There was a scene sometime back where Don Draper is in an elevator with a woman and two dopes who are regaling in sexual conquests and fantasies about office girls. The woman is clearly uncomfortable with the conversation and Draper responds with a pointed but subtle gesture by telling one of the cads to remove his hat in the presence of a lady. He puts a fine point on it by removing the hat for him and shoving it into loud mouth’s chest. It was what Mad Men creator Matt Weiner described as an illustration of “the coarsening of America” that took place as a bi-product of the liberated 1960s. From the looks of season four’s premier, that coarsening has infected Mad Men itself.
Season Three ended shortly after the Kennedy assassination, putting it in late 1963. Given the fact that Don Draper is talking to an Advertising Age reporter about the crazy year his upstart agency has just had (culminating in what appears to be a ground breaking ad for Glo-Coat Floor Wax), we can guess that we’re somewhere in 1964 or so. That means it’s a Mod Mod Mod World and by the looks of the décor at the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s headquarters, Manhattan has gone Pop Art.
What better time and place then to meet with Jantzen swimwear, a “family” company under consumer and competitive pressure but one who wants to win “without playing in the gutter.” Except that the new SCDP offices are too small to hold staff, never mind client meetings. At this stage in the game they don’t even have a conference room table, but they do have an imaginary second floor that presumably houses the burgeoning TV department. It’s a charade too bizarre for even eccentric Burt Cooper to entertain, but it’s home and for a while it’ll be where Don’s creative force will lay waste to the competition…if only he’d talk about it.
Draper’s Ad Age interview is less than impressive and does little to promote the agency due to Don’s inability to talk about himself, the visionary behind the creative work that’s wowing America. Burt’s livid and tells Don that his job is to promote the agency. In other words, be your own client.
In the meantime, Don’s personal life gets more and more alienating and depressing. With his marriage to Betty done and gone, he’s free to follow every pretty skirt that passes by and finds himself…alone. Sure, he gets slapped around (literally) on Thanksgiving Eve, but that’s a paid engagement and Don spends Turkey Day bailing out some actors Peggy and Pete paid for a publicity stunt who took their mock fight over a ham a bit too far. There will be no yams for Don Draper this year.
Which is maybe exactly what Sally Draper would hope for. Betty is fully in place with Henry and his mother’s Thanksgiving feast when Sally nearly pukes sweet potatoes all over the joint. As if it’s not hard enough being the New Girl under your mother-in-law’s scornful gaze, having two kids in tow and a divorce decree still hot off the presses ought to do the trick. This is the early 60s, gang and the waves of divorce that become common place are still a few years out. Betty wears the stigma like a cranberry stain on a Chanel sweater.
Lucky for Henry, Betty is smoking hot. Too bad he can’t bring himself to get down with the Ice Queen in Draper’s bed. Yes, that’s right. Betty and Henry are still living in Don’s house, much to the chagrin of Draper’s accountant who urges our hero to kick them to the curb. When confronted with the fact that their agreement was that she and New Daddy would be out a month ago, Betty digs in. It’s painful to watch poor Henry squirm while Betty and Alpha Dog square off in their old homestead. It’s worse when he’s cut off at the knees when he tells Betty that Don is right, they need to get their own place.
“It’s temporary,” says Henry when Don suggests they start paying rent. “Trust me, everybody thinks this is temporary,” Don snaps. Boom!
And so we get a glimpse of what season four has in store for Betty. Her simmering rage and scorn for Don are coming to the surface and she appears to have no qualms about leveraging whatever she has against him: his house, his money, his kids…she even sends Baby Gene off with the housekeeper rather than let Draper see him for a moment when picking up the kids. It’s payback time.
Back at work, Don presents a cheeky campaign for the Jantzen crew. A black bar covers the model’s breasts with a tagline reading, “So well built, we can’t show you the second floor.” Cute. A little too cute for Jantzen who feel it’s a bit racy given their family-friendly image. “You’re too scared of the skin your two-piece was designed to show off,” Don replies and walks out. Roger chases after him and ponders whether Pete can sell them on the idea. Draper is outraged that they’d even want a client with so little vision and throws them out of the office. It’s a moment of clarity for Don. You need good clients to do good work. He gets Burt Cooper’s contact from the Wall Street Journal on the calendar for a sit down.
At lunch with the reporter, Don does what he does best: he tells a story. “Last year, our agency was being swallowed whole,” he says. “I could die of boredom or holster up my guns. So I walked into Lane Pryce’s office and I said, ‘Fire us.’ Within a year, we’d taken over two floors of the Time-Life Building.”
And thus, an advertising legend was born.
From a too-hot-for-prime time sex scene to Roger’s increasingly racy quips, things are getting a little raw on Madison Avenue. I hope that Mad Men doesn’t fall victim to the increased demand to push the envelope with sexual situations and narratives that resolve neatly. The genius of Mad Men lies in its subtlety and story complexity. The characters are never, ever what they appear to be on the surface. Here’s hoping Wiener and Co. take the same risks and throw broadcasting execs out of their office when they just don’t get it. Send them to the second floor.