Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski imagines accessories for the Don Draper action figure: a cigarette, a whiskey, and a vomit bucket.
Our reviews of Mad Men: Season One (published July 2nd, 2008), Mad Men: Season Two (published July 14th, 2009), Mad Men: Season Two (Blu-Ray) (published July 14th, 2009), Mad Men: Season Three (published March 22nd, 2010), Mad Men: Season Three (Blu-Ray) (published April 1st, 2010), and Mad Men: Season Five (Blu-ray) (published November 12th, 2012) are also available.
"Nothing should change; nothing will change."—Don Draper
Welcome to Don Draper's fall from grace. The fourth season of AMC's hit 1960s period drama, Mad Men, gives the series' cooler-than-cool protagonist a violent shove off his pedestal, turning him more into the credit sequence's descending figure than ever. Though Mad Men had always bared Don's dark side to the show's audience, this year they bared it to his friends and coworkers as yesterday's golden boy of ad agency Sterling Cooper became today's drunken screw-up of new agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. As it turns out, watching Don strike out with the ladies and flub accounts is at least as compelling as watching him turn on the charm, and Mad Men: Season Four (Blu-Ray) meets the high standard set by its third.
Note: Images are not taken from this Blu-Ray release and do not reflect its picture quality.
Facts of the Case
Spoiler Alert! I'll be discussing plot points through the end of Season Four.
Fall 1963, the period of Season Three's end, was quite a roller coaster for Don (John Hamm, 30 Rock), his family, and his coworkers. As the nation reeled from President Kennedy's assassination, Don's wife Betty (January Jones, Unknown) found out about his dark past as a deserter in the Korean War who took on a dead man's name. She left him for another man—down-to-earth, political strategist Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley, Crosscut)—and stayed in the family home in Ossining, New York, with their children, Sally (Kiernan Shipka, Carriers), Bobby, and Gene.
At the same time, Don and a mutinous band of partners and employees broke off from Sterling Cooper, which was being swallowed up by a bigger firm, to form a new agency: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Along for the ride at SCDP are the wacky duo of original partners, oddball Bert Cooper (Robert Morse, Pound Puppies) and wistful jerk Roger Sterling (John Slattery, Flags of Our Fathers). Putting the P in SCDP is Briton Lane Pryce (Jared Harris, The Notorious Bettie Page), who tries to maintain the new company's bottom line. Up-and-comer Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, Angel) shoulders most of the weight in Accounts, while former secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss, The West Wing) does so in Creative. Holding it all together administratively is the unspeakably luscious Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks, Firefly), whose electric personality rather remarkably commands our attention even more than her more visible virtues.
Mad Men: Season Four (Blu-Ray) includes all thirteen episodes of the season, spread over three discs:
• "Christmas Comes but Once a Year"
• "The Good News"
• "The Rejected"
• "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword"
• "The Suitcase"
• "The Summer Man"
• "The Beautiful Girls"
• "Chinese Wall"
• "Blowing Smoke"
Season Four's opening line is a question, signaling to the audience what the year's theme will be: "Who is Don Draper?" In fact, this was the same guiding question of Season One, but its tense has implicitly changed. Back then, we the audience were unraveling the mystery associated with the name. Who is Don Draper? He's a guy from California who was killed in the Korean War. Dick Whitman, who grew up poor on a farm, is the man we think is Don Draper, having borrowed his name to get out of Korea alive. This season, we're no longer figuring out Don Draper's origin story, but rather what his future holds. Season Four is really about "Who will Don Draper become?" and Don himself is actively seeking that answer.
At first, the prospects are none too promising: worse at playing the divorced man than the adulterer, Don strikes out with four different women he tries to sleep with in the first three episodes. Much worse than that, his drinking is getting beyond his control. The scene in which he pitches an ad campaign drunk in "Waldorf Stories" is one of the best of the season. Coming up with tags for the campaign on the spot, he grows increasingly pathetic (though his clients at Life Cereal are too drunk to notice) until he stumbles onto one they like, "Life: the cure for the common breakfast," which just happens to be pilfered from Danny, the terrible copy writer who wants a job at SCDP. The most painful part of the scene, though, is Don's recycling of the beautiful pitch he gave about nostalgia for Kodak at the end of the first season. That scene will stand out for Mad Men fans as one of the most moving of the series, and here we see Don defiling it in a haphazard, drunken rerun of himself. If nostalgia is, as he says, "the pain from an old wound," then fans are definitely feeling that pain in "Waldorf Stories" as the series guides us into feeling nostalgia for the old Don. But Don's real low comes in the following episode, another fantastic one, "The Suitcase." So sick with grief about Anna's impending death, Don goes on a doozy of a bender and takes Peggy along for the ride. Don is grooming her to be the next Anna—the romantic, but not sexual, female friend who knows him completely, including the bad stuff—and certainly shows her enough of the bad stuff. She has to rush him to the office bathroom to vomit just before he gets into a late-night brawl with the equally drunk Duck Phillips and ends up on the ground saying "uncle." Though the fight with Duck is a little too on-the-nose because of the boxing match storyline it parallels, the payoff is worthwhile. Peggy comes into his shadowy office late in the night and finds him sitting there—defeated, rumpled, and with a little splotch of vomit on his dress shirt—asking her to pour him another drink. Here, the unfailingly smooth Don Draper has been completely, compellingly broken down.
"The Summer Man" and episodes following it bring a brighter prognosis for the question of who Don Draper will become. At the price of his cringe-worthy journaling (I'll rant on this in a later section), Don is cleaning up his act: slowing down on the whiskey, working out, and trying to be a better dad. Perhaps most significantly, he embarks on a mature relationship with his colleague, Dr. Faye Miller. Though the year is only 1965, Faye is a forerunner of the new kind of woman about to come down the pipeline in the United States: smart and educated, ambitious, and willing to fight it out for a satisfying career in a man's world rather than being shut up in a suburban house to churn out babies. If Bethany, Don's date early in the season, is a burgeoning Betty, then Faye is the anti-Betty. While Bethany struggles to figure out who he is, Faye sees his inner workings quickly, demonstrating a keen understanding of his hopes and motivations. When he chooses her, and starts to court her seriously instead of just trying to get laid, it seems like Don is moving forward—in his own life, and as a symbol for America's moving forward in its conception of womanhood. He even tells her the truth about his past.
"Tomorrowland," then, hits like a punch in the gut. Instead of forming a progressive and modern couple with career woman Faye, Don decides—over the course of a weekend—to just marry his hot, young secretary, Megan. In addition to the surprise on a romance level, the finale surprises on a broader level, too. Last season ended with Don picking himself up from personal disaster (his divorce) with professional heroism: he boldly bailed out of Sterling Cooper, took the best folks with him, and formed a new company. SCDP needs that kind of heroism more than ever as Season Four ends, but Don reverses his formula. Sinking at work, he now uses his personal life as a buoy, "fixing" that instead. A punch this episode might be—and boy, does it sting—but it's not a sucker punch from the show's writers. Those who had been paying close attention could have had an inkling that this was coming way back in "Christmas Comes but Once a Year" when a flirty Don and an uncharmed Faye have this exchange:
Faye: "Don't worry. You'll be married again in a year."
She's right about Don, as he transitions from one "type" (the adulterous '50s husband, quietly suffocating) to another (the impulsive, midlife career man who marries his secretary). You know what really proves that this is not a forward-thinking move? He's following the path Roger has taken; as the smug Sterling says when Don announces his engagement, "See, Don: this is the way to behave."
Season Four is filled with people accusing each other of being old-fashioned: Peggy's boyfriend to Peggy, Peggy to Freddy Rumsen, Don to the clients at Jantzen. Don thinks of himself as bounding intrepidly into the future, but in the end when he proposes to Megan we see that he's, unexpectedly, as old-fashioned as his favorite cocktail. Unlike his son, excited about the futuristic theme area at Disneyland, Don, deep down, wants to ride an elephant more than he wants to fly a jet. In my mind, then, we get a clear answer as the season closes to the question that began it. Who is Don Draper? He's a man who can't face Tomorrowland—a man who talks of the future but longs for the past, trying always to heal that "old wound."
Of course, Season Four is not all about Don. Pete continues to grow up (mostly), Roger gets his usual trove of fantastic one-liners ("I would never buy a sailboat. I don't want to do things myself."), and Lane gets beaten up by his aging father for dating an African American Playboy bunny. However, it's the women who really shine in these episodes (despite the heavy-handed way the writers call attention to that focus in "Beautiful Girls"). In addition to the importance of Faye as a new character and new model of female professional success, we see Peggy become even more surefooted as a copy writer, landing accounts, demanding credit for her work, and managing other employees. She's also our guide to the budding '60s counterculture, making friends with the stylish lesbian Joyce and her subversive pals (I was personally grateful to see a lesbian character who wasn't abject and pathetic). While Peggy gets more respect at work, Joan gets less, with the jerks who work there deriding her and drawing obscene cartoons to tease her with. When Peggy tries to stick up for her by firing her bully in "The Summer Man," Joan rejects any spirit of camaraderie between them: "All you've done is prove to them that I'm a meaningless secretary and you're another humorless bitch." Peggy is stunned by her response, but we shouldn't be; the series is revealing the painful reality that in this kind of male-dominated work environment, women are often pushed into becoming adversaries rather than allies. Luckily, we get a lovely truce later when the two have a gossip session about Don's surprise engagement:
Joan: "Well, I learned a long time ago to not get all my satisfaction
from this job."
Last but not least, I can't fail to share my utter delight in the arrival of Miss Ida Blankenship, Don's "punishment" and secretary, after he sleeps with Allison and she quits. She's only around for a few episodes before her unseemly demise, but got off some killer lines before she croaked. Let's count down the top five lines from Ida Blankenship, "the queen of perversions":
5. Loudly, as Don leaves his office: "Are you going to the
Roger and Bert give her the perfect dual eulogies with their statements about her after her death—uproarious, with Roger's deadpan wit, and poignant, with Bert's somber thoughtfulness. Respectively, they say, "She died like she lived: surrounded by the people she answered phones for," and "She was born in 1898 in a barn; she died on the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper. She's an astronaut."
Consistent with previous Mad Men releases on Blu-Ray, these discs are stunning in their presentation of Season Four. Menu designs are sleek and fun: gorgeous photos of the cast, colorizing over the course of three discs, are accompanied by the sound effects of a cigarette lighter or ice cubes clinking in a glass when we navigate. Image quality is top-notch, like the images themselves in this beautiful world of 1960s design. Colors are rich (though the show's palette, appropriately, is not too vibrant), lines are crisp, and my enjoyment of the lush visuals was undisturbed by compression artifacts or other flaws. The show's sound work is subtle rather than showy, but the DTS HD Master Audio track renders it well—even if the jaunty new-office score played a few too many times in these thirteen episodes.
Extras are generous and polished, as always, with Mad Men. They start with a whopping twenty-five commentary tracks—two for almost every episode. A wide variety of folks, from both behind and in front of the camera, come in to do the tracks (listed individually with the episodes above). Though few who purchase this set will listen to all twenty-five, the quantity means there's really something for everybody: ponderous analysis of the characters and themes with series creator Matthew Weiner and the writers, info on the production details from the composer and costume designer, or fun and laid-back sessions with the cast (even its youngest members, like Kiernan Shipka).
Backing up these tracks are a number of featurettes. "The Mustang: An American Icon" (28 minutes, Disc One) provides an in-depth look at the design and marketing of this classic '60s car. "Divorce: Circa 1960s" (78 minutes, Disc Two) is a fascinating and well-made three-part series that gives viewers a rich cultural and historical background for one of the season's key plot points: Don and Betty's divorce. The makers of this featurette bring in some great interviewees—mostly professors of history, sociology, and law—to tell us about the inherent sexism of the process at that time; the aftermath of a '60s divorce for wives, husbands and kids; and the strange phenomenon of quickie divorces in places like Nevada (where Betty gets hers). "1964 Presidential Campaign" (31 minutes, Disc Three) provides a nice trove of archival footage—speeches, commercials, Johnson's inauguration—from the title campaign, though it should be noted that the election happens between Seasons Three and Four and plays hardly any overt role in this set's episodes. The one dud of the extras is "How to Succeed in Business Draper Style" (56 minutes, Disc Three), whose premise is that business CEOs will explain why Don is such a brilliant ad man. Perhaps trying to explain that in Season Four—when he is not a brilliant ad man—was just too tough, because what we get instead is just business folks spouting out endless clichés about their trade with Mad Men clips interspersed. As an example of how laughable these are when applied to Season Four's Don, one interviewee says: "Self awareness plus self control is the key to effective leadership practice." I would have been interested to see some actual in-depth analysis of Don's career, SCDP, and the accuracy of the show from folks in the ad game themselves, but that's not at all what this featurette delivers. The one thing "How to Succeed" does reveal, inadvertently, is the strength of Mad Men's feat in making characters in the same field as these people seem compelling.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Mad Men writers are some lucky bastards, because even when they screw something up it usually works out all right. The potential screwup this season was "The Summer Man," an episode that sought out to take a penetrating look at Don's psyche, self-perception, and the way he sees the world. The result is an embarrassing voiceover from Don's journal that smothers the episode with banal wisdom. When I first saw this episode, I was shocked and disappointed: what fools, I thought, plunging us into this enigmatic protagonist's head just to reveal that he's all surface and no original substance! When the voiceover never returned and Don eventually threw out his journal pages, I thought I'd just been slow on the uptake. "Ohhhhh," I realized: "The Summer Man" was actually a bold and risky, but self-aware, move to deepen Don's character, to show us his limitations as a good ad man but hardly a great philosopher. In that interpretation, the episode really worked in the long term even though it was painful in the short term.
Then I listened to a bit of Matthew Weiner's commentary track on that episode and heard him selling the voiceover as actually thoughtful and earnest. He'd pieced it together from an old family friend's journal from that era, some new writing for the show, and pieces from his own journal. Yikes. Luckily, as we Humanities folk know so well, it's not all about the author's intentions. "The Summer Man" works despite, not because of, the writers' goals. I felt the same sense—though less strongly—listening to Weiner's commentary track for "Tomorrowland," in which he seems to imply that marrying Megan is a positive way for Don to move forward, not backward.
When Don suddenly ends things with Faye and tells her he's getting married, she lets fly a cutting remark that reveals just how well she does know him: "Well, I hope you're very happy, and I hope she knows that you only like the beginnings of things." I'm waiting anxiously to see if she's right and whether the new Mrs. Draper will end up as unhappy as the first. Even if Don does best at "the beginnings of things," Mad Men doesn't share that flaw: ending its fourth season, it's as strong a series as it's ever been.
Not guilty. Mad Men is the cure for the common TV show. Or was it "the cure for the common chair"?
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Episode Commentaries
Review content copyright © 2011 Jennifer Malkowski; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.