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.


  1. I wasn't sure how much I liked this episode until I read a few blogs and thought about it more. I love your bikini connection--so apt. You've certainly explored the major themes.

    To be more personal, I have never found Don less attractive. I suspect it's because--for this episode, it's clear that he doesn't like himself. Even on his date, he was so much less seductive than we've seen him before. He seemed more like a horny teenager than the suave, confident man who has turned so many of us on in previous years. Sally wipes off his kiss; and he pays to be slapped in the face.

    However, by the end, he seems to be returning to himself. Someone I read saw the tirade against Jantzen as a purposeful plot to get the story out about who this new firm is--an outrageous, creative, unheard of advertising firm, and knowing that he was going to do that, he didn't want Peg there, but he was, in fact, following her approach to the ham wars.

    So, on reflection, there was much to admire about the show, and I can't wait till next week.

  2. I like that interpretation of Don's tirade against Jantzen. It makes sense and also validates Peggy, whom I love to see validated. It took me so long to figure out what I thought about the episode and how to tie all its disparate pieces together somehow that I didn't even get to commenting on Peg. I thought she's never looked better and her confidence has increased enormously. I like how she held her own with Don and called him on what she saw to be his vindictiveness in not allowing her into the bathing suit meeting. She's back in full force.

    And, I agree about Don's comparative lack of attractiveness. Someone else I was talking with about the show today commented too on how old he looked in contrast to the younger folks on staff and the woman on the date. He's at risk of becoming one of the 'old folks' that the '60s youth rebelled against if he doesn't make some changes in approach. Hopefully, the moves at the end signal that he is willing to open up and change his approach when necessary.

  3. I didn't like this episode that much. The bikini analogy works overall though to call Don a "prude" is just too much! I'm sure you are right that this is what the writers want us to see there, but Don has so much invested in keeping his identity under wraps that I could sympathize with his reluctance to changing this approach. And I agree that the end was the most interesting part--watching him kick them out of the office was just appalling, and yes, I think he planned it. So we're back to liking him most when he's most despicable--we don't want to see him pathetic, but evil. Which makes me wonder about how they're going to sustain things this season without the lovely tension of him cheating on and deceiving Betty. If the date with the 20-something girl isn't "backed" by our mental image of Betty simultaneously at home, numbingly caring for the kids, then it's really just a pathetic ploy to get some "stuffing," to quote Roger, and why should we care?

  4. I know the way I wrote this, it sounds like I was calling Don a prude, but that wasn't my intent. He's certainly not a sexual prude as the Jantzen men seem to be, but is equally reticent about revealing non-physical aspects of himself. You're right, Julie, that he has good reasons for that. There's an interesting new discussion about Mad Men that's on the Wall Street Journal's website (Speak Easy section); it features a lawyer, literary critic Toril Moi, and a few other academics/media critics. In the lawyer's comments about this episode, he speculated that Don's secret identity will somehow be blown this season, perhaps by the Korean War vet Ad Age reporter, miffed by Don's extensive interview with the Journal. Someone else I talked with about it thought perhaps the WSJ reporter might investigate Don as part of research for his article. At any rate, his new position of having to be more transparent to the public certainly poses its risks for him.

    I don't know that I LIKE him most when he's despicable; he is certainly more interesting then. I don't want to see him pathetic, but evil? I don't know that I can go that far. Did you see the article in Sunday's Tribune by Mary McNamara about Don being Satan in disguise? I don't agree with it, but it was provocative and could provide some interesting extended discussion.