Mad Men Season 4 Rewatch: Episodes 6 – 11
Posted by therebelprince on February 15, 2012
Today, we continue to revisit the fourth season of Mad Men, in anticipation of next month’s fifth season premiere.
“We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what he had.”
– Don Draper
Don Draper reaches his season 4 nadir in Waldorf Stories, the season’s sixth instalment. Losing an entire weekend to debauchery, and stealing his greatest pitch from Roger’s dimwit wife’s cousin Danny (Danny Strong)? This is a man so far removed from the eager young wannabe we see in flashback, it’s hard not to fear he’s heading down the same path as Roger Sterling. Don’s emotional swings are out of control in this season, and I think some viewers took this to mean that Matthew Weiner’s vision for the series was similarly confused. Personally, I think of them as symptomatic of the massive changes facing an entire generation – which is, I guess, the core theme of the series – and they’re reflected in Don so well. What makes it both a powerful and unbalanced season is the feeling that this is a series of vignettes. We pop into the lives of Don and his co-workers at various points over the course of a year and, while I think this makes season 4 the most unusually paced thus far, there’s a forward momentum that really powers the season.
The rest of the episode brings long-running themes into sharp relief. Don embarks on a short-lived affair with Sally’s teacher; Peggy and new art director Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) begin their wonderfully adversarial relationship as colleagues; and Pryce invites my beloved Ken back to the firm. Shows that ditch their core format and cast – 24‘s fourth season comes to mind – often fall back into the trap of gradually bringing everyone back into the fold. So, I wasn’t that surprised to see Ken. However, he remains something of a blank slate for the rest of the season (no disrespect intended to Aaron Staton), so I would’ve been just as happy for the series to reincorporate Sal, who more obviously fits the series’ “private vs. personal” motif.
Meanwhile, Randee Heller‘s Miss Blankenship continues to be one of the most bizarre characters in recent memory. I know I wasn’t alone in being perplexed by the character’s relation to this series. In a show that tries to underplay most things, and rarely strives for slapstick, the confused, frank, and amusingly out-of-place secretary stood out in all six appearances. Yet, I’m kind of in love with her. If you’ve seen Heller in anything else, you’ll know that this is the performance of a chameleon. As the first secretary with no sexual interest in Don, perhaps we can see Miss Blankenship as one of many factors in the giant tug-of-war that is Don’s fear of commitment (associating it with loss of love, and his parents) battling with his constant yearning to connect. Perhaps – as Bertram’s later eulogy will attest – she’s another reminder of how much times have changed. Or perhaps she’s just a very funny little piece of colour to the office, in a season where most of the staff are preoccupied with things falling apart. Whatever the case, Miss Blankenship exists.
I don’t have much to say about The Suitcase, except for how damn amazing it is. In a season of spectacular Don/Peggy episodes, this one takes the cake. Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss convincingly portray the nuances of two long-time colleagues, both unable to be truly open with anyone else, and growing to rely on the other as they face a brave new world. At one point, Peggy was just another eager secretary for Don’s wandering eye, and he was the perfect dream that she could aspire to. Neither one wants that anymore (well, Don is balancing the maturity of Faye with the regression of any number of secretaries), but the pair have a powerful connection and respect which is fast becoming the rock of the series. I do wonder if Don will ever find out that Pete is the father of Peggy’s baby, and how he’ll react, though. It’s particularly interesting to see the ways in which Don treats Peggy: while she’s fully able to view him as a confidante and equal, a part of Don still refuses to believe that he can be great friends with a woman, particularly of Peggy’s kind. Only by seeing her as a kind of man, is he really able to let it all out.
By the end of the night, things have taken a turn for the worse in both cases. Peggy’s boyfriend Mark (Blake Bashoff) realises that she’s just not interested in anything typical, and breaks up with her. Don, meanwhile, learns that Annas has died…
… which leads us to The Summer Man, probably the season’s most divisive episode. The Summer Man is undoubtedly the series’ most cinematic episode to date, as Don attempts to piece his life together in the aftermath of Anna’s death, and his all-night chat with Peggy. As Don delves into the art of diary writing, we’re introduced to his voice-over, which is certainly a jarring turn for Mad Men. I’m going to quote Television Without Pity here:
“It’s definitely a departure for this show to employ voice-over so heavily when (a) I don’t remember it ever having used it and (b) it by definition somewhat sacrifices the subtext and ambiguity that the show revels in. However, I think it makes sense for this episode given that, thanks to both the increasing prevalence of people talking about their feelings this season and him being at a real crossroads, he’s engaging in self-examination for the first time in his life; we really do need to know what he’s thinking in order to advance the story they’re trying to tell here.”
I couldn’t agree more: self-examination has been knocking on most characters’ doors for years now. Joan and Peggy answer the door but then try and ignore the visitor; Roger answers the door but mistranslates what he hears; Betty just hides in the corner and refuses to acknowledge the knocking at all. Don has finally committed to looking at himself, and we can only hope he journeys in the right direction. He’s dating the vapid Bethany (Anna Camp) but can’t keep his mind of Faye. She’s exactly the kind of woman he falls for, but he can never keep, because they simply won’t bend to his will like Betty or Allison. What frustrates viewers most, I think, is how close Don keeps coming to true self-revelation (he beautifully muses that “People tell you who they are, but we ignore it, because we want them to be who we want them to be”) only to turn around at the last minute. Yet, is there anything more true of life? The minute Betty’s marriage with Henry hits a roadblock, she begins to wonder whether the marriage was a whim, and whether she should still be with Don. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Don and Betty as a couple. His need to control, her desire for a slightly absent figure, their youthful passion… it’s all in constant battle with their respective neuroses. Something’s gotta give.
At SCDP, meanwhile, the office politics are now firmly established. Joey (Matt Long) makes the unfortunate comment that Joan “walks around like she’s trying to get raped”. In a powerful scene, Peggy fires the young upstart, only to earn the ire of Joan: Peggy was just making a show of her power, and now Joan will look more helpless than ever before. I’m sad to lose the very pretty Long (not for nothing does increasingly arrogant TV rep Harry tell the kid he could be an actor), but it’s most telling how Joan reacts to this. Ten years ago, she was the Queen Bee. Now, with a new generation at hand, Joan is outdated: she’s quickly becoming the stern, older office manager, merely there to keep her girls in place. I think Joan has been massively underused this season (despite forming a wonderful pairing with Lane Pryce), but her tale is like something out of an O. Henry story. She found the perfect husband, a career where she’s indispensable, and thus achieved her dreams. Yet, she has nothing.
Oh, and we see Francine briefly. I think this is Anne Dudek‘s only appearance of the season, which is a shame since she’s wonderful!
And… whither Robert Morse?
I reviewed episodes nine through eleven when they first aired, so let’s switch to some bullet points below:
09. The Beautiful Girls
full review found here
- It’s the beginning of metrosexuality, as SCDP works with an auto company facing the fact that men still want to look good with their hands, but increasingly aren’t.
- Sally puts in another heartbreaking appearance, as she runs away to New York. Her earnest claims that she can help raise the boys while living with Don are really affecting, and the way in which father and daughter really do start an adult bond is very nice. There’s so much hope for Sally, who shows a considerable intelligence this season, but everything Betty does – born from her own issues – just wants to retard this.
- It’s notable how uncomfortable Faye is around Sally, whereas secretary Megan (Jessica Paré) manages to calm the girl. As Don slowly grows attracted to Megan, we can clearly see why (beyond the physical, of course!). She has that childlike, needy nature of Betty, yet has her own realistic goals in life. Of course, being with Don will ultimately subjugate all of those, but it’s nice to know she’s trying.
- Meanwhile, Joan and Roger get mugged, and then have some street sex. They remain one of my favourite couples on the series, both knowing that their connection is so much more real than their respective marriages, but neither one willing to flout social convention or throw away their certain futures for riskier ones.
From my initial review:
“Peggy probably will awaken, and it’s probable that Trudy and Pete will actually make great parents. But for now, the world outside is a challenging and contradictory place, and if it doesn’t match with your moral compass, who’s at fault?”
10. Hands and Knees
initial review here
After a season of relatively internal, character-based episodes, Hands and Knees is a plot extravaganza: Joan is likely pregnant, and the abortion clinic just hammers her with the realisation that she’s so far from where she wanted to be. That uncertainty in her voice at episode’s end suggests she didn’t go through with the abortion, but it almost doesn’t matter: social pressure has prevailed over even a free spirit like Roger Sterling. What chance do the rest of us have?
It’s a solid episode for John Slattery, as Roger contemplates his literary future (I don’t know why anyone in the world of the series would buy his book, but I’d sure read it!), and then loses the account with Lucky Strike. Betrayal by Lee Garner Jr has been a long time coming, but that makes it no less affecting. Roger is a snake, and he can get himself out of most situations, but he’s also a big, flashing warning sign to Don, and I kind of don’t see him surviving until the end of Weiner’s assumed seven seasons.
Hands and Knees continues the slow process of bringing Betty and Don back into each other’s lives. Now that she’s in on his secret, Betty freaks out when a standard government background check forces her to lie for her ex-husband. However, their frantic phone calls point out that this is the first time in a long time that the pair can just have honest conversations! Maybe there’s hope for these crazy kids yet.
And, finally, there’s Lane Pryce. It’s all a bit of a surprise really, as Pryce’s brutal father (W. Morgan Sheppard) shows up to take his son back to Britain, and we learn that Pryce has been dating an African-American waitress (Naturi Naughton). Nothing here is nonsensical, and we rarely see Pryce with his guard down enough that he’d open up about it, but basically none of this plotting has been foreshadowed at all. I’ve enjoyed the “vignette” feel of season 4 – and Jared Harris makes every scene work here – but it would’ve been nice if the episode didn’t make us feel like we’d just spent two seasons getting to know a character who was hiding so much from us. I guess we now know how Betty felt.
From my initial review:
” More importantly, since leaving Betty, Don has begun a process of self-examination and started to deconstruct his image. He’s already removed himself from the image of ‘suburban husband’, and now – for one night at least – Don seriously considers leaving SCDP. In the episode’s most touching scene, Don confesses the basic truth to Dr. Faye, and then spoons her, a gesture more intimate than we have ever seen on this show. In that moment, he is completely free from pretence.”
“Everyone remains a liar at episode’s end. Pete can’t explain himself to Trudy; Lane is off to England for purposes he’ll keep to himself; Joan keeps her crumbling life secret; and Roger still believes he can salvage Lucky Strike. Only Don Draper is now free, but we’ll see how long that lasts.”
11. Chinese Wall
initial review here
On first viewing, I was underwhelmed by Chinese Wall. Like Hands and Knees, it’s very plot-heavy and conventional, but as I said in my review, “I can’t help feeling like last season’s finale moved all of the pieces on to a new game board, and this season has just been about making a few early moves to ready them in place for next time”. After a season full of surprising jaunts into various characters’ lives, it’s weird to suddenly see them interacting at SCDP as colleagues. The episode’s title comes from a comment by Faye about compartmentalising one’s life, and I suspect that’s the aim of Weiner and his staff. After seeing every character’s personal lives, we then get to see the facade each of them puts up to deal with the real world, making their interactions doubly rich.
A lot of the time it works, in a dense episode that includes Peggy and Abe (Charlie Hofheimer) sleeping together, even as she takes control; Trudy going into labour, earning Pete a smackdown from Don; Don returning full-time to alcoholism; SCDP trolling a funeral for clients; Joan officially breaking up with Roger; Megan making a direct play for Don, in one of the series’ best scenes; and Roger hilariously faking a phone call with Lucky Strike, in which SCDP ‘lose’ the account.
With these last two episodes, however, I’ve begun to grow frustrated with the series providing us little windows into each life, but refusing to open the door. I’m glad Mad Men is a show that refuses to connect the dots thematically (I’m currently watching Sons of Anarchy‘s fourth season and, while I love that pulpy biker drama, it has at least two montages every episode. Puh-lease) but sometimes I wish the show would connect them narratively. Case in point: we meet Ken’s fiancee and father-in-law, played by Larisa Oleynik and Ray Wise respectively. To quote my earlier review: “Dear television producers: if you open an episode… of anything … with Ray Wise, and then only give him two lines, a lot of people get very antsy. It’s a strange and as yet unresearched effect, but it’s true.” Mad Men rewards rewatching, and I should be less of a grouch. As someone who wants more television made with that rich tapestry feel, this is the only drama on the air besides Game of Thrones that is giving me what I want. (Richly populated comedies are, however, a dime a dozen at the moment, particularly over at the late, lamented NBC!) So, perhaps I should stop complaining.
Chinese Wall is full of great moments for the cast. Cara Buono is smashing in her last big appearance as Faye, as she begins to pull away from Don, while also compromising her ethics to help out the suddenly struggling SCDP. Rich Sommer continues to be one of the show’s most undervalued cast members, even if Harry has done nothing more this season than become a dick. And it’s a rare showing for Robert Morse, as Cooper gets to deliver a great smackdown to Roger: “Lee Garner Jr. never took you seriously because you never took yourself seriously”. I hope we get to see Morse again in the series’ future, because he’s been divine as the original ad man. By the very notion of the series as an exploration of a new era, it was inevitable that Cooper would have to fade away at some point. Still, I hope this is not the end.
Later this month, I’ll be back to take a look at the season’s two final instalments, before we journey on to season five.