Wednesday, July 28, 2010
The new season of AMC's much heralded drama "Mad Men" began this week. The last season ended with the the world of Don Draper and the advertising firm Sterling Cooper completely upended. We'll talk with two Slate editors who've been following the drama through an online TV club devoted to the series.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The complicated and stylish time capsule that is the AMC TV series "Mad Men" is back for season four. The show tells the story of ad man Don Draper and meticulously recreates the world of mid-century Manhattan, from the stiletto heels to the old-fashioned attitudes about race and gender. For the last three seasons, we've been learning about Don, his mysterious background and his troubled home life with wife Betty. And of course, getting to know his co-workers at Sterling Cooper, like Peggy, Roger and Pete. Now, as season four begins, the year is 1964 and the times, they are a-changing. I’d like to welcome my guests. Julia Turner is Slate's deputy editor. Good morning, Julia.
JULIA TURNER (Deputy Editor, Slate): Hello.
CAVANAUGH: John Swansburg is Slate's culture editor. Hi, John.
JOHN SWANSBURG (Culture Editor, Slate): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: And both Julia and John contribute to Slate’s online TV Club devoted to the series “Mad Men.” Now we should clarify at the outset that there will be some spoilers from the first episode of season four in our discussion right now, so if you’re not caught up you might want to come back, listen to the conversation at KPBS.org once you’ve watched it and then while you’re there you can leave us a comment. Having said that, Julia, when season three ended, so much had changed in the world of Don Draper and the firm he worked for, Sterling Cooper. Give us a quick sketch of where we left off with “Mad Men” at the end of season three.
TURNER: The finale of season three was really thrilling because Matthew Weiner essentially pushed the reset button on the entire series. He had Don take his favorite operatives from Sterling Cooper and leave the firm to start a new partnership, Sterling Cooper Draper Price, because another firm was buying Sterling Coop so all of the workplace that we’ve come to know is going to change during this coming season, and it also blew up Don Draper’s home life.
TURNER: His wife Betty had discovered that he is not the man he always told her he was, that he has another identity, that he was born Dick Whitman. And she decided to leave him for another man, to divorce him. So the two kind of poles of the show, the Sterling Cooper offices and the home in Ossining has both been abandoned and it’s going to be really interesting to see what unfolds this season.
CAVANAUGH: Right, like a completely new storyline opens up. So, John, we have the divorce and Don Draper has a new place to live, a new firm, so from an overall perspective what did you think about the first episode of the new season?
SWANSBURG: I really enjoyed it. I thought it came off very well. As Julia said, it felt like the show was resetting to some degree, and the first episode was somewhat low key. There weren’t any, you know, whizbang fireworks like there were at the end of last season but it felt like they were setting in motion a bunch of new plot strands that will be developed over the course of this season. The ones I’m most excited about, as usual, are the ones involving the office and how this new firm, which is smaller and, as Pete Campbell says, scrappier, is going to try to exist in the evolving ad market. And we see – I think one thing we’ll see this season—this is just a guess—is I think we’re going to see more TV advertising. In the past, the show’s really been about print for the most part, and what – we see a full 30-second ad that Don has created in this episode, which I thought was thrilling. It was a very interesting sort of cinematic ad, and that ad had garnered a lot of attention for Don among creative types but what this episode was really about is whether Don is going to be able to leverage his creative talent to build a firm that’s a successful business in a world where they’re competing with firms that have six floors of creative directors, and Sterling Cooper Draper Price has one floor. They pretend they have two but they only have one, and it’s a very small firm. So I think that’s going to be an exciting plot to follow.
CAVANAUGH: That’s absolutely right that the addition of the TV ad is a very, very interesting road for “Mad Men” to try to explore this season. You know, Julia, with so much new going on, sometimes season openers spend a lot of time on, you know, exposition, you know, setting up the, you know, this is my new apartment, this is my new office. Did the first episode suffer from any of that?
TURNER: I don’t think it got bogged down particularly. I think the pacing was fairly brisk but we did hit all those notes. So we have a new office for Sterling Cooper Draper Price. It’s one floor with no conference table in the Time Life building. We have a new apartment for Don Draper. He’s at Waverly and Sixth in the Village. It’s dark and a bit dim. Our “Mad Men” TV Club observed that it looked like an Edward Hopper painting and, in fact, Matthew Weiner said that it was intended to look like an Edward Hopper painting in a press interview this week, so it kind of has a bleak quality to it, and a housekeeper. And he also has some new love interests-slash-love connections. He’s having sex with a prostitute who he pays to slap him around and he is also courting a blonde Seven Sisters graduate, a prim woman named Bethany, who I thought was very interesting because she is played by a fantastic actress named Anna Camp. I hope she sticks around. And she also looks a lot like Betty. She’s – it’s a bit of a Betty vibe. And…
CAVANAUGH: Right, Don’s ex-wife, right.
TURNER: Yeah, so I wonder if he’s going back to the life he just left or another version of it.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Julia Turner from Slate. She’s Slate’s deputy editor. John Swansburg is Slate’s culture editor. And we’re talking about “Mad Men.” Both Julia and John contribute to Slate’s online TV Club devoted to this series. You know, you make a good point, Julia, because the idea of Don Draper has always been he’s just been, I mean, devastating with the ladies. There’s no one that Don Draper can’t have. But this first episode gave us a little bit different version of him, didn’t it, Julia?
TURNER: He gets left in a taxicab. He does not get invited up, you know, by this prim blonde Bethany character who says she typically doesn’t date men who are divorced but she’s chosen to make an exception because Don comes with such good references. But, you know, she gives him a goodbye kiss in the cab and then leaves him looking very frustrated and woeful. You know, but I think that’s – it’s to be expected that his romantic relationships would take on a slightly different tenor this season just because he’s, you know, he’s not having an affair. It’s not just sex on the side. He’s presumably perhaps going to court this woman in a more traditional way. But it is funny to see the suave Don Draper being stiffed like a schoolboy.
CAVANAUGH: Yes. Now let’s move on to Betty Draper, who, John, is of course Don’s ex-wife. She’s newly married, still living in Don’s house with their two kids and her new husband. I know that you like the office setting a little bit more than the home life storyline but what did you think of that, John?
SWANSBURG: Actually, I’d say this is a turn for the good, I thought. I really enjoyed the home scenes in this opening episode. I think the show has set up a really interesting tension in this new sort of family situation. So Betty has remarried a man named Henry Francis, who’s a sort of New York state political operative who’d been putting the moves on her pretty seriously all throughout last season. And now we see them settling into a domestic life together but it’s a very awkward one. There was a wonderful scene at Thanksgiving dinner which took place at Henry Francis’s home with his mother and Betty’s new mother-in-law, who’s a real battleaxe…
SWANSBURG: …woman and who clearly does not like Betty Draper one bit. And the Draper children, particularly Sally, the elder daughter, is clearly uncomfortable with the new living arrangements and she makes quite a fuss at the Thanksgiving table. She – Betty asks her to eat the sweet potatoes with marshmallows in them that her new mother-in-law has prepared and Sally basically throws them up onto her plate and causes quite a to-do. So there’s a lot of tension here. Henry Francis is getting guff from his mother. He’s getting – I think he feels uncomfortable that he lives in the home of – you know, that Don used to live in, and there’s tension between Don and Betty. Don, you know, at first is sort of willing to let Betty stick around in that house but technically, according to their divorce agreement, she’s supposed to be out and by the end of the episode he’s putting some pressure on her to move out. And there’s a lot of balls in the air now and the sort of relationship between Don and Henry is, I think, promising to be quite interesting as well. So I think that in addition to rebooting the business side of things, there’s a whole new cast of problems that we’re going to explore on the home life side and I think that’s really promising.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Julia, you might be one of the only real fans of Betty Draper that we know about.
TURNER: It’s a lonely world.
CAVANAUGH: What do you find interesting about her character?
TURNER: Well, I think she’s a really interesting portrayal of both a type, you know, the sort of frustrated housewife left at home in the sixties whose real ambitions aren’t to be a domestic goddess and who doesn’t really have a chance to connect with the larger world. But I think she’s also really interesting as a particular woman. She’s not just a type, she’s spoiled, she’s bratty, she’s childish, she liked her heyday in her early twenties when she got to be a model and galavant around Europe, and she finds suburban New York to be a poor substitute for that. And she’s not a great mother, sometimes in ways that are keeping with her era and sometimes in ways that have to do with her own short temper and lack of patience. I just think it’s interesting to see someone so prickly and unlikable on screen and I also think I have a lot of empathy for her. It does seem like a lot of her problems and a lot of her meanness do arise in part from her situation. She certainly doesn’t handle her situation with particular grace. But I think it’s interesting to see a character struggle with those tensions and those social concerns.
CAVANAUGH: Well, as you point out, you know, this is a show that is very much in its time. Some would say that that is basically what this show is, just a time. And I know you would disagree but now it’s 1964 where “Mad Men” finds itself so what kind of – I’m wondering, what kind of sociopolitical openings do you see for the show now that it’s in this year 1964? Let me go to you, John.
SWANSBURG: Sure. I think, well, you know, one interesting thing is that it’s always very important to notice what song Matthew Weiner uses to run over the end credits and this week it was a British invasion hit. It wasn’t a Beatles song but we do know that in the interim between the last season and this season the Beatles have performed on Ed Sullivan…
SWANSBURG: …so I think it’s the one interesting pop cultural event that I imagine will play a role this season is the kind of changing – This is the rock ‘n roll era and I think that that’s going to be a factor and certainly in the advertising. But another, you know, another era that the show started to explore somewhat tentatively last season is civil rights and I really hope that that’s continued through this season. I’m not sure that we saw a nonwhite character other than perhaps Don’s new maid in this first episode but I’m hopeful that the civil rights movement becomes a plot strand again because it was handled somewhat obliquely last season but, you know, that’s such an important political and cultural moment that’s going on, you know, in ’64 and I think, you know, there was another reference to it in this episode but, again, it was just on the sidelines and I expect that to come back more full bore. But I guess we’ll see.
CAVANAUGH: And, Julia, what do you think that “Mad Men” will explore in 1964?
TURNER: I’m actually most interested to see it explore the changing business culture. I think, you know, when we were first introduced to Sterling Cooper it was kind of a traditional firm, a firm that was getting outpaced by other scrappier enterprises, a firm that, you know, refused to go after a black advertising audience, for example, and kind of cut itself out of some business by having that stodgy view. And I think seeing a firm that’s trying to be on the cutting edge of the business and on the cutting edge of a culture is going to give it an interesting window into a more unusual and overlooked side of that era in history.
CAVANAUGH: Now, as we said, this is the fourth season of “Mad Men” and the fourth season in the life of a television show is sort of in the middle, you know, this huge buzz that greeted the third season wasn’t really there. What do you think are the challenges ahead for the writers of the show considering where it is in the fourth season, Julia?
TURNER: I don’t know. I think they’ve actually set themselves up wonderfully already by being able to reset so many things with this episode because they give themselves so many new things to do. We see Peggy finding new confidence at the office, we see Pete seeming a little bit less bitter and pushy than he used to. And we kind of – we’ve gotten the new version of these characters. So I think one of the big challenges is to keep it fresh and they’ve found an interesting way to do that.
CAVANAUGH: And, John, do you have – You know, if you had a magic wand and you had your ear – your lips to the producer’s ear or the writers’ ear, what would you like to see for the season playing out?
SWANSBURG: Well, I think the major plot strand that was set in motion in this first episode is really promising and so I guess I’d whisper just to say keep going, and that plot strand we sort of talked about it a little bit but more specifically it’s, you know, in the past Don has been this creative genius. We’ve seen him throughout the first three seasons coming up with brilliant ideas for ad campaigns for different clients ranging from, you know, cigarettes to brassieres. But he’s been able to sort of sit in the background. He’s the creative genius who sort of sits in the corner office, doesn’t need to be out there and be the face of the company. Now, in this season, he clearly is going to need to go out and be a public person and we – you know, this episode began with him giving an interview to Advertising Age, which he completely flubs. He doesn’t understand that he is now the face of Sterling Cooper Draper Price and he needs to put a good face on the company and what they do. He needs to sell himself. And I think this idea of selling himself, which in a way he’s always done because, of course, he’s living a double life.
SWANSBURG: But selling himself as this creative genius and bringing in business, I mean, that promises to be really fascinating. And we, you know, we still know that he is living this sort of dark lie…
SWANSBURG: …in the sense that he assumed someone else’s identity in the war in Korea so there’s also this risk that in selling himself, someone, maybe a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, maybe a reporter for Advertising Age, will start sniffing around and maybe get the real story.
CAVANAUGH: Will find out, oh, yeah.
SWANSBURG: So, you know, that drama remains and that, I think, this new idea of selling himself is an interesting evolving of an old sort of theme and I would just say keep on with that.
SWANSBURG: That’s really, really great.
CAVANAUGH: We have to wrap it up. I want to thank you both. It’s amazing that we can talk about this to such an extent. Thank you Julia Turner, thank you John Swansburg. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
SWANSBURG: Thank you.
TURNER: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And as I said, Slate’s online TV club is devoted to the series “Mad Men.” If you would like to comment, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.