Amid rumors that Mad Men might not ever comeback following reportedly incredibly strained negotiations, it looked likely for a while that this Season 4 might have been the final time Don Draper and his ad men grace our screens. Thankfully that isn’t true, although we have to wait another year to see it, there will be a Season 5, and most likely a Season 6 if creator/writer Matthew Weiner gets his deal. So now with a very timely release on Blu-Ray, let’s dive back into the whole world of Mad Men, of what could have been the final season of what is currently the very best show on television.
As Matthew Weiner says on the commentary for the first episode Public Relations, the opening of Mad Men Season 4 is effectively wiping the slate clean and starting afresh a new string of stories. There’s a new office, new relationships but same old tensions. As they say, it is like a pilot for a new show, however when looking back at the whole season, you couldn’t live without those previous 3 seasons. It opens with a big close up on the face of Jon Hamm’s suave, impeccably handsome Don Draper being asked the almost impossible question: “Who is Don Draper?” This is not only impossible for him to answer but impossible for us to answer.
Draper is one of the screen’s great enigmatic characters, a man who isn’t truly Don Draper at all, but a man from the countryside, a farm boy who moved to the city after surviving a friend in a bomb attack during the Korean War and taking another man’s identity. He is very much a Jay Gatsby figure. Don is elusive and closed, avoiding most public contact, sticking strictly to business and such an emotionally difficult man to crack. However what this season is primarily about when looking back on it now, is all about questions like, who is he? What makes a man? And crucially why is Don Draper the way he is?
This is a man reinventing his life and trying to restructure everything that went belly up in the third season. He is now divorced, his wife remarried to another businessman who is living in his house. Sterling Cooper folded and was sold to a British conglomerate and now there is Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a whole new company which has lost big accounts and has none of the financial stability after going independent. All the ad deals they have are balancing on a knife edge, particularly Lucky Strike whose position as the key account is becoming particularly uncertain. What we get from this season is a more emotional Don Draper, we are brought back to his previous life with the real Don Draper’s widow, Anna, which for the season’s first half brings some much needed emotional turmoil to the usually cool drama. This all comes to a tipping point in the absolutely brilliant episode The Suitcase, which will be in year’s time considered the finest episode of Mad Men, if not one of the finest episodes of any TV series.
By the end of the season we don’t reach a definitive answer of who Don really is, but what we learn is that he is a man of ambition and capable of passion, a man who is devoted to his children and securing an everlasting happiness for them. Ultimately however, the biggest revelation about Don in this season is something we’ve known all along, that like Gatsby, he is essentially a loner.
The performances are once again uniformly terrific, Jon Hamm is superb and although this is the role which will follow him for his whole career, there are worse characters than Don Draper that will haunt you for life. It is a character that he should be immensely proud of, he is such a complex man but the performance is always understated and beautifully quiet, there is no need for any massive emotional TV histrionics, he is collected. A writer once said about writing dialogue and character, that in creating a character it is all about what isn’t said rather than what is. And Hamm’s performance is the exact embodiment of that and in this season I think he truly brings out the best.
Of course this can be applied to the rest of the cast. John Slattery is his same dry witted self, who also proves to be a deft director, Christina Hendricks is of course perfect as the smooth, seductress Joan Holloway and Vincent Kartheiser continues to craft the brilliant skill of making Pete Campbell slimy, awkward, loathsome but insanely watchable.
However, massive props need to be given to the particularly wonderful Elisabeth Moss who plays copy writer Peggy Olsen. Her scenes with Hamm’s Draper are easily the most eclectic of the season. The two actors have a clear understanding of the relationship between the two, it is strictly professional and yet they are the same emotionally blank people, which brings them closer. As does their dedication to their craft, they are nothing if consummate professionals who would stop at nothing to please the other. In that way there is often some very quiet, underlying romantic tension between the two, which becomes verbalised very beautifully in the season finale Tomorrowland, >where upon the announcement of his engagement to secretary Megan, Don tells Peggy: “she reminds me of you, of your ambition.”
In my original review of the season finale, I said that the show ended on a disappointing high note, where everything seemed alright, Don was getting married, Betty and Henry were moving away with the kids, SCDP were getting clients back, things seemed to kick back into get up and go mode. However when looking over the season again, there is still underlying darkness here and after a whole season that was increasingly building towards a massive explosion, I think the writers show a great deal of intelligence by keeping it low key.
There are more unnerving notes at work here that I’m sure will develop further into Season 5. Is Don’s marriage to Megan really going to work? Will Joan’s marriage fall apart considering she is pregnant with Roger Sterling’s baby? What was Duck Phillips really doing, and what is his true function? These were the issues I had originally with the open ended nature of the finale but now they are less problematic, because as David Chase said about writing on The Sopranos, “do you have to have closure on every little thing? Isn’t there any mystery in the world? In life you don’t get an ending to every story.” That’s certainly true and something that Matthew Weiner learned when working on The Sopranos.
What makes this show special, what makes this show great and truly up there as one of the finest shows of our time, is the social and political elements that are written so eloquently into the narrative, and despite being a period 60’s setting, Weiner’s show is dealing with contemporary issues. The end of this season looked at the need for SCDP to cut back in order to save money, particularly relevant don’t you think considering the current economic climate of the world? Where the little people are removed.
Also, the season is set against the back drop of the Vietnam War, where US intervention was really heating up. Weiner’s team couldn’t have timed that more perfectly as military intervention in the Middle East steadily increases. There is also quite a bit of attention paid to the role of women in the workplace, particularly coming across in conversations between Don and Peggy, this probably stems out of Mad Men being famous for having the largest majority of female staff in current television, half the writing staff are female. Many people don’t admire or respect the socio-political aspect to TV shows or films, but most great TV or film do have political substance to them.
Season 4 is probably vying as my favourite with Season 3 right behind, and it certainly has some of the best episodes of the whole series. The Suitcase is just the stand out, perfectly performed, written and directed. But these qualities can be applied across the whole season, the craft is impeccable and the content is even better. Best show on TV, by a mile.
The extras are as usual particularly extensive and detailed in how the team managed to create authenticity in the period setting, but not much as the way of making of documentaries or interviews.
- Divorce: Circa 1960s – A three-part documentary on the laws and emotions surrounding divorce
- How to Succeed in Business Draper Style – Experts use scenes to detail Don Draper’s blueprint for success
- Marketing the Mustang: An American Icon – Explore the marketing and advertising campaign that launched an American classic
- 1964 Presidential Campaign – Archival footage of President Johnson’s and Senator Goldwater’s speeches, campaign commercials and the Presidential Inauguration
The little featurettes I could take or leave, for me I find them particularly interesting as I am fascinated by that period and the politics of America at the time, so for me I was interested in seeing all the 64 Presidential campaign, some who don’t have that invested interest may find it a little dull. However the true gems are found in the commentaries, across 25 commentaries, which works out as nearly 2 per episode, Matthew Weiner along with guests guides us through the show and creating it, expressing his opinions on the writing and making the show. I loved hearing what he had to say on some of my favourite episodes and these don’t disappoint.
The video and audio quality is impeccable, the show prides itself on high production values and accurate detailing plus beautiful photography. The image is pretty much perfect, some mid shots are sometimes a little soft and there is a little grain here and there, but the detail and colour is really amplified here. The show sounds good, I mean there’s nothing spectacular about the show’s sound design, it isn’t really too complex but they do manage to get the bustle of the office space just right.
For any TV fans this is a must buy, the bar has been raised so high for hour long dramatic television recently and Mad Men is right at the top. Around this time in a show’s life span the quality begins to dip, not here, Season 4 is so good that it’s sickening. Even though it has triumphed for the past 3 years and is this year facing the behemoth of Boardwalk Empire, I predict massive Emmy success, hopefully for actors and the writers. It is a masterpiece of the screen.
Brilliant acting, writing and direction allows season 4 of Mad Men to continue the same high standard of the seasons before it.