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The Unseen Second Floor: Mad Men's Fourth Season Premiere

"Who is Don Draper?"

It's those very words that are asked at the start of Season Four of AMC's slick and stylish period drama Mad Men but the question isn't just asked of Don Draper himself but posed to the audience as well. Just who is Don Draper? Is he a man so desperate to create a life for himself that he borrowed an identity from someone else? Is he an adulterous family man and distant father? Is he a divorced man attempting to navigate the uncertain waters of dating once more? Is he a modest Midwesterner or is he the public face of the fledgling Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency?

In the fourth season opener ("Public Relations"), written by Matthew Weiner and directed by Phil Abraham, Don wonders the answers to those questions as well, finding no solace in the quest of self-discovery. Throughout the series, Don Draper has been an enigma, a man whose purpose in life is to sell products, to craft deliciously beautiful creative work, but he's largely been hiding behind his own image, unable to answer that question.

He's not a lion-tamer but he's also not a family man, not anymore. His efforts to reverse his fortunes following the disastrous interview with Advertising Age at the episode's start are beautifully mirrored at the end of the episode as we see a different journalist, a different interview, and a different Don Draper. One who is prepared to put aside modesty in order to promote himself as a valuable commodity, one who isn't afraid to turn a climactic moment--walking into Lane Pryce's office and asking to be fired--into a story to dine out on, another advertising campaign, one with himself as the central product, a story that's spun until it becomes clear it's a commercial.

It's only fitting that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce doesn't have a second floor (nor do they have a conference table at the moment) but they've engaged the public with tales of expansion, of booming business, even as they struggle to hold on to the clients they have. That second floor is a metaphor for the unseen, for what might be, rather than what is. It's also gorgeously tied together with the ad campaign for Jantzen's two-piece swimsuit: "So well built, we can't show you the second floor."

Is the woman wearing the top to her two-piece? Does the agency have a second floor? But the question we should be asking is: Does it matter?

Donald Draper has been a man long prone to using illusion, to distract the eye with what it wants to see rather than with what's actually there. A year after the end of the third season, Don Draper is a single man once more, locked in a messy divorce battle with his ex-wife Betty, who continues to live with her new husband in the house she once shared with Don. Don, meanwhile, lives in a tiny one-bedroom in Greenwich Village, seeing his two older children when he's able and carving out a niche for a bunkbed to house them behind saloon doors.

The dream he once had--that house in the suburbs, the perfect wife, those beautiful children--now seems like nothing more than a fairy tale. The reality is that he's now alone, polishing his shoes in front of a television, watching his own ads in the dark. That he looks upon Sally and Bobby as they climb into that narrow alcove bunkbed with such sadness says more than any words could. This might be "temporary" as he nastily tells Betty's new husband Henry but this could also be permanent: his family reduced to a small part of his life, isolated away in a tiny alcove.

When he was married, Don could have gone after any woman. There was safety in the fact that his wedding band meant their relationship would be strictly sexual, a short-term affair that could lead nowhere. But a now divorced Don finds that the codes are different among singles. His date with Bethany Van Nuys (True Blood's Anna Camp) ends in the cab because she won't sleep with him. She won't let him walk her to the door; she's been down this road before and she knows all of his tricks. She's looking for something long-term, something meaningful, something Don hasn't had since he courted Betty years ago. He's going to have to work at something for change.

But it's clear that Don wants to feel something. His Thanksgiving isn't spent with family but with a call girl he frequents, one whom he likes to slap him around. It's a toe in the shallow end of sadomasochism but it's meant to illicit a response. He wants to be not only punished but to be made to feel something, anything, even if it's painful.

That slap also connects to his mistreatment of the potential clients from Jantzen at the end of the episode. The old Don would have taken Roger's tack and told the clients that creative would come up with some new pitches; he would have been forced to create the campaign he derides to them--one in which women play volleyball on the beach as a little girl builds a sandcastle--in order to meet their vision of modesty. But Don's done building sandcastles, really. He swiftly boots them from his office, demanding they get out and then slams his door after agreeing to another interview, this time in the Wall Street Journal. He's done selling two-piece bathing suits to fleeing customers. If he's going to sell anything, he's got to sell himself first.

"I walked into Lane Pryce's office and I said, 'Fire us.' Within a year, we'd taken over two floors of the Time-Life Building," said Don.

Two floors, of course.

It's ironic because Don claims that he hates stunts, such as the one that Peggy, Pete, and Joey (Matt Long) pull involving two grabby actresses and a Sugarberry Ham. While it does result in the company increasing their media buy, Don's furious that Peggy did this without consulting him, asking her if she wants them all to look like idiots. But Peggy's changed over the years; she doesn't back down and instead reminds Don that no one found out about the stunt--despite the arrest of one of the actresses--and the firm's reputation is right where Don left it, thanks to his vapid interview.

She also goes to lengths to remind Don that each of them is there because of him. "All we want to do is please you," Peggy chides him. It's as much a slap across the face as the hooker performs. And it's true: Don Draper is this agency and those who followed him from Sterling Cooper and set up shop at a room in the Pierre Hotel did so because they believed in him. Who is Don Draper then? He's Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, really, a fact that Pete Campbell attempts in his own way to remind him at the beginning of the polished and engaging season opener.

The true answer to that question, of course, will come over the course of Mad Men's fourth season as Don looks to build a new life for himself, even as Betty and the kids adapt to their own new reality. If "Public Relations" represents just where this season is going, I'd say we are in for a thrilling and taut exploration of the dark recesses of Don's psyche, even as we push into the future, one filled with uncertainty, conflict, and war on several levels. I'll see you on the second floor.

Next week on Mad Men ("Christmas Comes But Once a Year"), a last minute visitor threatens to spoil the agency's Christmas Party.

Comments

Jo Allen said…
So happy to have Mad Men back! I'm glad we entered this season with the new agency in full swing so we can see how everything is working (or not working). Don Draper has reinvented himself once so it only makes sense that he would now be called to do so again. And I can't wait to see where that takes him.
Debbie said…
I love that Don finally met the realization head on that he is the core of their new business and the face of SCDP. You can tell it hit him with a ton of bricks, and though he may no longer have the weight of Dick Whitman's past in his rearview, now he has the heft of the agency, new clients, old clients, relationships, and coworkers depending on him - perhaps like never before.


Coupled with the problems his kids are having, at least he can put on the right face and make the image of SCDP be what the world needs it to be. His poor kids have a pathetic mom with no parenting skills, zero clue of how the world works, and is manipulative and mean with everyone but herself. I think Henry has realized a little late to the party that his new wife is not what she is all cracked up to be but rather just a pain.

My hope for next week is to get more Joan, Peggy, and Harry but much less Betty and Pete. I love Roger Sterling's comeback and I think the fact that he is writing a book will be important to the storyline somewhere down the road... I still hope Roger and Joan get together again!
Kate said…
Jace, I was so hoping that the invitation to jump to the rest of the article would be, "Kick a chair, get slapped by a whore, embrace your inner a$$hole, and let's discuss Public Relations!".

I'm so happy this show is back, and glad as always to read your thoughts on it the next day.

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