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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

a few thoughts on ‘Mad Men’: “Public Relations”

Who is Don Draper? That has been the question since the beginning, hasn’t it? And “Don Draper” has been selling the image of “Don Draper” since the beginning. Yet now, all of a sudden, when the selling of Don Draper has to be more overt than it ever has been, not just to those people he is most intimate with but to the world at large (or at least within his industry), Don doesn’t like it and can’t do it effectively. It’s precisely the opposite of what he has been doing: lying low — double entendre intended — and letting the assumptions of others work to his benefit. Now, though, when others, such as the Ad Age reporter, make assumptions, they’re wrong, and wrong in a way that’s bad for Don.

“A Man From a Town With No Name,” Ad Age calls him… and the sudden rise of Don Draper is mirroring the rise of advertising as its own thing, apart from the products being advertised. Or vice versa: the rise of advertising means Don can’t stay hidden in plain sight anymore. The people who make advertising are becoming stars themselves — they can’t be anonymous and low-key, as Don has been. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” would have been more apt a description for Don. But no more.
Ironically, too, at this same moment — in the post-JFK era; it’s Thanksgiving 1964 — as consumers are getting wiser and advertisers are getting wilier, it’s the advertising that has to pretend to be something that it’s not. A commercial for floor wax looks like a little movie. A promotion for a canned ham looks like spontaneous criminal fisticuffs in a supermarket. Everything’s turned upside-down. The admen can’t hide anymore, just as their ads must do just that.

I can’t help but see that Don and Betty are getting wakeup calls in their personal lives, too. A woman who refuses Don Draper? He’s intrigued. And is Betty’s new man, Henry, having second thoughts about her? Or just about her kids? (When Don brought the kids home to find the house dark and empty, I suddenly wondered whether Betty and Henry had run away and abandoned the kids altogether! And maybe that will still happen. Betty certainly seem to enjoy being a mother, and the kids are — as someone else noted — terrified of her. Maybe it would be better for the kids if they didn’t have to deal with her anymore.) Is Henry living in the house Don is paying for? Is Betty going to have to reconsider whether she still has the same appeal for any man anymore? Will she not be able to coast on her good looks alone? Will she have to develop a personality? Will she even be able to do that?

Maybe it’s another layer of irony, too, that Don seems to get his mojo back at the end of the episode by becoming the personality that the new agency needs to develop. Firing a client? That’ll get some attention. And I bet it’ll sit well with Peggy and the others, who only want to please him — I bet it makes them rally around him all the more.

It’s gonna be exciting to see how this all unfolds. I wonder if the missing conference table will come to embody the new agency: they all think the table is a vital thing they can’t do without, but perhaps it will revitalize them creatively and personally, to be so naked and unprotected when facing one another, and facing clients. Perhaps they’ll all start being as honest as Don was with the swimsuit prudes.

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