasons and as many Bobby Drapers, Matthew Weiner has finally found an actor he likes. Jared Gilmore has locked down the role, and I'll be curious to see whether he is given more to work with. Perhaps a subplot in which he and Sally split over their new family situation? I liked how Bobby cut through the tension after his sister tossed her marshmallows with his "I love sweet potatoes!" line. Was he trying to help Sally out with a little comic relief? Or seizing an opportunity to ingratiate himself to the Francises? Or does he just really love sweet potatoes?

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But let's talk a bit more about Don's prostitute. (Clever that Don's two women in this episode were a wench and a girl who plays one at the Met.) Julia, you make a good point about Bethany's similarities to Betty—right down to the Seven Sisters diploma—but Don's unnamed lady of the night couldn't be more different. Dark hair, buxom. Then again, Don's side action has always been with brunettes—Midge Daniels, Rachel Menken, Bobbie Barrett, Suzanne Farrell. The real surprise here was that Don enjoys a good smacking around. Of course there have been intimations in the past that Don has some kinky tastes—he tied up Bobbie Barrett in Season 2, and she alluded to having heard about his yen for the rough stuff from an editor at Random House. (I prayed in vain that a Random House tryst would be an extra on the Season 2 DVD set.) But it was Don who tied down Bobbie; now he's the one on his back. Is this a new glimpse of Don's pre-existing condition? Or is there more meaning here—is his desire to take a beating a manifestation of his guilt about the indiscretions that ruined his marriage? I suspect the latter and that we'll learn more as this season develops.

Hovering over the scene with the prostitute is the fact that Don's own mother was in the profession, which we learned courtesy of a flashback in the Season 3 opener. As Don wrestles with the "Who is Don Draper" question this season—about as subtle as an atom bomb, eh?—I wonder to what extent his ever-so-humble origins will continue to play a role. Julia and Michael: Did you guys also dance a little jig when this episode ended and there'd been nary a glimpse of the Whitman homestead?

On the ad side of things, I was very excited that we got to see the full 30-second Glo-Coat ad. In past seasons, we've attended many pitch meetings in which Don works his magic on clients. We've looked over storyboards and seen finished print campaigns. But I can't recall seeing a completed TV spot. (There was last season's "Bye-Bye Birdie" clip, but Pepsi didn't commission the ad.) I think Season 4 is going to be the TV season, which is promising, especially if we get to see more work like this. This is a new challenge for the series' writers and directors: It's one thing to write a scene in which Don sells the Kodak guys on his carousel idea; quite another to produce an actual ad, and one as convincing as the Glo-Coat spot. I thought the conceit there was great, though it was telling that the Ad Age reporter noted that the spot was a hit with other creatives—not necessarily with clients. It caught the eye of the Jantzen people, sure, but as you guys have noted, they weren't willing to buy into the similarly bold approach Don dreams up for their chaste two-pieces.

One more thought on the Jantzen scene: I think Don's challenge to Jantzen père and fils is precisely the one SCDP itself will face this season: "You need to decide what kind of company you want to be: comfortable and dead, or risky and rich." This episode was all about the different kinds of risks SCDP is going to need to take to survive in a world where they're the scrappy upstart. Cinematic ads for a floor cleaner? Yes. Ham shenanigans? Maybe not. Conference table? Developing.

On to Ossining: I confess I found Henry Francis a little irritating last season, with his Sam Eagle looks and wooden delivery to match. But I loved him in this episode. Perhaps my change of heart has to do with the very different Henry we met last night. Is this the man who last season fondled Betty's pregnant belly? Who was willing to meddle in Westchester's watershed politics to get Betty out of his dreams and into his car? Now he can't even successfully lobby his mother to keep the fly leafs in the pantry till Christmas. Like you, Michael, I want to see more of Henry's call-'em-like-I-see-'em mom. I also loved the scenes between Henry and Don. The first was ever so brief but oh so loaded. It was a brilliant piece of blocking to have Henry enter the scene from the bathroom, the sound of the flushing toilet swishing behind him—marking his territory, or trying to. The second scene was even better. Don tells Henry to give him a moment alone with Betty. Henry asks Betty whether she'd like him to stay. "It's OK," she replies, ambiguously, forcing Henry to ask for a clarification—shall I stay or go? It was a funny moment and an emasculating one for Henry, setting up Don's devastating "We all think this is temporary" line—to which Henry has no retort. This Henry, who has won his prized blonde but has lost his manhood, is much more fun.

A few parting questions and observations:

—On Roger Sterling's new office set-up: To my great delight, I noticed that Roger has traded in his battleship of a wooden desk for a Saarinen tulip table, one of my favorite pieces of midcentury modern furniture. I look forward to seeing him bibbed up and eating some takeout Kiev on it.

—Anyone else surprised to learn that Don Draper makes a mean bed? I agree, Michael, that his bachelor pad was much shabbier than I expected; his accountant says he's a rich man. Why not spring for something with a little more natural light? Maybe he fell in love with the saloon doors.

—Somebody get Harry Crane some SPF 30.

OK, that's all for me—got a meeting on the second floor.

John

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