Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Bikini: To Reveal or Not to Reveal

Mad Men, Season Four, Episode One, "Public Relations"

The main client we see in this episode is a nice "family company" that produces two-piece bathing suits, not to be confused with bikinis, which are too immodest and lead to ads that, according to one of the company's reps, look like they belong in "girlie magazines." They come to Don Draper to help them keep up their market share without revealing too much. While Don complains to Roger that the men from this company are just "prudes," it turns out that he has the same problem himself: his new partners expect him not just to be the creative guy he's always been, but to reveal himself in interviews with newspaper reporters as part of the new firm's attempt to sell itself. He's as reluctant to talk about himself on the pages of Ad Age as the bathing suit guys are to show too much flesh in a two-piece ad. The struggle over how much to reveal, the changing nature of (both bathing suits and) identity, and resultant punishment are just three of the themes in this overly-busy episode.

Ever since we first met him three years ago, Don Draper has been the consummate crafter of image, a talented creator of desire--for clients' products and for himself. Until late last season, he's always been able to focus attention away from his identity (or lack thereof) and cast a spotlight elsewhere. But, now things have shifted. His identity--always in flux--has changed: from creative director to partner in a fledgling firm; from philandering husband, never at a loss for the company of women he desires, to divorced man attending an arranged date with a woman who tells him 'no' and paying a prostitute to bed him. He wants to continue creating ad campaigns and keep the lid on himself: "My job is to write ads, not talk about who I am." But, his new job--and new partners--won't allow that. When he refused to reveal much to the Ad Age reporter interviewing him, all hell broke loose over the Draper the writer constructed in his article. Don tells Bert Cooper: "Who gives a crap what I say anyway? My work speaks for me." Cooper sets him straight: turning his creative work into new business for SCDP "is your work."

And Don's creative self is doing quite fine work. His TV ad for Glo-Coat floor polish is--we're told--revolutionary for not even seeming to be an ad at first. He wanted to make it "indistinguishable from the movies." And it does look like the beginning of a film with a focus on what appear to be jail bars, bars with a young boy behind them. But, as the camera pans out, we see that the boy is just playing jail under the kitchen table with an upside down chair in front of him. Don's becoming a film maker and, as so many film makers, we can see something of himself in his creation. Who is this boy? Is it Don as a child? Bobby? Is he reflecting his trapped childhood? Is he worried about Bobby, trapped with Betty? An image of a child being punished reflects another theme here. There's a lot of punishing going on here: the child in jail, Don's prostitute slapping him at his demand, Betty's passive-aggressive jabs at Don (staying out past the time she told him to bring the kids home, having the baby gone when he comes to pick the kids up). The punishments that relate to Don seem to offer us a glimpse into his feelings about all of the changes wrought in his life in the last year. Thinking about the ways he's let his kids down can lead to guilt.

As his personal life offers its challenges, he lets some of that spill out at the office. Which leads to a resolution of sorts: in the final meeting with the bathing suit guys, Don presents them a provocative visual ad he had to know they wouldn't care for. But, he knows it could work. "You'll get them [customers] into the store. Isn't that the point?" When the gentlemen express their doubts, Don pushes them: "You need to decide what kind of a company you want to be. Comfortable and dead or risky and possibly rich." He storms out of his office and as Pete is trying to patch things over, Don heads back in and kicks the would-be clients out. He's decided what kind of ad man he wants to be: creative and risky. We next see him at an interview with a Wall Street Journal reporter, regaling the man with stories of how he got out of Sterling Cooper and got the new company founded. He's recognized that professionally he will have to sell himself as well as ad campaigns. He's donned the bikini.