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Mad Men: Illusions of manhood

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Monchel Pridget, and I am a Mad Men fanatic. I thoroughly enjoy the show and its engrossing characters, even though the show is a rampant celebration of the White, male, straight, able-bodied privilege that permeates the United States’ cultural frameworks. Through the moral bankruptcy of Donald “Don” Draper, the show’s protagonist, AMC’s Mad Men holds a mirror up to the nightmarish deceptions and hostilities of the American Dream, asking viewers how far they would go, how much history must be forgotten and revised, and how many broken lives can remain broken to keep and maintain success.

Season Four is no different, and its premiere episode, “Public Relations,” gives a nod to our heavily saturated consumer culture through the successes and failures of the newly-formed Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce (SCDP). Everything is a product to be packaged and sold to the public, including the people who sell it. On Sunday night, we watched Don learn that despite forming a new agency to evade a second advertising corporate merger, he remains a market commodity.

The first upset of Season Four hits early in the episode: Don sits tightlipped during an interview with the make-or-break publication Advertising Age about the new Manhattan-based agency. The problem is the question: the reporter asks, “Who is Don Draper?” Don, unfortunately, does not have a clue how to approach answering that question; most viewers don’t either. As the reporter presses Don Draper for a kitschy phrase summing up his creative concepts role in the firm, Don retreats to his Midwestern background briefly with faux-modesty. “I’m from the Midwest. We were taught it’s not polite to talk about yourself.”

It’s ironic that this is coming from the man who bragged about how consumers needed to be told what to buy or else they’d float around aimlessly and without purpose. With no help from Don, the reporter predictably presents a cardboard cut-out in a short corner-page article: ad man, wife, two kids and a dog, house in the suburbs, good guy with a blank page personality. The blurb is great if you’re putting together a statistical profile; but for a creative executive in an advertising agency, it’s public relations suicide.

Don’s self-centered silence about his new company places its small amount of advertising business into a tailspin: a large sporting client leaves the firm because his product didn’t get mentioned in Don’s abysmal interview – never mind that their television executive Harry (who has traded in timidity for pluck this season) just landed himself a coveted spot on ABC. Pete Campbell, the sycophantic accounts manager, gets upbraided for failing to build on the history of two of the company’s partners (namely Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper) and instead calling the venture a “scrappy upstart.” Don’s creative protégé Peggy Olson goes behind his back and coordinates a staged fight in a grocery store over a client’s ham for Thanksgiving. The good news is the fight raises the company’s profile, and they increase their media budget with the firm. The bad news is Peggy finds it incredibly difficult to add the publicity stunt to the company’s portfolio, and she could not afford the out-of-pocket expenses of springing the fighters from jail and keeping them from suing each other and SCDP without telling Don what happened.

“Public Relations” also illuminates problems with space for the new company and for Don’s private life. The new office is unabashedly ‘60s and very bright, with windows and paneling framing every space. Everyone bustles and rumbles along on one floor, though the ad men tell clients that there’s an exclusive second floor. The conference room in the office still does not have – and cannot afford – a table. (Pete tries to point out an upside by saying a potential client believed it was deliberate because a circle of chairs “demands a conversation.” “A conversation about why there’s no table,” Don remarks.) On the home front, Don keeps his newly acquired bachelor pad dark and empty, with only a television to keep him company. His ex-wife Betty and her new husband Henry Francis continue to live in the Drapers’ suburban home on Don’s dime, because of Betty’s spiteful resentment of the house being sold after the divorce. While she tells Don and Henry it’s for their two kids’ sakes, both kids seem miserable being shuffled between their parents.

While it’s tempting to paint Draper’s brashly seductive demeanor as the work (and luck) of the Devil himself, the key to understanding anyone in Mad Men’s ensemble is enabling their dynamism. In Season Two’s episode “The New Girl”, while consoling Peggy about her sudden pregnancy, Don pushes her to move on with her life by saying, “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”

Don’s problem in this season is with his marriage ending and his professional life rebooted, he has no idea how much history he has to revise to become a success again. I always see these experiments translating to everyday life in the United States as we rebrand everything, including mercenary companies like Blackwater switching to Xe after its war crimes got extensive media coverage, and even long-term war efforts like Obama’s renaming the Global War on Terror to Overseas Contingency Operation. There is only so much denial and revision a psyche can take, whether it’s a person’s psyche or the collective psyche of a nation.

The show lets Don play the field by changing the terms of the game. In order to give the company the jump it needs, Don dramatically throws a swimwear account that pleads for a family-friendly way to market bikinis (or, as they called them, two-piece swimsuits). He books a new interview for the high-profile Wall Street Journal, and he spins the biggest ball of yarn about how he singlehandedly led the charge for creating Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce. The episode closes with the opening lyrics of “Tobacco Road,” another song about coming from nothing and not leaving with much.

The new ruse is in place, and I thoroughly enjoyed the ending. I thought, Don is back! An ever-present pattern in Mad Men is every new façade for Don needs an update; every refusal from Don to change his ways results in dramatic consequences. The joy is waiting for Don to realize the need to change, and it often slaps him in the face (sometimes literally). But how long will everyone keep buying what Don is selling? Will the illusion ever fall? That’s a question for next week’s episode.

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