Mad Men is one of the best shows on television and will be one of those canonical shows talked about for decades to come. Now, I realize that sounds obvious and redundant to anyone that has been following television culture over the past few years. But when I sat down to revisit season four of the 1960s ad agency centric drama for this review, it really hit me that it’s true. I’ve been a fan of the show since it premiered, and always look forward to watching it on Sunday nights. But watching several episodes back-to-back gives a different impression, and its consistent level of quality earns that statement.
As the cover art suggests, in season four Don (Jon Hamm) is in a downward spiral of drinking and depression. Now a bachelor living on his own, and without a strict false front to uphold, he’s quickly losing control. At times it seems like Don could meet his end literally falling out the window of his Madison Avenue office. After his divorce from Betty and starting his new ad agency, Don’s been through a lot of change recently, and he’s not quite sure who he is, or who he needs to be.
But for a season that starts with the question “Who is Don Draper?” it was very much a season about the women that make the man. There’s Betty (January Jones), of course, who’s the increasingly cold and dour ex-wife Don can’t escape, despite the fact that she immediately remarried. And Sally (Kiernan Shipka), his young daughter, who had a breakout in these episodes as the rebellious pre-teen struggling with her parents’ split.
On the other side of Don’s life there’s Anna (Melinda Page Hamilton), the real Don Draper’s wife, who is battling cancer. As the only person who ever really knew Don for who he was, the threat of losing that connection is more than he can handle. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) may be the perfect replacement for that person in his life. Not only does Peggy have potential in the ad business, but she understands personal sacrifice, and the importance of keeping inner demons at bay.
And then there’s Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono), who enters the agency as a research consultant. With Faye it seems like Don could have it all in a woman: someone smart enough to keep up, beautiful enough to show off, and empathetic enough to keep Don’s secrets. But nothing’s ever quite that simple for Don, and I would have more to complain about if watching him navigate all these relationships wasn’t quite so fascinating.
This season has one of the best episodes of the drama to date in “The Suitcase,” a more microscopic look at the series two most enigmatic characters, Don and Peggy, as they pull an all-nighter at the office one night working and avoiding their personal problems. The two cling to each other for support (by the end of the episode in a very self-aware way) and for a moment, it seems Don and Peggy have made a genuine connection, a rarity for these two. It’s the slow simmer that Mad Men does so well, and this episode is the epitome of that. Set against the Cassius Clay/Sonny Liston boxing match, it has the explosive feel of a fight with the can’t-look-away response, but without the true bang. Instead, it resonates throughout the whole series, an effect pulled off effortlessly by Hamm and Moss’s performances.
Don’s life isn’t all complicated inner struggles, however. There’s the new ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, still in its infancy after the four men broke off on their own at the end of season three. What was just a few employees in a hotel room has turned into a real office with major accounts like Lucky Strike, and an innovative commercial everyone in the industry is talking about. But it’s not all sunshine and roses at the new company. The accounts they have are on rocky ground, and competition for new clients is tougher than ever. But what follows is a series of scrappy, less-than-traditional business practices from the underdog, including a phantom “second floor” and staged grocery store ham battles. The team is at their creative peak, and although there are bigger problems still bubbling beneath the surface for the new agency, there’s a certain humor to the workplace that provides an antidote to the personal dramas.
The season is book-ended with the question “Who is Dick?” from young Sally, another woman getting too close for comfort to Don’s true identity. Don faces a clear choice in which identity he’s going to embrace, now that he really has the freedom to choose. I won’t give anything away, but it’s a season ending that divided fans, and prompted much discussion. With season five not coming back until 2012, there’s plenty of time to catch up on this must-see drama, and join the conversation.
The DVD offers more historical context with documentaries on divorce and politics in the 1960s. The feature-length commentary on every episode from creator, writer, and executive producer Matthew Weiner and cast and crew gives more insight for die-hard fans. But the episodes stand on their own, and as a whole are another outstanding season of this period drama definitely worth watching.