Welcome to a brand new television recap here on the Bonus View. That’s right – AMC’s critically acclaimed ‘Mad Men,’ hosted by yours truly, the guy who does the weekend box office report. That tingling sensation you’re feeling right now is excitement! Or possibly jock itch. Either way, please pull up a chair and let us discuss the show’s fourth season premiere, ‘Public Relations.’
The episode opens with the words, “Who is Don Draper?” The question is asked by an ‘Advertising Age’ writer of our beloved, sometimes mysterious hero Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Draper, like those watching, is at a loss. And not just because, up until last season’s flashback-heavy episodes concerning his beginnings, the character had been cloaked in shadow. His past includes assuming the identity of a dead soldier, among other shady things. But the question also relates specifically to this season/episode. We aren’t really sure what year we’re in or how much time has transpired since last season’s jaunty, ‘Ocean’s 11’-like finale. (And, cleverly, we don’t find out until the episode’s end, when Don talks to another writer, this one from the ‘Wall Street Journal’.)
In these opening moments, we know that, at least, the new firm is up and running and has a bit of success with a floor polish commercial that seems more cinematic than anything else on television. Still, they’re struggling. Following the interview with the ‘Ad Age’ goon, Draper, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) meet a client to talk about bikinis. Or, rather, not bikinis, but “two piece bathing suits.” This is our first introduction to one of the episode’s chief concerns, besides orienting the audience to where and when the characters are (and in what state of moral compromise they might find themselves): sex.
The bikini company doesn’t want to be too revealing or leery with its advertisements. In weird way, ‘Mad Men’ is the same way. Since it’s on cable, but not premium cable, the series can’t get away with showing a lot of flesh or delving too heavily into taboo subject matter. However, both are stretched liberally later in the episode when we find out that Draper, instead of spending Thanksgiving with his family (or with Sterling and his new bride), chooses to stay in his cramped Manhattan apartment and have a hooker beat him up while having sex with him.
Meanwhile, back at the office, a publicity stunt that Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Pete concoct, involving two old women squabbling over a canned ham, backfires spectacularly when the women sue each other. In one of the episode’s best scenes, Don has to rescue Peggy from the situation in front of her new fiancé (!!?!). Later, Peggy scolds Don for making an example out of her. “All of us are here,” she says, “because of you. Because we want to please you.” It’s a tough and yet tender moment from arguably the show’s best drawn characters, and it explains the dynamic of the office well.
We also get some juicy scenes with Betty (January Jones) living in the Draper home with her new beau Henry. She seems to be an even worse parent than before. In another sequence dialing into the episode’s exploration of sex, Henry jumps her in the car while it’s still parked in the garage. It’s a weird scene. Henry seems somewhat aggressive, but Betty seems totally into it. We’ll see where this leads…
At the episode’s conclusion, Don is interviewed again, this time by the ‘Wall Street Journal’ hack. Since he bungled the first interview, Don now seems to be on his game. He’s gladly self-mythologizing, and starts explaining that the company was formed a year ago (Aha! We’re in 1964!), etc. etc. as the episode fades to a close. At the episode’s end. Matthew Weiner, series creator and last night’s writer, seems to suggest that this is where the episode should have started, if only our characters weren’t all so screwed up.
The episode, as far as I can tell, is pretty much peerless. It nicely sidesteps the traps of last season’s premiere – which began with a Don Draper flashback OF HIS OWN BIRTH (i.e. one that he could have no way remembered) – and focuses on the here-and-now. Besides a dubious lack of Joan (Christina Hendricks), this might be one of the best episode of ‘Mad Men.’ Ever. And that’s not some grand self-mythologizing either. It’s the real deal.