Bear with us. We’re not getting nostalgic here. We’re talking about the sitcom set in a ’70s version of the ’50s. Remember how Fonzie became the breakout character and unexpected star of the show and it went from being a sitcom about Richie Cunningham to a sitcom about The Fonz? Remember how, from that point on, every scene with Fonzie was written and performed in such a way as to give the audience time to applaud not only the character’s every utterance, but also his every entrance and exit? Call it The Fonzie Effect, that point at which a show chooses fan service over creativity. With Mad Men’s triumphant return for its 4th season, at the height of its critical and popular success, they could have easily lapsed into the Fonzie Effect, even inadvertently. Instead, because it’s Mad Men and they can do self-referential like nobody’s business, they deliberately offered an episode that was all about the Fonzie Effect; in true Mad Men fashion, the episode’s title referred to Don’s lesson in public relations, Peggy’s hilarious attempt at public relations, and the relationship the show itself has with its public.
With the opening scene, beginning with the almost-a-cliche question, “Who is Don Draper?” we get what looks like another iteration of the “Don is tortured by his hidden past” scene. Not that simple. Don is being interviewed for an Advertising Age profile and we quickly find out that the interviewer is getting annoyed with Don, who is characteristically reticent when the subject is Don Draper. We find out that he’s risen even higher in the firmament of Manhattan advertising stars, apparently partially due to his much talked-about commercial for Glo-Coat floor cleaner. “I wanted it to be indistinguishable from the movies,” he explains, offering another of those lines that could have been about the series itself.
Press Pause. Look, we kind of hate doing strict “this happened, then this happened” recaps, but there was an awful lot to unpack with this episode and we find ourselves lapsing into it in order to keep it all straight. Besides, so much of it was setup of the new status quo that we feel remiss if we don’t mention every little development. Press Play.
Roger and Pete show up to spirit Don away to a cattle call meeting with Jantzen Swimwear, but not before Roger gets his first in a series of inappropriate quips at the expense of the one-legged reporter. “They’re so cheap they can’t even afford a whole reporter.” At the meeting with Jantzen, the two representatives from the company gush over meeting the great Don Draper. “I can’t tell who the client is here,” says Roger in response to the hail of praise that unexpectedly comes their way. They make it clear that they’re a family company and this will not be an ad campaign for a bikini because they don’t make bikinis; they make two-piece bathing suits. “It’s not a bikini. A bikini is underwear you wear to the beach.” Roger later predicts that one or both of them will leave New York with a venereal disease.
After the meeting, the trio saunters into the brand new offices of the brand new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and we’re treated to a flurry of familiar faces, Lane, Bert, Joan, Peggy, and Don’s secretary Allison, as well as a small staff of secretaries and one cute new guy in the creative department. It’s all bright and modern, with a more ’60s-style communal feel (aided by all the glass walls) and some killer pieces of furniture. Much, much smaller than the old offices and not nearly as well appointed, but after a couple of minutes of getting used to it you realize just how old-fashioned (in a ’50s sort of way) the old offices were. This office is louder, with its glass and aluminum replacing the old SC’s mid-Century swank. Everything feels brighter and more raw. Bert Cooper is not one of those people who have gotten used to it yet, refusing to participate in the tall tale about SCDP having a second floor and complaining about the decision to trade more square footage for a flashier address in the (almost brand new) Time Life Building.
With the new address and the new ’60s vibe comes the illustration of some substantial changes in the relationships among all the key players. Pete lavishes praise on Don in a way that would have made the old jealous, petulant Pete a little nauseous. But it’s completely sincere and even now he can’t contain his excitement over being handpicked by Don to help him build this “scrappy little upstart,” a phrase Pete uses to describe SCDP that you can tell he loves to use. Apparently Don’s reputation has skyrocketed in the last year, making him something of a George Lois-type figure, a change that makes Don clearly uncomfortable. He wants to do good creative work, not be a superstar.
Pete pays a visit to the fabulous creative department, where Peggy’s sporting a new bubble ‘do and an attitude of confidence that makes you completely forget the nervous, sheltered secretary fresh from Miss Deaver’s Secretarial School. This is when we meet Joey, the cute co-worker (artist? copywriter?) who defers to Peggy when she pulls rank on him, but seems to have a great working relationship with her consisting of constant repetitions of Stan Freberg’s old “John and Marsha” routine. We just loved the image of Peggy sitting on her desk, whiskey in hand, bitching about difficult clients. Later, she barrels into Pete’s office unannounced, confidently shouting out “He’s expecting us!” to his secretary on the way in. She orders Joey to work with a sharp “Chop chop, Joey.” She’s supremely confident and in her element and she probably never would have gotten the chance to be so free and open at the old SC. It’s really wonderful to see.
Pete brings up his frustration with Sugarberry Hams’ reluctance to increase their ad budget and Peggy comes up with a devious little plan to hire two actresses to get arrested for fighting over one of the hams, thereby increasing the client’s exposure which should in turn convince them to seize the moment by running more ads. They decide to proceed with the plan and to not tell Don about it. It may be exciting to see the new SCDP, but they’re not so successful that they’re above a little down and dirty.
We get some info on what a divorced Don Draper is like and it ain’t pretty. Bad enough for Roger to arrange a blind date for him with one of Jane’s friends. He lives in a somewhat depressing bachelor pad that’s a far cry from the bright offices of SCDP and a planet away from his picture perfect former home in Ossining. He doesn’t seem to do much there but continue to work.
He goes on a date with Jane’s friend and she’s essentially Betty 2.0. Oh, she’s definitely flirty and more self-assured than Betty ever was, which befits a woman who’s probably ten years younger than her. But she’s perky and stylish and beautiful and lives at the Barbizon while performing as a supernumerary for the opera. Some day she’s going to be someone’s wife who used to live in New York and worked as an actress. Betty 2.0. Don seems slightly interested in her, but very reserved. He still tries to make a play for her in the cab, though. She deftly spurns his advances and makes it clear that she’s not that kind of girl. At least not on the first date.
Back at SCDP, Harry returns sunburnt from his trip to California and his endless meeting with network executives. He proudly visits Joan – IN HER OFFICE – and relays all the details of his trip, including the news that he sold a jai alai TV special. Okay, here’s the thing about that: why does Joan have an office? Not that we don’t think she ever deserved one, but this scene makes us wonder exactly what her role is here. She and Harry once made a great team as the television department of Sterling Cooper until Joan did such a good job that they hired a man to do it. Are she and Harry working together here? Why would he go out of his way to tell the office manager about his trip? Why would she seem so interested? Then again, he asks her for some grapefruit juice and to schedule a meeting for him, so there’s some confusion here.
The Ad Age profile is published and it’s not complimentary. In fact, Roger tells Don he “sounds like a prick.” Don blows it off as inconsequential, but he misread the situation. At a company meeting, Pete drops the bomb that Jai Alai is dropping them, upset that Don never mentioned them in the profile. Harry (demonstrating how different the relationships are now) yells “Bullshit!” and orders Pete to “Fix it!” Could you ever imagine the bumbling, nervous Harry Crane of little more than a year ago acting like that?
All eyes in the makeshift conference room settle on Don. He fucked this one up royally. Again, he tries to minimize it, telling them with annoyance that “My work speaks for me.” “Turning creative success into business IS your work. And you failed,” replies Bert. He’ll use his contacts to get an interview for the Wall Street Journal in order to stem the damage from this PR nightmare. Don kicks away a chair in frustration. For someone so on top of his game, he’s having an awfully shitty time of it lately. Then again, that’s the major theme of Mad Men; people who look like they should have all the happiness in the world leading secretly unhappy lives. And on that note…
Thanksgiving at the Francis family residence, with Henry, his new wife, the former Betty Draper, Sally and Bobby, Henry’s adult daughter and Henry’s judgmental bitch of a mother, Pauline (who we secretly love). Sally’s acting out and Betty’s parenting style hasn’t improved any. If anything, it’s gotten worse. Shoving food in Sally’s mouth like that struck us as a pretty desperate move on her part. Pauline makes her views on Betty clear in a later conversation with Henry. “She’s a silly woman. Honestly Henry, I don’t know how you can stand living in that man’s dirt.” Ouch. Worse, she notes that Bobby and Sally are terrified of her. Betty seems more filled with rage than ever, adopting an eerie matronly look that doesn’t suit her well. This is not a happy woman.
But things don’t seem to be totally bad in that marriage. They still seem to have the hots for each other. We can’t imagine Betty ever had sex with Don in that garage. And how weird was it to see Francis in that house? In that creaky old replacement (dual meaning alert) for the fabulously stylish Draper marriage bed? How weird was it to see Don and Henry in that house together? It was damn cold of Don to threaten to start charging but it’s got to be awfully hard to watch another man take your wife and live in the house you provided for her. However many ways Don failed Betty, that’s still a shitty situation to be in. Even Henry thought Don was in the right. Either way, Betty and Don are obviously not getting along and it’s right on the border of getting ugly. To make matters worse, there are plenty of red flags in the Francis marriage too. After all, Betty’s never had in-laws before, let alone in-laws who openly hate her. She’s not bound to deal with that too well. “Believe me, Henry. Everybody believes this is temporary.” An awfully good burn by Don, but was this another wink to the audience’s expectations? Are are they truly saying that Don doesn’t think the current status quo as it pertains to his family will last?
Because Don’s not really making the effort in his own private life. He sits in that dark apartment and broods and works. Even when he had the kids for the weekend he parked them in front of the TV while he worked. Although to be fair, you can see how much he loves them when he put them to bed in their bunk beds, promising to sew a button for Bobby in the morning. He’s a lot warmer to those kids than Betty is, that’s for sure.
He apparently has an ongoing “relationship” with a hooker, who shows up for an appointment on Thanksgiving and knows him well enough to give him what he wants: a little pain. Now granted, that was as mild as a kink could possibly be, but it still illustrated that Don’s in a dark place in his personal life. We get the sense in retrospect that he was probably glad his blind date didn’t let him up to her apartment.
Peggy calls him after he’s had his fun and informs him she needs 280 dollars for bail money, again winking to the audience, who all know that Don once asked her for the same favor and it was a turning point in their relationship. This smart, funny exchange was perhaps the most illustrative of how much that relationship changed. Peggy screwed up and she’s not enjoying telling Don this, but she’s hardly meek about it. “Do you think you’re my first call?” We also meet Mark, what looks to be another in an increasingly long line of unimpressive choices in men on Peggy’s part. Last time we saw him he was taking a bullet in the back on Lost.
Later, Peggy drops off a ham in Don’s office (perhaps the boldest wink to the audience yet) and apologizes once again, but she can’t help reminding him that it all turned out well, since the client increased their ad budget. He still doesn’t agree with her methods or the fact that she hid it from him and he chides her for bringing along her boyfriend in a clumsy attempt to keep him from blowing up at her. “Well, at least I’m thinking ahead.” We like this new wisecracking Peggy. Even better after she pointedly reminds him that “our image remains pretty much where you left it.” And finally, she demonstrates that they know each other well enough for her to point out, like Roger did, that he sounds like a prick. “You now something? We are all here because of you. All we want to do is please you.” Peggy doesn’t entirely accept that she did anything worth getting yelled at and she’s quite comfortable pointing out to him that that he’s the one who’s letting the rest of them down.
So, the Jantzen reps are here for their meeting and they’re clearly thrilled to be getting a pitch from Don. “Can I put my feet on this?” He shows them exactly the campaign they said they didn’t want. “So Well Built, We Can’t Show You the Second Floor.” Tonally, it’s exactly right for a mid-sixties ad. Note the use of photography instead of illustration. But the clients aren’t thrilled. “It’s not wholesome.” They’re worried about what their customers will think of them. “You’ll get them into the store. Isn’t that the point?” Don doesn’t want to do something obvious and he’s annoyed with this client’s stubborn refusal to admit to themselves and their customers what they really are. “Your competitors are going to keep killing you because you’re too scared of the skin your two-piece was designed to show off,” he tells them angrily. “You need to decide what kind of company you’re going to be. Comfortable and dead, or risky and possibly rich.”
Oh, he is talking about SO MUCH here. Actually that’s not true. He’s talking entirely about himself, god bless him, the little narcissist. Roger attempts to calm him down after he storms out of the meeting and tells him that Pete will smooth things over and they can pitch again in a week or two. “That’s not the point,” he answers in frustration. Don really doesn’t want to be reduced to pitching mediocre ads just to keep their struggling client roster healthy. So he ensures that no second meeting will ever happen by ending the first meeting in the worst possible manner, shocking both the client and all his co-workers. He informs Roger that he’s ready for that Wall Street Journal interview.
And here we come full circle as Don accepts the new status quo. He’s Fonzie. He’s the girl taking off her bikini top that gets the customer in the store. The new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will live or die based entirely on his willingness to accept his superstar status. “We are all here because of you.” So he puts on a rockstar act and gives an obnoxious (but admittedly super-cool) interview to the Wall Street Journal. As the episode ended with a perfect crash cut to “Tobacco Road,” we were ready to jump out of our seats and cheer. That was the coolest fucking ending the show’s ever done and we are so pumped for the bright, colorful, pop art, rock and roll 1965 that’s just around the corner for all these characters.
A perfect season opener.