Mad Men: Season 4 (spoilery review)

Narrative Devices has been a bit quiet while my television viewing and writing took a break while I was on holiday in New York. Wandering up and down Madison Avenue left me with a craving for Mad Men, so was pretty happy to return and see if season 4 could possibly meet the near perfection of season 3. If I were going to make some sort of grand sweeping, somewhat pretentious statement describing season 4 it would be that it’s about people realising what makes them happy, and how some of them can have it, and others can’t.

I’ve never much liked Don as a character. He is a man of his time of course, but he’s been rude, secretive, manipulative and occasionally outright scary sometimes. My opinion of him wasn’t improved much when he spent a fair amount of this season wallowing and bitter about the loss of his family and the struggles of launching an agency. It got old pretty fast, particularly the drinking, and made the first half of the season drag. But gradually he grew up, he started to have proper grown-up relationships – romantically with a woman who was his intellectual match and with whom he could have a true partnership, professionally with Peggy following a long awaited honest conversation, and even with his daughter who in absentia as she grows up he actually seemed to act like a proper father for the first time.

Finally in the last episode of the season we see what has been really missing from Don’s life, happiness. There were flashes of it when he was with Anna (when he was being Dick, rather than having to be Don), but with Megan and his family, he was happy enough to smile, jump in pools and make an impulsive decision that he liked being happy and wanted more of it. I was a bit unsure at first about the sudden engagement, but more and more I realised that I LIKED this happy Don, that Megan is genuinely lovely and a breath of fresh air and a real character with depth and history, not ‘just’ another secretary.

Life is not so simple for other people, for them the season has given glimpses of happiness and then snatched them away. Lane at his relatively mature age experienced what it was like to be free and ‘single’ in New York, before he was beaten back to his family obligations. Pete finally got to be a partner in the firm and have a baby on the way, but he was soon reminded of the responsibilities that come with both positions. Roger’s content existance was turned upside-down when he realised that even his family name and money couldn’t get him what he really wanted – a big account, a secure company and Joan.

The female characters are always my favourites, I find the historical angle absolutely fascinating, watching the different ways that they deal with the way their roles in the home and workplace are changing. Betty is stuck in the past, the high maintenance wife who’s always impeccably turned out but is really little more than a child getting angry and stomping her feet when she doesn’t get what she wants. Her daughter meanwhile is rapidly growing up and away from her mother.

Joan and Peggy continue to be a fascinating contrast, a contrast that sometimes puts them at odds, frustrating because when they are in agreement they are formidable, inspiring and hilarious. Peggy wants things to change, she wants to fight and is finally starting to actually do so out loud. She’s worked out how to deal with the men around her, she has a new confidence and deals practically with the problems presented to her – whether that’s proving she’s not a prude (hilariously) or telling Don how she really feels (beautifully). But while Peggy has decided to live her life as she wants, Joan seems to have committed to doing what’s expected of her. Professionally she is the very definition of quiet efficiency and competence, in a very senior position but when her authority is questioned she steps back, not forward. In her personal life she has again done what is expected, married the doctor and kept his home even when he signs up to go to Vietnam without consulting her. It may be Roger that makes her happy, but she stays with the slightly troubling husband and tells Roger they can’t be together. The revelation that she is carrying the baby Roger thought she had aborted and pretending it’s her husband’s is setting up for an interesting next season!

As always Mad Men looks and sounds gorgeous, full of detail in the costumes and props. It’s a show that’s horribly slow to watch, the actual events of a single episode can be summed up very quickly and seem to the casual viewer as utterly unremarkable. But the depth that has been created for this world characters is stunning. It’s a show that benefits hugely from over-analysis around the watercooler as you debate the tiniest of glances and how it related back to an incident two seasons back. Even by Mad Men standards the first few episodes dragged a little, and the resolution wasn’t quite as satisfying as the previous season, but given that was pretty much perfect, I can live with the close second.

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  1. August 29th, 2011
  2. March 16th, 2013
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