Mad Men 4.01 "Public Relations" Review

It all feels so new!

Mad Men‘s fourth season is such a dramatic departure from previous years that it would feel like a whole new show if it wasn’t for the same characters and one set piece. The entire show seems to have opened itself into a brave new world. Before, our heroes worked for an advertising agency that was sure of itself. Losing clients was never a huge worry because there were so many others. Now, with our heroes’ less certain agency, they’re at risk. They’re under scrutiny. They have to prove themselves all over again.

Don Draper, meanwhile, is falling apart. While his life at the end of “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” was an ironic mix of good and bad, it seems to have all gone sour over the few months we’ve been away. He’s not happy with his agency, he’s not happy with himself, he’s simply not happy at all, and it shows. He’s angrier, much angrier — to the point where he yells as prospective clients to leave. He’s no longer the suave, cool man we know. He’s mutated into a suave, blustery man. At the root of it all? Self-loathing, pure and simple. He knows he’s the reason his marriage fell apart, whether he chooses to admit it or not. He takes his pain out on himself by hiring a prostitute to violently slap him during sex. He’s in a self-destructive cycle. He’s a wreck. The brightly-lit hopefulness of his work is only a facade; in truth, it matches the shadowy lighting of his home life.

The other characters, however, seem to be holding up surprisingly well. Peggy is more self-confident and is able to speak up to Don more, perhaps after her huge character leap in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat.” Sterling is his same old sardonic self; when he walks in on Don resting, he deadpans, “Good, I’ve got you when you’re vulnerable.” Sterling is actually the only partner who has a major role in the episode other than Draper; Cooper and Pryce are regrettably delegated to a couple of lines each (a shame, considering they’re two of the most interesting characters on the show). Harry Crane is more commanding around others and is actually doing some major work (returning from California with a sunburn was a nice touch of detail). Pete Campbell’s stayed about the same; he’s still the eager-to-please accounts man he was before, though he’s growing into more of a leader. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets his name on the door before the end of the series. And Joan, well, she’s still Joan, and that’s good enough for everyone.

In fact, the only one other than Don who seems to be worse off is Betty Draper, who is slightly unhappy with her marriage to Henry. Her relationship with her daughter is strained due to Sally missing Don (while her son, Bobby, seems to be getting along rather well). In fact, Betty is becoming completely unlikable. Her anger at Don’s lies seems expired, and her refusal to leave his house or even search for other homes seems immature, because, well, it really is. Series creator Matthew Weiner has stated that Betty never really grew up, and this episode definitely made that more apparent, though.

The episode was, ultimately, a descent into darkness for Don and Betty, and a step up for the other characters. The plot was mostly expository, a sort of “where are they now,” that meshed into a couple of subplots very well. I can’t say I’m really sure where the series is going from here, but I have more of a footing than I did at the end of season three. Maybe that’s how I’m supposed to be; just like the characters, stepping into the unknown. A

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