“Tobacco Road”, the Nashville Teens
Public Relations, Season 4 Episode 1
Here is a song so uncannily married to the episode it’s in – theme, storyline and all – that it could serve as an example of the heavy-handedness detractors find in the show. But it’s a worthy payoff to a characteristically coy season premiere. Plus, it’s a rousing climax, even as it’s being mixed over a conversation and slow camera pull-out.
“Tobacco Road” serves as a dramatic exclamation point to a somewhat elliptical episode. After the massive changes of any given season finale, and the inevitable time jump, Mad Men premieres are very sly and stingy with how much information they dole out, answering burning questions in an oblique and patient fashion. In this opener, the audience’s desire for candid plot reveals after the agency shakeup is contrasted with Don’s aversion to openness. This tension is resolved with his chastising pitch and boisterous final interview hinting at all that has happened in the last year.
We see this in the episode to some extent: SCDP got a modern, groovy office and new, younger staff members. Some characters have gone through a sea change in their personality, like Sally and Peggy (the latter of whom engineers a guerilla marketing stunt and now banters brusquely with the boys). Others are as reserved as ever, like Don and Betty.
The audience knows instinctively from Don’s problems and overall arc that he’ll have to reconcile his troubled past at some point, and the turbulent culture of the decade will serve as a backdrop to his self-improvement. Fittingly, this tell-all hard knock memoir of a tune plays when he comes clean about the new agency, an important step on the road to his emotional well-being. Its lyrics betray the secrets lurking under Don’s pretense, perfectly reflecting his impoverished upbringing, the tragic fates of his parents, and his inner hobo’s life strategy to “blow it up, start all over again”.
Despite his showmanship in the second interview, this blustery pop hit shows the ‘real Don Draper’ everyone in the hour was mentioning. It packs a surprising garage rock punch for a new era of politics and pop culture, while also foreshadowing the plot implosion of the seasonal arc with its title. Change is sometimes slow to take effect in the halls of SCDP, but this ending is an electrifying sign of things to come.