4.1 Public Relations
The incomparable Mad Men returns to the UK for a fourth series, once again tucked away on BBC4 at ten o’clock at night. It’s an odd treatment for a show that deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible, and just as the similarly brilliant The Wire was shoved in a graveyard slot on BBC2, the Auntie Beeb seem intent on keeping Mad Men one of UK television’s best kept secrets.
The previous season of Matthew Weiner’s 60s set Madison Avenue drama concluded with the collapse of advertising lothario Don Draper’s marriage, and the formation of a new agency, the snappily named Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Pryce.
As sycophantic accountant Pete describes them, the new SCDP are “the scrappy upstarts”,and their workplace is now a funky, contemporary 60s office full of hip young talent, though notably smaller and less lavish than their old building.
But, while the office space is small, the agency’s ideas are big. A commercial for a cleaning solution called Glo-Coat has provided SCDP with its first big success, and the episode opens with a typically Brylcreemed Don Draper engaged in a terse interview with an Advertising Age journalist. When the hack asks, “Who is the real Don Draper,” Don himself seems utterly unable to answer the question.
When the finished article appears in the newspaper, the results please nobody. Draper is (quite accurately) described as a latter-day Dorian Gray, and what should have been a piece of free advertising for the agency is instead deemed a minor embarrassment. “This is a missed opportunity. Plus, you sound like a prick,” as Roger later puts it, with a typical absence of tact.
One of Don’s defining characteristics has long been his insatiable appetite for comely ladies. Artist Tracey Emin once made a cub tent with all her lovers’ names on it. Don Draper would need a marquee the size of the Millennium Dome for his.
And while Don’s divorce from Betty appears to have taken the wind out of his libidinous sails somewhat, a blind date set up by Roger soon sees the former sitting across the table from another potential love interest, who both tuck into chicken Kiev.
Meanwhile, a newly coiffured Peggy has cooked up a PR stunt to sell a brand of ham, which involves two middle-aged women publicly fighting in a supermarket. Peggy hires two candidates to stage the squabble, while Pete makes sure the incident appears in a newspaper. Predictably, the stunt goes awry, with Peggy forced to ask an unimpressed Don for bail money when one of the women presses charges for assault, though the ham sellers are unperturbed: “He’s sorry that people got hurt, but more people will taste our ham now.”
There are also signs in this first episode that Don’s advertising crown may also have slipped. His unsuccessful pitch to a swimsuit company ends with him petulantly throwing his clients out of the building, an ill-advised move for an agency with an already tiny client base.
Don’s relationship with his ex-wife is similarly scrappy. While Betty’s evidently swept up in her new love for Henry, Don coldly announces that he wants them out of his house, warning them that he’ll put up the rent if they don’t leave.
So, while Don retains his veneer of polish and Cary Grant-like aura of cool, the cracks that began to appear in the previous series are strongly in evidence here, and the newspaper interview at the start of this episode is a rare glimpse of his character looking uncomfortable and out of his element.
In an attempt to redeem himself, public relations concludes with Don making a more concerted effort to impress another journalist, this time from the Wall Street Journal. How this new, less terse approach will affect the company remains to be seen.
Compared to earlier episodes, this season opener wasn’t the best we’ve seen of Mad Men, but then, the drama’s been so radically shaken up by the events of the last series that there are entire new dynamics to establish. The shattered Draper household is vastly different, while Peggy’s now more stylish and assertive.
Will Don be able to recover that creative edge that his agency desperately needs to survive? Only time will tell.