“Mad Men”: Episode 1, “Public Relations”


You need to decide what kind of company you want to be: Comfortable and dead, or risky, and possibly rich.

Don Draper, unbound.

What struck me most about “Mad Men’s” season opener was the sense of liberation that now surrounds Draper. He’s still figuring out how to handle his new-found freedom — as evidenced by his very different interactions with reporters that bookend the episode — but by Thanksgiving 1964 he is very definitely a changed man from where we left him last fall, in the winter of 1963.

He’s no longer churning inside from the shame and self-loathing that came from hiding his identity from his family. He’s no longer living in fear of being exposed in the Don Draper-Dick Whitman switch. He no longer has to sneak around with extramarital dalliances. His biggest challenges are in his professional life, but in this arena too he’s taken the reins of his own destiny. He’s working for himself, and the Madison Avenue establishment is paying attention — to his delight, despite his protestations about the work speaking for itself. He even allows Don Draper’s ultra-cool facade to crack a little bit by blowing up here and there — kicking a chair, yelling at a client, etc. Jon Hamm — hot damn, he’s so good.

The title of this seg explains a lot: “Public Relations,” written by Matthew Weiner (who else?) and helmed by Phil Abraham. There’s great work in this episode from d.p. Christopher Manley. He and costume designer Janie Bryant work overtime to ensure that “Mad Men” remains the most stylish hour in primetime.

While Don is finding his footing in his new life, the same does not appear to be true for his ex. Betty seems to be in as much turmoil as ever — just ask Sally Draper (as predicted, Kiernan Shipka has only gotten better in the role during the past year). Betty and her illicit love of last season, Henry, have married, but they’re living in a strange kind of limbo by staying in the house that is haunted by the memory of Don and Betty’s unhappy union, at Betty’s insistence. Henry’s mother is a battleax, for sure, as we discover in that painfully awkward Thanksgiving dinner scene, but she’s right about one thing: Betty’s children are terrified of their unstable mother, and that’s a hell of a psycho-drama for Henry to enter.

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