The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

Mad Men Season 4 Rewatch: Episodes 1 – 5

Posted by therebelprince on February 2, 2012

 Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men – my favourite drama currently on the air – is returning for a fifth season in March, so it seemed timely to revisit the show’s fourth. When it first aired in 2010, season 4 certainly proved a divisive one amongst fans and critics: the changed dynamics at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce; the growth of World’s Worst Mother Betty Draper; Don’s endlessly incorrect romantic decisions; the existence of Miss Blankenship; and so on. In fact, was there anything that all of us could agree on, other than the awesomeness of young Kiernan Shipka?

Today, I’m going to look at the season’s first five episodes:

“My Uncle Mac said he had a suitcase that was always packed. He said a man has to be ready to go at any moment. Jesus, maybe it’s a metaphor.”

Don Draper

Before we start, I have to echo the folks at the ever intelligent A.V. Club and this wonderful piece, in which they defend the art of the slow rewatch. While I’d argue that most shows can easily reward marathon viewings, Mad Men is the purest example of the perfect balance between the episodic and the serialised format. As the article states, Mad Men is almost a collection of linked short stories which come together to form a whole at season’ s end. (Beyond that, I’d add that rewatching a series one episode at a time allows the viewer to focus on the subtleties of character, direction, and theme, rather than – as we’re all inclined to do – just getting excited about the progressions of the plot…) Anyhow, enough of such academic nonsense.

Season 4 opens with Public Relations, which – like all Mad Men season premieres – must do the hard yards of introducing us to the characters’ lives, months after we last saw them. Unlike the previous season openers, Public Relations is less shock-filled, instead capturing what seems to be a typical day for SCDP, which is still struggling to empower itself after the partners and staff packed up and left their old firm overnight. Like all good premieres (according to The Wire‘s David Simon) the episode focuses on the two characters who will drive the season, Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, as well as the series’ main concern: the fast-evolving world of the ’60s, and the vast, sometimes crushing gulf between those who couldn’t see it coming (or adapt to it), and those who tried. Here, Peggy tackles an entirely new advertising concept in arranging a public catfight over ham, while Don finds himself at odds with customers, realising yet again that you can’t force change. (This idea reflects back on the series’ flirtations with the rights of women, African-Americans, and homosexuals, without feeling the need to get all “here’s a montage to explain what we mean” about it.) The classically gorgeous look of much of the series often reflects the conservative, ’50s-inspired style of the era, even as Don, Pete, Peggy, Sally et al, begin to question the world they live in. Whether they choose to embrace the change or retreat from it, is another question…

Sam Page as Greg. For no other reason than, my word, he's pretty.

The second instalment, Christmas Comes But Once A Year sets up many of the season’s core conflicts. (Is that title an ironic reference to the fact that – even for a cable show – Mad Men is decidedly  unconcerned about how its fictional dates relate to airdates?) Don sleeps with his secretary, Allison, the latest in a long line of seemingly consequence-free actions that will reverberate in surprising ways. The dazzling Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) joins the company as a consultant, and – as with her predecessors, Rachel Menken and Bobbie Barrett – this independent, cultured, and witty woman captures Don’s interest. A long time ago, we caught a brief glimpse of what Betty must have been like when they first met: the bilingual model, with Grace Kelly’s style and a sultry stare. She was ultimately undone by her childhood programming, reduced to being the housewife and mother that she knew she must want to be – even if she didn’t feel what she was supposed to feel. Don, however, was equally undone. He’s forever attracted to women who are not ashamed to be his equal. Yet Don refuses to accept that. Time after time, he’ll end up choosing the one who will submit to him, who’s happy to be wrong, who needs him. The only woman Don can maintain a lasting relationship with is Peggy, and that’s primarily because – to him – she’s just a weaker man.

Elsewhere, Lee Garner Jr. (Darren Pettie) runs amok, humiliating Roger. The circumstances surrounding SCDP’s foundation weren’t ideal, and one of the necessary evils was keeping the Lucky Strike account. Of course, as we know now, this too shall pass.

Elsewhere, our old friend Glen (Weiner’s son Martin) vandalises the Draper house to profess his love for Sally. Betty, already out of her depth with growing children, and a family of in-laws who dislike her, is unimpressed. Naturally. Betty is the most divisive character on the show, and I make no bones about being on Team: Betty. Sure, I don’t want to get stuck in an elevator with her, but Betty remains my favourite of the series’ multifaceted explorations of women. As with Rachel or Joan or Peggy, Betty was expected to walk a certain path in life. Peggy turned her back on expectation; Joan and Rachel chose the right path, but have done so with a mix of insight and self-awareness. Betty, instead, has been told that if she has questions, she’s just wrong. She’s certainly a horrible person as a wife and mother (although, really no worse than Don!), but I can’t stop being fascinated by the woman. And those few brief moments of genuine connection, such as the one time she let her guard slip with Glen, have been just heartbreaking in their exploration of a life lived entirely within the margins, so afraid of wanting or believing something else that you turn to hostility and bitterness whenever someone around you challenges that. (Betty Draper, Westboro Baptist Church. Potayto, potahto.)

There are only three things I’ve sometimes disliked about this series. The season’s third episode, The Good News, brings together two of those, and manages to redeem them both. Don Draper – I’m sorry, Dick Whitman – visits Anna (Melinda Page Hamilton), the widow of the real Don Draper. It’s been years since the pair first met, and they have developed a very real bond. Now, Anna has cancer, and Don’s treatment of her is startlingly tender and assured.

The first of my qualms about the series was always the Dick Whitman storyline. While it certainly brought the series’ overriding theme of public identity v. private identity into sharp relief, the first season could occasionally veer into melodrama, as our hero covered up an entire existence. The knowledge that this slick ad exec was actually the unwanted child of a backwoods family was intriguing; the fact that he stole his identity during the war a little too twee. The series gradually rectified this in my eyes, first through the tragic tale of Dick’s brother in season 2, and then the powerhouse unravelling of Don and Betty’s personal life in season 3. Finally, with the in-depth look at Don and Anna, they’ve made something beautiful out of the mess. If there’s a tragedy to Don, it’s that he’s almost broken out of his programming (almost because, like Tony Soprano, he’s sometimes too willing to accept the easy answers rather than do some genuine self-analysis), but those around him can’t be made to understand. The genuine connection he develops with Anna is one of the series’ best.

More to the point, it quells my second – more subjective – qualm: the portrayal of ‘alternative’ life. Perhaps it’s because I just don’t care for hippies, but Don’s early fling with Midge was never my cup of tea. Similarly, his previous trips to the West Coast always seemed to take away from the series’ depth rather than add to it.  In light of the more interesting Peggy explorations into the beatnik culture in later seasons, I’m beginning to see those early failings as the series still defining itself, rather than a true flaw.

Kiernan Shipka as the product of Betty and Don's collective neuroses. I mean, Sally.

On return to New York, Don and Lane have a night of frivolity together after Lane’s wife leaves him. Jared Harris and Jon Hamm prove to be a strong pairing.

My third and final qualm, then, is only that the series can, on occasion, work too hard to make everything fit together thematically. Determined for each episode to work tonally and thematically as a whole, Weiner and his team can occasionally be a little too ambitious in making connections, only to realise that they have a pesky plot and characters to serve. But truth be told, I didn’t really notice this during these five episodes, and quite frankly I’d rather a series be a little too ambitious than the safe-but-unaffecting tones of entire networks.

The fourth episode, The Rejected, is perhaps my least favourite of this batch, but that’s by a very small margin, and only because I don’t think it quite has the ‘cusp of a new era’ vibe that penetrates the season. The return of reformed alcoholic Freddy brings one of my favourite recurring characters into the fold. It’s interesting that Weiner originally envisioned the show running for five seasons and ending on the cusp of the 70s, whereas it looks now like they’ll take seven years to reach that goal. Evidently, the writers became far more invested in the characters than they’d originally intended, but it still feels like the show moves at lightening pace between episodes.

The Rejected is one of several episodes this season to take the Don/Peggy friendship as its crux. Here, Allison falls apart after her brief affair with Don, confessing to Peggy, and bringing up the idea that other women in the office – including Peggy herself – must want him. Peggy’s reaction to this is utterly dismissive, reflecting the different aspects of her personality: her growing temptation with queer feelings; her complete fear of sex, both as an act and as something that represents a way in which she can be made submissive; and probably recalling the naive secretary who arrived in Manhattan five years ago, whose first crush on an ad man – Pete Draper – ended in pregnancy and shame. This is Elisabeth Moss‘ finest episode of the season, and the peak is her reaction to the news of Pete and Trudy’s pregnancy.

Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Trudy (Alison Brie)

Pete, meanwhile, has been cleverly shaded since season 1, although I feel like he doesn’t quite get to grow in season 4 in the ways I would’ve liked. The Campbells’ reaction to the Kennedy assassination last season seemed like it should have been a turning point for them, a moment when they might become a progressive, ultra-mod couple. Sure, Pete and Trudy aren’t terribly conservative but at the end of the day, the pair don’t quite seem to be affected by the changing world around them. (That’s in no way a slight against Vincent Kartheiser and the adorable Alison Brie, who have been two of the series’ secondary MVPs.) Knowing that Mad Men will likely run for three more seasons, I guess people can’t change too early (and, like The Sopranos, this series is partly about resistance to that change), but I still hoped for more.

The closing shot of Pete and Peggy discreetly smiling at each other, on opposite sides of some very symbolic glass doors, makes me very interested to see what the series has in store for these two very different people, linked forever by one living, breathing secret.

Finally, there’s my favourite episode of the season to date: The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, in which Roger sabotages a meeting with Japanese clients, and Sally Draper is no longer Master of her Domain.

Yes, folks, the development of Sally Draper takes centre stage as the young lady cuts her hair and discovers hidden pleasures of her body, before being whisked off to therapy by dear old mother. It’s rare for a series to deal with the more taboo issues of growing up – particularly at such a young age – and I really appreciated that the writers and young Miss Shipka were willing to go there. Sally has had a confusing childhood, made all the worse by two parents whose own fears and secrets prevented them from being self-sacrificing, and her increasing acts of disobedience make perfect sense, particularly in light of later episodes. Moreso, the masturbation incident is a stark reminder of how times change, and of Betty’s refusal to accept her daughter as a person. Always childlike, Betty is the opposite of those Gypsy stage mothers. Instead of wanting her daughter to have the things she couldn’t, Betty is terrified that Sally might have – or think – anything more than Betty was allowed, so it’s straight back to therapy. And the reveal that  Betty herself is subconsciously using the therapy for her own requirements is delicious.

At SCDP, meanwhile, Roger’s treatment of the Honda reps allows Mad Men to once again tread those awkward lines of historical racism that only Roger Sterling can do so well. John Slattery is Mad Men‘s breakout star (even if he’s been a known face for many years), but Roger has often run close to just being a joke machine for the writers. He only gets a couple of serious episodes this year, but the way his casual racism is strengthened by his own war experiences is particularly impressive. The Honda plot is one of my favourite business-centric stories of the year (admittedly, with the lack of clients, there are relatively few!), and yet again the company end up not getting a contract.

Roger Sterling. Forever classy.

Well, that was the opening of Mad Men‘s fourth season. Next week, I’ll be back looking at the next five episodes, as SCDP slowly becomes a battleground, and Don finds another secretary to enjoy…

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4 Responses to “Mad Men Season 4 Rewatch: Episodes 1 – 5”

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