Widgets Magazine

Remote Nomad: It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

If there had been VHS in 1964, I can say with confidence that Peggy Olson from “Mad Men” would have owned a copy of the 1963 film the title alludes to. Alas, the Video Home System didn’t rock the worlds of secretly promiscuous homebodies until 1976, so the season premiere of the fourth season of “Mad Men” presents us with a 1964 Thanksgiving, sans VHS. Somehow it managed just fine.

I spent the week leading up to “Public Relations” poring over thinly veiled promotional journalism about Matt Weiner’s universe of 1960s advertising titans in Manhattan. Even though that research led me to descriptions of the first words of the new season, “Who is Don Draper?”, those five syllables still sent chills up and down my spine.

AMC’s greatest triumph (who needs American movies anyway?) began with surprisingly dramatic and farcical tones this past Sunday. Nearly a year has passed in the world of the Draper divorce and the new Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce. As a result, we the loyal viewers of the show find ourselves asking the same question as the reporter at the outset of the episode, “Who is Don Draper,” simply because the premiere unveiled many new aspects to the character, navigated artfully by Jon Hamm.

For Don, his home and work lives have been reversed: the loner of Sterling Cooper has become the Alex Rodriguez of SCDP; the Draper patriarch has become Don the bachelor. These reversals are clearly wearing on Don, who in the course of the episode commits uncharacteristic missteps of failing to bed a Mount Holyoke graduate and bombing a magazine interview. Just as Don never fits comfortably into his new roles, the audience is never fully comfortable with Don’s lack of control. When we see Don waiting late at night on the couch of his former family home for Betty to return, the magnitude of the upheaval is glaringly apparent. Don returns to form, by which I mean he artfully assumes a form, by the end of the episode, when he gives a second interview to a Wall Street Journal writer with all the bravado of a man who could have been Paris Hilton’s great-godparent (refer to season three for said reference).

To be honest, this episode put me on edge even more than the caper-style season three finale, simply because the status quo had changed so much. Matt Weiner is not afraid to drop us in medias res with not only plot but even character development. The Peggy Olson of season four has a new haircut and new power at the firm: the command she exerts over both the new art director (yes, Sal is gone for good) and Pete creates an illusion of control, until their promotional hunt for hams requires Don to bail her out. Even when Don familiarly calls her into the office, Peggy is not afraid to say what the others are thinking, namely that Don is the king and the others merely jesters. I’ll be interested to see where Peggy goes this season – not only the beds she sleeps in but the corporate ladders she is brave enough to climb.

And then there’s Betty Draper, more repugnant than ever as January Jones presents an uncanny portrait of bad parenting in the role. Betty was afforded some of the best moments of the episode in action and symbol: her force-feeding Sally Draper on Thanksgiving, the mother and daughter matching pink pajamas, and the mother and stepdaughter matching red outfits at Thanksgiving dinner. Betty, now married to Henry Francis, wants to have her cake and eat it too, or, more appropriately, have her divorce and milk it too. I can’t wait to see further interactions between an even more entitled Betty and an even less tolerant Don.

Weiner withholds information about Joan, underlining the fact that the show’s creator knows what the audience wants better than the audience does. In true “Mad Men” fashion, “Public Relations” raised more questions than it answered, and I’ll be here to bemoan my ignorance along the way.