At the outset of Mad Men, the biggest risk that the show ran was that it would be unable to break free of its lavishly produced period trappings to create something that felt emotionally and psychologically vital, rather than a detached and ironic look at the 60s. With season four, Men finally proves that it is able to do so, but it comes at the cost of the forward momentum that it had been building up over the last few seasons and what few narrative rules it felt like obeying. The characters feel more real than ever, as do the historical circumstances that they find themselves in, but the lives that they are building, and the stakes of failing to do so, have never less congealed into a rewarding whole. Four seasons, critical accolades, and seemingly innumerable awards later, it seems that absolutely nothing can stop Mad Men in its headlong rush to become the most frustratingly paced show on television.
Now that Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has divorced his wife Betty (January Jones) and broken off from Sterling Cooper with former bosses Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Bert Cooper, to form Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the period for existential morass is over, and the time for defining himself before he loses everything that he has made for himself has come. To that end, he has taken a greater interest in the lives of his children, and come to reevaluate the habits that he has long taken for granted, particularly his drinking and smoking (he begins keeping a journal, where he comes to admit that he is an alcoholic). His metamorphosis has also disrupted the lives of those around him, most especially Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), his long-suffering but equally ambitious protégé whose rise from obscurity mirrors his own. As he comes to consider the decisions (and indecisions) that have brought him to where he is, he comes to see just how vulnerable a position of power as lofty as even his truly is, and works his way to a game-changing decision that he hopes will set everything in order.
Mad Men has always had the feeling of being a work in progress. Even though it has always focused on a few central characters, it has recycled through such a wide supporting cast over its four seasons that one can almost hear the slap of them hitting the writer’s room wall as Matthew Weiner and company see if they’ll stick. After discarding mistresses and business partners alike, the show has finally found the best place for its excess energy in the budding sexuality of Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka). While other foils for Don Draper have been confined to the rules of the boardroom and the bedroom, Sally’s curiosity (which brings her directly into conflict with her still-infantile mother) and pain suggest the upheavals to come without telegraphing them, and position the revolution as a largely generational one, making the world of Sterling Cooper seem smaller and more isolated than ever. Mad Men has been stirring before, but Sally is the first character to make it feel like the show could really break glass.
Much has already been made of the episode “The Suitcase”, in which Don and Peggy are more or less forced to spend the night together on her birthday, and realize, in short order, that they simultaneously revile and respect (and perhaps even love) each other. Numerous sources have called it the best episode in the entire series, and that’s probably true, but its excellence comes at the price of realizing what the series can have when it acts decisively. While giving its characters the space to wander through the 1960s produces some genuinely felt personal moments, the show is at its finest when it grinds them together and forces them to decide what they really want. The relationship between Don and Peggy has always provided the backbone of the series, because out of the large ensemble cast, their needs are the most similar. Each is trying to create a new identity to better insulate against the threat of reprisals from their past, and it is that very insulation that seems almost guaranteed to be destroyed in the coming revolutions; only in this case, Peggy’s assumption of a role of power would seem to curtail Don’s. Though this was a theme clearly expressed in the opening season, it has come and gone and come again in more recent years, including this one. “The Suitcase” is indeed as great as it is purported to be, but less because the show has matured to a place where it can grapple with such feelings and more because the open and airy structure allows it to move with almost complete freedom wherever it wanted, and came back, for one episode, to where its heart is.
Then there’s the finale. (not to be revealed here, but those of you who have seen it definitely know what I’m referencing). At first glance, it seems to have come out of nowhere, but upon reflection of the rest of the season, Don’s choice represents the culmination of his experiences and desire to take hold of his life as an adult, even if it is clear to us that he made the wrong decision. What’s frustrating is not that this major life decision has come at the spur of the moment, but that it does not resolve the conflicts that had been built up over the prior 13 episodes. While the season’s major storyline with Joan (Christina Hendricks) rekindling her affair with Roger comes to a head, others involving the potential bankruptcy of the firm and further conflicts between Don and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) are not. In many ways, show-runner Weiner seems to want the series to operate in a way similar to Don himself: flashy and distant, but reliant on that distance to give the impression of an illusory master at work, operating in ways that are continuously exciting but disaffected and perhaps showier than it is brilliant. But unlike Don, Mad Men seems to have no desire to commit to anything more consistent, and will probably continue with this pattern in seasons to come.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
As usual, each episode features at least one commentary track (many of them featuring show creator Matthew Weiner), as well as the requisite social and historical documentaries. This time around, there is a short piece on the marketing of the Mustang to the boomer generation, as well as two multi-part documentaries: "Divorce: Circa 1960s" and "How To Succeed in Business: Draper Style." "Divorce" largely serves to reinforce that the socially accepted mode of family at the time was rife with hypocrisy and was unfair to women (for those who had not picked up on the theme in the show), while "Business" feels like a more straight-forward version of a sketch that Hamm did while hosting Saturday Night Live. Rounding out the set is a collection of footage related to the 1964 presidential election, which perhaps speaks most clearly about the period itself because it is unfettered by the inclusion of either modern commentators or clips from the show.
"Mad Men: Season 4" is on sale March 29, 2011 and is not rated. Drama, Television. Directed by Jennifer Getzinger, Lesli Linka Glatter, Lynn Shelton, Michael Uppendahl, Phil Abraham, Scott Hornbacher, John Slattery. Written by Matthew Weiner, Tracy McMillan, Jonathan Abrams, Keith Huff, Erin Levy, Brett Johnson, Eric Johnson, Janet Leahy, Lisa Albert, Dahvi Waller, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton, Jonathan Igla. Starring Christina Hendricks, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, Jared Harris, John Slattery, Jon Hamm, Robert Morse, Vincent Kartheiser, Aaron Staton, Rich Sommer, Christopher Stanley, Kiernan Shipka, Cara Buono, Jessica Pare.