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The Times They Are A-Changin': Mad Men S4 E1 review




Season 4 Episode 1: Public Relations

***Contains Spoilers***

Oh Destructoid, it seems I just can't quit you. Having been planning to avoid doing any more writing this summer and concentrate on doing something with the many pages the past three years have been spent filling, there comes along one of the two things I can never resist writing about. Since it doesn't appear that Goichi Suda will have a new game out for a while, it can only be Mad Men.

As someone plotting a future career as a writer, I live a little in awe of Matthew Weiner. I can't remember finding another series, book or film that not only packs every word with so many layers of meaning, but is also so damn entertaining. Mad Men could easily become a stage for high pretension and holier-than-thou intellectualism, but is as compelling a soap opera as it is a social essay, grounded by a good-natured sense of self-effacing humour. Every hour spent in the company of Don Draper is an hour reminding me of the reasons I sit in front of a keyboard for hours a day, trying to elevate my writing a little closer to Weiner's highest standard.

The show's third season, my favourite so far despite featuring the only genuinely poor episode to date (The Grown-Ups, depicting the aftermath of the JFK assassination as an hour of people staring worriedly at their televisions – realistic perhaps, but neither compelling nor especially original), elevated the dramatic stakes by pushing the characters into dangerously unfamiliar territory: Don Draper's marriage collapsed just as he and his high-ranking work colleagues abandoned the signature Sterling-Cooper offices in search of pastures new. As much confidence as I have in Weiner, there was always the fear that such a brave move would be followed by attempts to put things back as close as possible to the way they were. After all, changing a winning formula at the height of its powers is the easiest way to alienate an audience, whose devotion to past successes make every minor misjudgment a rallying cry to put things back the way they were – which would be an ironic turn of events, given Mad Men's relationship with nostalgia and the past.

Public Relations, the premier episode of season four, not only sees Weiner refusing to backtrack on the big decisions he made at the end of the previous year, but having the consequences of those decisions cut fissures through the shared beliefs and relationships of the show's characters that may go deeper than could have been imagined. Previous years have seen Don challenged by difficulties in his personal (season two) and professional (season three) lives, but emerge on the other side in a position of relative strength: though his marriage ended and Sterling-Cooper was shut down in all but name, last year's finale saw Don apparently regaining the freedom he valued so highly.

The new season opens roughly a year since the JFK assassination. Where previous seasons of Mad Men have represented the end of attitudes hanging over from the fifties, the start of the fourth season shows the nascent traces of the sixties pushing to the fore. It's a telling sign of how far ahead of his audience he is that, while we were speculating about the fun Don was going to have living the bachelor life and building a new agency in his image, Weiner's interest was in reminding us of how easy it is to drown in the difficulties created by losing the safeguards of a stable marriage and job. Don was able to indulge his secrets, conducting extra-marital trysts and working without a contract, because he always had the immaculate image of the good husband and prodigious professional as a social safety net. When a journalist in the opening scene asks the loaded question 'Who is Don Draper?' and Don responds with typical evasiveness, the speciousness of the pretence is all too transparent and the results only pile further pressures on his new agency's stunted ascension.

A quintessential Mad Men theme, Don's difficulties show the dangers in a changing world of clinging onto a past that might not have been as rosy as we'd like to remember it. Weiner presents history as a noose that Don is tightening around his own neck. As he watches his children fall asleep, it is clear not only why but also how intensely he is trying to hang onto the few things that have brought definition to his life. But his refusal to accept that anything should change sees clients jumping ship and sexual opportunities limited to sado-masochistic sessions with a prostitute. The affair with Bobbi Barrett suggested a leaning towards violent sex, but here Don seems to be knowingly demanding punishment for his mistakes and misdemeanours, although never able to exorcise them completely. Having blind-date Bethany reveal herself as a supernumerary in an opera, enjoying the costumes and songs while blending into the background, was a lovely touch in reflecting the way Don operated in his old life, as well as how a new breed of sixties' woman won't be so easily fooled by the lines he sells them. No coincidence that she refused to put out at the end of the night.

Divorce also seems to have thrown Betty back into her worst habits: if previous seasons had seen her growing up and taking responsibility, attempts to enjoy the benefits of a new marriage to subservient new beau Henry Francis while holding onto the ghosts of her time with Don (in refusing to leave his house) have regressed her back to the child-like mental state of the show's first season. She's even more of a bully towards the children, causing a scene at an in-laws dinner by literally trying to force food into Sally's mouth, while Don's request to see baby Gene is later dismissed with a cruel shrug. But where the end of the episode sees Don accepting the need to move into the future and doing so in his inimitable fashion, Betty (hardly the show's most forward-thinking character) seems destined to repeat the mistakes of her past, with her intransigence causing the first visible ructions in her marriage and Henry Francis' mother giving a devastating dissection of her immaturity. When Don delivers one of his more meaningful slogans to Henry ("We all think this is temporary"), Betty seems the only one refusing to accept the truth.

Although Betty, Joan, Pete and Roger's contributions are restricted to new haircuts and some characteristic wit ("A wooden leg... they're so cheap they can't even afford a whole reporter"), their presence alone is more than welcome, despite their roles in the unfurling drama being only hinted at. Even as a closing interview hints that as more things change in his new world, the more the lies may stay the same, the question of 'Who is Don Draper?' remains as pertinent as ever, but one whose answers now look to the future rather than the past.

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About Xander Markhamone of us since 3:08 PM on 02.07.2010

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I'm a 26-year old English writer, formerly known on the CBlogs as Xandaça. I've been an avid gamer since I was a wee lad, gripping a NES controller in my hands and comprehensively failing to get past those infuriating Hammer Bros on Level 8-3 of Super Mario Bros. I've stuck with Nintendo since then (not for any animosity towards the other console makers of course - Nintendo just make games I enjoy and have grown up with), apart from a brief sojourn with a Sony PlayStation, several woeful attempts to play Half-Life 2 using a laptop touchpad and sporadically wrangling a turn on my sister's beloved Sega Saturn.

In addition to burping out the occasional novel, I'm a passionate critic, writing reviews and articles of films, book and games for my school magazine and university newspaper, for which I created and edited its film section. In addition to starting up my own blog, covering television, games and movies, I am also a writer for Destructoid's cine-geek sister Flixist. While primarily a film geek, the evolution of the games industry over the course of its short lifetime has fascinated me and provided vast quantities of content for some incendiary pieces of work - perhaps a few more might spring up on here?

My Favourite Games of All Time (because who doesn't love having a few Of All Time lists?) are GoldenEye 007 (which I still play through at least once a year to remind me of its glories), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Bros 3 (I don't know who told Shigsy Miyamoto-san that raccoons could fly, but I'll love them forever) and No More Heroes.

I hope you find great enjoyment in my many scribings, and please keep an eye out for upcoming news on my novel(s) and do pay a visit to my blog sometime. And yes, the Dtoid community's 'no copy and paste' rule will be fully respected!

Good gaming, everyone!