Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Who is Don Draper?"

Here is the very brief version of season 4, episode 1 of Mad Men -- to say there are spoilers here is to state the blindingly obvious:

Sterling-Cooper died last season. Or maybe before that, I don't know.

Season four opens a few months into the formation of the new Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price (SCDP), but more pointedly, it begins with the question at the title of this post, finding Don in an interview with Advertising Age which he does not handle with his characteristic charisma, to the detriment of his reputation and the fortunes of the new firm. The question of identity redounds through every scene of the first episode, ending on a tentative conclusion that one's identity is that which one articulates and enacts. Thus Don and the rest find themselves at the rise of existentialism and explicitly self-aware identity politics, or in other words, the closing weeks of 1964.

The theme of identity -- what is real and fake, where boundaries lie, who occupies roles and what those mean -- manifests endlessly in the episode:

* Don's sudden celebrity is based on an ad that has made waves by blurring the line between cinema and TV advertising.

* The firm has a new office and logo with no conference table -- no center around which the principals can meet -- and an ersatz second floor.

* Peggy and SCDP's new artist, Joey, spend a couple of scenes play-acting some Stan Freberg dialogue: "John," she says; "Marsha," he answers. Parody and camp are ramping up at SCDP and the wider world of advertising.

* Peggy stages publicity stunt in which two actresses posing as shoppers fight over a canned ham. What begins as a staged fight becomes a real fight with real injuries and legal consequences, and ends in publicity coup for the ham's maker (SCDP's client).

* Betty, Don's ex-wife, is now re-married to Henry, but they inhabit the home in which Don used to live and that he is still paying for. In this, we see Don and Betty struggling to accept their new situations, however freely chosen they have been.

* As though he would a classmate, Sterling sets Don up for a Thanksgiving date -- Don is moving back through time.

* For their part, Henry and Betty have a Thanksgiving dinner with Henry's mother as though they're lovers home from college having a meet-the-parents ordeal.

The central instance of the identity theme concerns Don's reaction to Jantzen swimwear, a potential SCDP client. Explicitly reinforcing the ersatz second floor motif, Don's pitch consists of a woman whose bikini top area is concealed behind a placard reading "So well built we can't show you the second floor." This doesn't make sense and deliberately flouts Jantzen's stated aims to appeal to a "wholesome" market; it only makes sense as a wry reference to SCDP and to Don's personal struggles to define his identity in the new world he has made in and beyond SCDP. "What separates a bathing suit from underwear?" he asks, and then answers "cut and cloth and some sort of gentlemen's agreement." Shortly thereafter, still talking more about himself than about Jantzen swimwear, he says "You need to decide what kind of company you want to be: comfortable and dead, or risky and possibly rich." Jantzen's executives are nonplussed, and Don testily throws them out before they can definitively refuse the work. Amanda Marcotte:

In most cases, his temper tantrums actually resulted in him getting his way, either immediately (as with the Brits) or after he smoothed things over (as with Rachel). But all this is just more reason I think that Don may have planned this bigger, more explosive temper tantrum. After all, his previous tantrums weren’t nearly as over the top, and he rarely ended them with a delighted instruction to a secretary to capitalize on what just happened. Last season, Don spent months bowing and scrapping to Conrad Hilton, and he got shit for it. He’s realizing this is a new era, where the advertisers are going to be the stars and the clients are going to line up to be a part of it all. So he staged the temper tantrum, and attacked clients that we know for a fact are having meetings with every advertising firm in town. In other words, he made sure that when he exploded, he did so in a way that the news would spread all over town in minutes.
The episode closes with Don in an interview with Wall Street Journal reporter, consciously crafting his own legend. He appears to have learned, and rather quickly, that he will be risky and possibly rich rather than comfortable and dead. This is to suggest an answer to the question with which the season began, but as we have seen throughout the course of Mad Men, and as we know by looking over the broader political, social, aesthetic, and philosophical changes that "1964" signify, people's ability and willingness to learn, adapt, and change is very open to question. The struggles over identity can only fairly be said to be underway -- or perhaps to say that more exactly, open to explicit dispute.

On a related note, Mad Men's creator, Matthew Weiner, appeared on NPR's Fresh Air this week and affirmed, as he has before, that while he is the chief writer of the series, he does not claim to have all the answers as to the inner motivations of the characters. He writes what he finds to be true based on his observations and experiences, and then tries along with the rest of us to understand the underlying reasons why these characters do as they do. I adore both this approach and his candor about it.

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