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August 29, 2015

Is This the Best Season Yet of 'Mad Men'?

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 1st 2010 12:00PM
I've very much missed writing about 'Mad Men,' given that the current season has been so strong. Who knows how I'll feel about the AMC drama once it wraps up later this fall, but so far, season 4 may be 'Mad Men's' best season yet.

And what better time to chime in about season 4 of 'Mad Men,' which won a Best Drama Emmy Sunday night? I've got more to say about individual episodes in this post (and a weekly 'Mad Men' podcast can be found here), but below I'll talk in broader terms about why season 4 has been so exciting and compelling.

The episode that aired Sunday, 'Waldorf Stories,' felt in some ways like the hinge of the season. We saw Don flying high and winning an award, but the episode also left us with the question, how much lower can he go?

In season 4, the stakes are higher than ever for the characters, we know them better than ever as they continue to evolve, and the sense that anything could happen to people we (mostly) care about a great deal lends the proceedings an extraordinarily delicious tension.

The neatest trick the show has pulled off has been to make the audience feel as unsettled -- and as exhilarated -- as the characters. The sense of possibility the characters feel infuses the show with an addictive energy; we want to know what's around the corner as much as they do.

What's coming next could be good or it could be wrenching, but this season on 'Mad Men,' it's almost always been deeply (or comically) compelling.

Don Draper and his colleagues have gone through a radical change: They're no longer part of the seemingly unassailable Establishment, they're no longer at the prosperous if relatively staid Sterling Cooper. Since season 4 began, many of their certainties have been stripped away. If they can't pull in new business and if Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's main client, Lucky Strike, bolts, the firm will go under and they all know it.

Given the decisive things the show has done in the past -- the firing of Sal, the breakup of the old firm, the mangling of the Brit hotshot's foot -- viewers would be crazy not to think that 'Mad Men' is capable of delivering even more jaw-dropping changes in weeks to come (and I know nothing of what's to come, I'm just guessing).

Even if the first half of the current season has contained a lot of set-up for future developments, the first six episodes have had a buzzy energy and a distinct momentum of their own, while not sugar-coating some of Don's darkest moments. And to relieve the strain that the characters are under, the show has also delivered some of its silliest and funniest moments, such as Peggy's head peeping over the transom and the Miss Blankenship Follies.

We've had a lot to chew on as viewers, comedically and dramatically, and the pace has certainly picked up as the show rolled through 1965. And all the 'Mad Men' tropes that we'd been trained to expect -- Don scores with the ladies, Pete is a weaselly jerk, Roger never loses his cool -- have gone out the window.

Don's striking out with women -- except a prostitute, a random bar pickup and (seriously?) Doris the waitress. Pete is the voice of reason at the new firm and displays a maturity that belies the upheavals he's been through since 1960. Roger can be counted on to quip -- and if he can't, rest assured that the Apocalypse is nigh -- but even he blew his top when the firm met with Japanese clients.

Perhaps most disturbingly of all, Don embarrassed himself at the Life cereal pitch meeting. We've seen Don experience flop sweat before, but this was something else entirely. Personally and professionally, Don's fabled self-control is hanging by a thread.

Everyone's reaching their limit, and its exciting not to be able to predict how they'll express or relieve the tensions in their lives and jobs. As Don pointed out, past behavior doesn't necessarily allow one to predict future actions. We know these people, but we also know that behavior -- even our own -- can surprise us. Don and Faye, the firm's new researcher, use different methods, but they are both concerned with the same question: How will human beings act in a given situation? Both of them have the good sense to know that question can never really be answered.

It's not as if all the possibilities faced by the characters are daunting; the loosening of the social rules means that Don can open up to Faye, that the frequently detestable (and disappointingly one-dimensional) Betty can show a more vulnerable side to Sally's new therapist, that Pete can seem like the grownup at the firm, that Peggy can psychologically best a co-worker who belittles and demeans her at every turn. Many carefully built barriers can be more easily scaled these days; many "rules" are turning out to be not so inflexible after all.

Still, freedom can be scary. Just look at Betty's wardrobe to see a character physically walling herself off from reality: She's wearing the hair and clothes a woman in her 40s or 50s, possibly in the hopes that looking mature will shield her from fallout of the changes she's put her family through. She looks twice her age.

Peggy, Joan and Don are caught in the middle of the generational divide, but as the youngest one of that trio, Peggy is more able to adopt and discard various life choices and personas -- career woman, obedient daughter, future Bay Ridge matron. And as the season progresses, we're seeing Peggy exhibit the self-control and psychological adeptness that Don used to possess, even as Don falls further down the rabbit hole. How long before Peggy decides that working in Don's shadow -- and cleaning up his messes -- is unacceptable?

It's easy to feel pity for Joan, who's older than Peggy and far more wedded to old-school worldviews, but Joan, whose will is as strong as her corsets, would never want anyone's pity. Yet it's hard to see her try so hard to have it all -- a marriage, a career, maybe a family -- and wonder how she's going to pull it off, especially with that dud of a husband. Joan still thinks she can get what she wants by playing by the rules, but the life she's trained herself to want may be slipping away, despite her ferocious efforts.

Joan's the character I can most easily picture in 10 years -- still working, still underpaid, still stoic, probably single. In my mind's eye, Future Joan never really changes her hair much and her undergarments have relaxed only a little. I love Joan's certainty about what is right and proper, even as I think it will eventually leave her stranded by life, wondering what happened to the conventional life she tried so hard to get.

Still, Joan is, like Peggy, able to call Don and Roger on their self-pity and pig-headedness. Peggy sees Don's failings from a professional perspective -- she makes no comment about his disheveled and depressing apartment -- while Joan sees Roger's occasional moroseness as almost a moral failing. He's no longer the self-assured man who bought her a fur and made her feel protected and provided for.

The character who contains the most contradictions, as always, is Don. It's not just that he's the star player who now has to save the franchise lest it go under. It's not just that the man who wanted desperately to avoid the kind of family trauma he experienced now has to live with the ugly dissolution of his marriage. It's not just that he's losing control of his life, as evidenced by Dick's pathetic lost weekend. It's not just that his creative mojo is slipping away to the point that he has to borrow tired catchphrases from Danny, the pathetic job hunter.

The real trouble is not that Don fails recognize that he's in a tailspin -- the look on his face after his night with Doris is evidence that he knows how bad things are. The problem is that he appears powerless to stop any of it. All the seduction techniques, all the creative methods, all the moves he used to have -- they just don't work anymore. Not consistently, anyway (the conning of Ted Chaough was a welcome return to form).

One of the most striking changes is the fact that Don's air of wounded charisma is no longer as attractive as it once was. The younger women he encounters want more from Don -- and less. They want a simple, direct connection, not the patented Don Draper, Man of Mystery routine. Talking to Allison about their one-night stand would have meant admitting that he experienced a moment of weakness for her. Don can't admit that, but his flaws are ever more apparent to the people in his world.

The peons in the office think Don's enigmatic reserve is kind of a joke -- that and his heavy drinking have turned him into a punchline among the younger set. His performance at the Life meeting only cemented his new image as the guy who just about manages to save a client relationship after almost screwing it up completely. We've come a long way from the Kodak pitch meeting of season 1.

Actually, thinking back on that classic 'Mad Men' scene from season 1 -- Don's pitch in 'The Wheel' for Kodak's Carousel slide-show player -- clarifies the problems that Don is having in 1965. Don's Kodak campaign was designed to connect with an individual's sense of nostalgia; it encouraged the private act of remembering. It contained an emotional element, but it was decorous and subtle. Its intensity was not something to be shared.

Joey, one of SCDP's junior staffers, would probably find that pitch totally hokey.

Joey, Allison and the younger set that Peggy is starting to hang with consider themselves part of a group, and they want to reshape the world in ways that reflect their individual aspirations and collective energies. Will Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's quietly emotional or gently subversive ads be up to the job of appealing to this increasingly important generation, which is idealistic and unwilling to be patronized? It's an open question, and even Faye, the new researcher, questions Don's methods and assumptions.

The show has always been strongest when it focuses on the office action, and like Don, SCDP is riven with internal contradictions. The fact is, the firm itself embodies aspects of the upstart, rebellious nature of the Sixties as we've come to know them. Unhappy with the way things were run at the old firm, SCDP was born to be different and better and more hungry than the established players. It has to be.

Yet despite its beginnings in rebellion, the firm is still weighted down with the baggage of the past -- Bert Cooper is an inherently conservative businessman and a condescending ad man, one who still thinks the modern consumer is mildly stupid and needs to be spoon-fed. Roger Sterling acutely understands the firm's need to succeed, hence the quipster actually working hard for the money for the first time in his life. Yet he's appalled at some of the things he and the firm have had to do to stay alive, and he and Don are busy reliving past glories like Glo-Coat. As Joan politely points out, that kind of morose nostalgia -- self-pity, really -- isn't particularly attractive.

Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, Pete and the rest of SCDP both represent and resent the changes that society is going through, and that has given rise to the most complicated and compelling dilemmas of the show's four seasons. Will SCDP be nimble enough to survive, despite the conflicts at its core? Will the staffers pull together to get the firm through its difficult growing pains or will they look out only for themselves? Will the characters enjoy the new range of possibilities that surround them, or hide from the mistakes they increasingly have the freedom to make? Will the tumult in their lives and careers allow them to make honest connections or divert them into emotionally draining blind alleys?

And the questions for Don are more important than ever. He doesn't need to change just to survive as an ad man. He needs to change as a human being if he's to find a shred of contentment in this life. He's in a dark place, and though he may have hit rock bottom in 'Waldorf Stories,' it's necessarily not a dour place. In that swirl of confusion about life, love and the ad game, there is reason to have hope that Don will figure at least some of these questions out... maybe.

"I think you're confusing a lot of things at once right now," Faye told Don.

Yes, but so far, the mixture is intoxicating.

By the way, the weekly 'Mad Men' podcast can be found

[Follow @moryan on Twitter]

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Love the show, but they're turning the characters into caricatures. Don, the drunk. Peggy, the perky up-and-comer. January Jones's character so unrelentingly sullen that she's hard to watch. A little normalcy would go a long way towards restoring believability in the characters. So many people on such an unrelenting downward spiral? For me, it's losing some of its luster.

September 02 2010 at 9:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great article, Mo! So glad you're back and the new digs are so lovely.

September 02 2010 at 12:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mo Ryan

I've so missed writing about the show! It's great to be back and reading everyone's thoughts.

Yep, I realize that season 3 won the Emmy, but I was referring to the show itself winning the Emmy. I guess I could have phrased that better.

September 01 2010 at 10:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mo -- missed you in my weekly reads! Thank god you're back and debuting with your usual incitedful prose. Bookmark locked in now!

And you got to take the Emmy's off! Yeehaw!

September 01 2010 at 9:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tony DIMeo

And what better time to chime in about season 4 of 'Mad Men,' which won a Best Drama Emmy Sunday night? actually it was season 3 that won the Emmy

September 01 2010 at 5:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh thank god! Don't ever go away during a Mad Men season again (pretty please). My Mad Men viewing experience is not quite complete without your reviews the following morning. They're the perfect combination of "that's exactly what I thought!!" and "Ohhhh!!! I would have never thought of that...". So glad to have them back! and congratulations on the new gig!

September 01 2010 at 1:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What a great article! Definitely enjoying this season a lot.

September 01 2010 at 12:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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