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Mad Men Watch: Keeping Up Appearances

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, turn on the TV in your lonely bachelor apartment and watch last night’s season premiere of Mad Men.

The theme of the new season of Mad Men is identity, says Matthew Weiner, and starting it off with someone asking “Who Is Don Draper?” makes sure we don’t miss the point. But the first episode was also very much about what interposes itself between us and identity: appearances.

Because it’s now safe to go back and read my season-debut review, spoilers-wise, I’ll try avoid repeating too much from that analysis. I discussed the opening scene there from the standpoint that Don, starting over both in business and his personal life, is free to define himself as he wants, but seems paralyzed by the choice, by the answer to, “Who Is Don Draper?”

There’s another aspect to his reticence, though. He asks the Ad Age journalist how most men answer the question; the reporter replies that they usually take a minute to think and then say something “cute.” As we see to his reaction to Pete and Peggy’s PR stunt–and as we’ve seen on the job before–Don is not a fan of the cute. Rather than give the reporter the glib answer he’s looking for–and lacking for a meaningful one–he would rather not say anything at all.

(And then, of course, the other reason he can’t correct the reporter: he mention’s Don’s “knockout wife,” and Don would rather leave him with a misapprehension, which later shows up in the article, than admit the failure of his marriage.)

From there, we move to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s new offices, where the headquarters’ modernist gleam* and the swinging soundtrack, the new company appears stylish, confident and successful. This appearance is no accident, and it’s vital: in order to be successful, the firm must persuade clients that it is already successful. Hence the repeated story that the firm has a second floor. (My favorite line of the episode: Robert Morse’s “I refuse to be any part of that charade.”)

But behind the attractive facade, we see, there are problems. Business is lean and depends too much on a few big clients–one of whom, God help them, is or was jai alai. The old Sterling Cooper would not have been sweating the loss of a haw company anywhere near as much as SDCP, where that client’s leaving might mean Peggy’s partner goes down to two days a week.

(*Time’s offices are, naturally, in the Time & Life Building, which I have to say has never looked so swanky in the 21st century–but in 1964, the Internationalist Style building was new, and thus sent the message that SDCP was a company of the future.)

SDCP, however, does have to sweat the ham, so Peggy and Pete concoct the fake supermarket fight, a stunt about creating appearances. If you seem wanted, you will actually be wanted; if you seem successful, you will actually be successful.

Halfway through the episode, the focus shifts to Don’s personal life, and Betty’s. Don, the happy, lucky bachelor in his associates’ eyes (or at least in their imaginations, evidenced by the accountant who asks, “How are your balls? You enjoying yourself?”) is in a dark apartment, spending weekend in front of football games and hiring a hooker to smack him around on Thanksgiving–sex as a form of self-punishment.

Single life doesn’t seem to fit Don well. He seems stiff and off his game; his date looks like a chore compared with his casually pickup of the airline stewardess in the first episode of last season. The saddest scene in the episode is either his silently grooming himself before his arranged date, or his doing work at his desk while his kids silently watch TV.

Betty, newly married to Henry, is as always trying to maintain appearances, but without the advantage of an easily maintained facade. To her new in-laws, she’s an interloper, distrusted and unwelcome, and Thanksgiving dinner ends with her trying to stuff sweet potatoes into Sally’s mouth, as if she’s trying to make her daughter swallow the new marriage along with it.

Further endangering Betty and Henry’s attempt to stage-manage their new marriage is that its stage setting is the Drapers’ old house, which Don is (after, it appears, some time) threatening to kick them out of–and which Betty, clearly, is having a hard time letting go of. (“Don, it’s temporary.” “Henry, believe me, everybody thinks this is temporary.”)

One question that lingers for me over their scenes together: does Don want Betty back? He clearly seems to want the marriage not to have ended, but that’s not the same as wishing he had Betty back now. Now that she’s remarried, it seems truly over between them, but not in a way that will end cleanly or nicely. They’re connected not just by children and real estate, but by bad blood, and remarried though she is, Betty still needs to hit back at Don, as when she comes in late from her night with Henry: “I waited for you plenty of times.”

In the end, like so many times, Don can control things at work where he can’t at home. He has a showdown with Peggy, dressing her down for risking the firm’s image to build up Sugarberry Ham’s. (If I had one problem with the episode, it’s that here it seems to be repeating itself, with another scene of Don taking out his frustrations on Peggy–a recurring event last season, before he had to court her to jump ship with him–while she reminds him how badly everyone in the office wants his approval.)

It takes Don’s showdown with the bathing-suit prudes to make him realize what he needs to do: add a second floor to his public image, create the image, the persona that his company needs to turn its creative success into business. He meets with the Wall Street Journal reporter and presents himself as a swaggering, expansive, happy man. By which means–who knows?–he might actually become one. For the time being, he has to fake it until he makes it.

* The reporter’s stumbling over his wooden leg, besides being a call back to Don’s service in Korea, is reminiscent of the amputation scene in “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”; both are examples of how Mad Men occasionally reveals the ugly physical realities under its sleek veneers–the three piece suit that hides the wound.

* Among the little changes we see in the characters: Pete is still chipper and sometimes overeager, but he addresses Roger and Don more as peers now (“We don’t have time, Roger”). Peggy, meanwhile, despite the unraveling of the PR scheme, seems more confident in the office than ever, as she relaxes in her office and does the Stan Freberg John and Marsha routine with her writing partner.

* Though there wasn’t much in the end of season 3 I’d call a cliffhanger (Don started his new business, Betty was clearly running off to Reno with Henry), I was curious to see how things would be at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce when we returned. And I like that Weiner has struck a balance between making it a runaway success and a disaster; showing the firm scrambling to turn a few successes into a thriving business should give this season the drive on the office-story side that was lacking in the early part of last season.

* Speaking of ads, I love how the brief glimpse we got of Don’s “second floor” bathing suit ad just screamed 1964: the hair on the model, the bright color, the touch of raciness—it was something you wouldn’t have seen in 1960, Mad Men’s first season, and another example of how well the show conveys the subtle changes in the times through design.

* Mad Men often takes its time to get around to servicing each character, so while I wished we’d seen more of Joan, I expect that will be fixed soon enough. Elisabeth Moss, meanwhile, did a lot in a few scenes to sketch out the new Peggy, still wary of Don, but assured, even commanding, in dealing with everyone else in the office. I particularly like how she delivered Peggy’s brainstorm about the Indian-and-Pilgrim ad; we see in her face not excited shock, but a professional’s satisfaction in spotting and bagging a good idea. She’s come a long way.

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