Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Snap Out Of It!


The title of this post refers to quite a few things, one of those things being the jarring scene in Episode 1 of Season 4  (“Public Relations”) where the viewer witnesses Don Draper being slapped by a prostitute in his Greenwich Village apartment on Thanksgiving, away from his family who are having a rather dysfunctional holiday upstate with Henry Francis’ family.  In any event, as many of the initial reviews of Season 4 of Mad Men have mentioned, lots of things have changed in the universe that surrounds Don Draper.

And this is not surprising considering how Season 3 ended with Don, Sterling, Cooper, Lane Pryce, Pete Cambell, Peggy, Harry Crane, and Joan leaving Sterling Cooper as it was known and forming their own agency.  “Close the Door, Have a Seat,” as that episode is titled, was one of the best episodes in the three seasons of Mad Men.  It dealt with, in a very natural way, how our relationships with the people we work with, live with and spend much of our time with can be neglected and fall apart and how we sometimes have to learn the hard way how important those people and relationships around us are. This was done under the guise of a renegade plot of rebelling against conformity and gathering the troops up a sort of “getting the band back together” feel aka the theme of the upcomin 2010-2011 Boston Celtics season.  So, once that episode and season concluded with Don accepting the end of his marriage with Betty and the beginning of his new ad agency in his suite at the Pierre, any Mad Men fan could get the sense that the show as we knew it was most likely over.

Season 4 opens with Don Draper being interviewed and the cliched question of “Who is ___?” is directed at Don, which is clever because of the obvious nod towards perhaps the main theme of the show.  However, we know that things have changed because Don is now in more of a public position.  In the past three seasons there have been allusions to awards and awards ceremonies honoring Don, but they never seemed that palpable.  You could never picture Don really receiving these awards or giving interviews.  And we see quickly that Don is certainly not comfortable doing that now that he is the face of the new company.

The office of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce is different as well, reflecting some of the changing tones and styles of the 60’s as the show has now moved into late 1964.  Peggy has yet another new haircut and has gained another level of poise and confidence in her work and her work persona.  Pete Cambell is still eager to please, but has gained a certain polish of professionalism or maturity that was lacking in previous seasons.  Perhaps he is, as he said in Season 1, starting to “do his best to emulate Roger.” That’s not to say that Roger is professional, with his quips about Don “stuffing” Jane’s friend and also getting “butter squirts” on her at dinner while they eat their chicken kiev.  In this episode Roger is able to run wild, but, being in such close quarters with Pete, we see that Pete is closer to developing the panache that Roger has – because it is more of a panache than a level of maturity in many ways.

However, what I watch the show for is usually Don and his conflicts.  I’ve explained my fascination with the themes that surround Don: secrecy, crafting an identity, how different identities clash in different environments, the inability to be satisfied and balancing a creative streak and a drive to work with the other elements of life. Now, with this prostitue scene we do have to add “self-loathing” and “self-flagellation” to his conflicts and, with the innuendos Don’s new maid makes about him not eating, perhaps even “deprivation” or “self-torture.”  I find myself thinking about the words Joy once said to Don in Season 2 when she asked him, “why would you deprive yourself of something you want?” 

Season 4, casts Don in a dark light in its first episode.  He is in the position he always wanted to be - he has his own firm where he can exert his power and creative influence – yet he is still not happy.  He has the freedom the “Dick Whitman” in him always seeks out, not only professionally, but personally since he is no longer married. However, although he may seem freer, he is actually more of a father and husband now that he was when he was married because he is legally forced to soley take care of the kids on weekends but also emotionally forced because he sees how bad of a mother Betty is.  Professionally, Don is also trapped because the business does soley rely on him to bring in business and the firm will be cast in public light and persona Don gives off – his talent is what will make the company’s name.  Now, more than ever, Don can’t just run away.  He has an entire company resting on his back, not just the corner office of the Creative Department where he could brood and unleash his genius advertising campaigns on the world. And when the Jantzen’s bathing suits representitives don’t understand Don’s clever campaign to sell their “two-piece” bathing suit, he loses it and kicks them out of his office for not recognizing his vision.

I read a theory that Don doing this was a means of him taking control of this new business and his current situation to create a stir in the Advertising Papers to bring some attention to the firm.  After watching the episode 2-3 times, I buy into this theory. Don finishes kicking out the Jantzen guys and immediately requests to get on the phone with Cooper’s “man at the Wall Street Journal.” Then, the episode closes with Don beginning to rehash the story of forming Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce by seemingly taking all the credit.  As Don eases into the story, the song “Tobacco Road” by the Nashville Teens crunches in as the credits come up and begin to roll.  It’s a muscular and exciting ending to the show as it feels like Don is now in a position of control.  He made a strong move at the end of Season 3, but it seems like in the time we have left him that he’s been boxed into a corner by clients, the press, his ex-wife, his own demons and perhaps even the changing times.  However, after getting slapped in the face by a prostitute, his wife, and clients in the course of one episode, Don has certainly seemed to snap out of it. And perhaps is on the course to crafting yet another identity for himself, one where he "holsters his guns."

Mad Men season openers are usually slow, slow burning episodes for an already slow show.  They set the table for what is to come in the rest of the season sometimes to the chagrin of fans of the show.  However, this was the most eventful and exciting first episode to season – perhaps even more than the pilot.  No matter what happens, this show is going to be different this season and  you have to salute Matthew Weiner and his staff for making that move and seemingly running with it.

And now that Mad Men is back on the air, I feel like I was snapped out of some summer malaise as well.  Sunday evenings are back in style.

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