Mad Men Season 4: In Which There Is No Fresh Start

Mad Men Season 4: In Which There Is No Fresh Start

Just because she speaks French does not mean she will let you cheat on her.

The man in the gray flannel suit.

Perich: Has this season felt slow to anyone else?

Most of the plot points have revolved around the consequences of last season’s actions. Betty coming to terms with her divorce; the SCDP crew adapting to life in a smaller firm; Don shedding the last vestiges of his identity. In terms of actual motion forward, we haven’t seen much. There’s certainly been a lot of character growth – Pete coming into his own, Peggy becoming more sexually confident, Don crying – but not a lot of plot points.

I say this not as a complaint but as a seed for thought. I still contend that Mad Men is the best thing currently on television. But there hasn’t been much plot this season. Could this herald a new trend of intense, well-crafted character dramas with ensemble casts? Or does it mean that you can sell soap opera to anyone, provided the cinematography’s good and the suits are nice?

Belinkie: Actually, I felt the exact opposite way. Last season seemed slow to me. I admired Mad Men and enjoyed it a lot of the time, but it seemed to be treading water. One of the big stories was Don’s flirtation with the mysterious Conrad Hilton… which went precisely nowhere. There was the office politics about Sterling Cooper’s new British overlords, which I just couldn’t get swept up in. The big bombshell was Betty finding out the truth about her husband, and that just seemed very pre-ordained. She felt betrayed and wanted a divorce… no duh.

You mention that the plot points of this season all stem from the actions of last season. I agree – last season was laying the boring groundwork for this season, which I think is the series’ best so far. Seeing Don Draper dealing with single life is great. Seeing the Mad Men struggle to keep their fledgling agency afloat is great. And the flashback episode that showed how Don broke into the ad game was freaking genius.

I guess this shirt is going to be valuable now. So long, Burt.

Perich: If the past seasons have been about breaking out of preconceived notions of what your life is supposed to be, S4 has been about defining what’s next. So much of growing up is rebellion: breaking away from the past. But after the dust settles and the battle’s won, we still have to wake up and go to work every day. Do we make a new life for ourselves? Do we fall back into old habits? Who is this new identity that we’re discovering?

With Peggy and Pete, the change seems natural, because they’re very young themselves. They’re in that phase when they should be forging an adult identity. Pete has lost his father (S2) and he still wants to take advantage of the ties that wealth and connection allow him (S3, S4). But he’s defining himself through his work. And not just by having a lucrative job that will provide for his family – note how he turns down that offer from Chaough. He likes being a partner. He takes enough pride in it to call Roger out on being lazy.  He also takes enough pride in it to gloat when Ken shows up. So it’s not all admirable, but it’s character.

How bad can a birthday be if you wake up next to Don Draper? Okay, he's a little covered in vomit. Still, happy birthday.

Peggy is already defining herself as a “career woman” as S4 kicks off. Now it’s just a question of living with the consequences of that choice. She’s forced to confront that choice directly, and memorably, in “The Suitcase” – choosing between a birthday dinner with her boyfriend and staying in the office. She also has to choose between a conventional romantic life (courtship, engagement, marriage, kids) and the bohemian life of 60s Greenwich Village hipsters.  The process of discovery has been rocky for her, but she’s stayed true to what she wants throughout.

The change has been dramatic for Don because Don is, notionally, an adult. And yet he never really had a childhood, not a pleasant one anyway, and what little he had he wants to repress. Free of Betty and his children, he has the opportunity to date around. Women present themselves to him: his secretary Allison, his fetching neighbor, the actress Bethany van Nuys, Dr. Faye, his new secretary Megan. It’s an adolescent fantasy: rich, single, living on your own in the big city. And yet we see how hollow it is. The dingy apartment, the drunken one-night stands, the lost contact with his children.

Don gets a clean break with his past when Anna dies.  With her gone, he’s free to be whoever he says he is. And, as the final episode showed us, Don is happy being the man he was before. Don Draper is the type of man (as predicted by Dr. Faye) who marries his secretary. Or the model on his photoshoot. And yet he hasn’t remained completely inert. He’s drinking less. He respects Peggy and Pete more.  He’s growing a little more wary of Roger – the man’s a friend, but he’s also a mirror that shows the future. And he’s come to terms (for now) with Betty.

Belinkie: I kind of worry that Mad Men bobbled the dismount after a stellar season.

  1. If Miss Blankenship had lived, this never would have happened.

    Don marrying his secretary is clearly SUPPOSED to be disappointing, and the viewers are supposed to groan in horror along with every single character on the show. But I’m wondering, are we really excited to see how that plays out over next season? Megan seems a lot less interesting than Faye, and I have to imagine marrying his secretary doesn’t work out any better for Don than it did for Roger. It just seems like Don’s disillusionment with her is preordained, and won’t be very exciting to watch. I’m sure the writers will surprise us, but I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to see Megan trying to be a copywriter and Peggy being frustrated with her. Meh, I say.

  2. Sally’s first boyfriend had kind of a tame exit. This is the kid who announced his attraction to her by breaking into her house and vandalizing her kitchen. And we know that Sally’s got certain fledgling, um, urges. I’m not saying I wanted them to run away together and have sex in a park somewhere. But for two unstable kids, they seemed to take Betty’s attempts to keep them apart pretty meekly. Sally doesn’t try to sneak out to meet him again? Neither of them go for a first kiss? Think of it this way: Sally doesn’t have a single scene with Betty in the finale. Considering the fireworks between them this season, I find that disappointing.
  3. Soon to be even curvier, somehow.

    Joan is indeed still pregnant, as was speculated on throughout the internet. Friend-of-the-site Amanda Marcotte has been blogging about Mad Men, and she was hoping this wasn’t true, largely because women on TV always seem to consider abortion but then decide against it. I don’t love it because I think Joan being pregnant with Roger’s baby is too soap opera, not to mention an echo of what happened with Pete and Peggy. It’s another plotline I’m not looking forward to.

  4. Finally, this episode didn’t carry through on the exciting promise of the last episode. Don’s letter was a bold move that appropriated some counterculture mojo to rebrand them as cool and cutting edge. I expected it to lead to some big new clients, or at least small new clients who wanted something new. But it’s been weeks since they lost Lucky Strikes, and so far the letter hasn’t worked its magic. Sure, they got Cancer, but that was kind of obvious. If the letter was indeed an advertisement for SCDP, it doesn’t seem to have impressed anybody. The new account Peggy nabbed in this episode was nabbed the old-fashioned way. I still think SCDP may get with the times and start producing stuff that’s edgy before long, but the finale certainly didn’t point in that direction.

But on the other hand, this episode was definitely a shocker. I won’t speak for everyone on the internet, but I certainly didn’t see Don’s engagement coming (and certainly not to THAT girl). So any worries about the direction Mad Men is going are probably unfounded; Mad Men never goes where you expect it to.

... but as a lovely parting gift, you get two tickets to the Golden Globes!

Perich: Okay, to take your points in order…

  1. I like your disappointment with Megan more than the disappointment the AVClub Commenters have with Megan. Then again, I like our commenters better than the AVClub’s commenters anyway. That being said, Don’s (hypothetical) marriage to Dr. Faye was more likely to end unhappily than Don’s (until-last-week-hypothetical) marriage to Megan. Faye kept challenging him. She kept prodding him to revisit his past and confront the things that bothered him. And Don can’t marry someone like that. Don’s wife has to be Mrs. Donald Draper – beautiful, warm, supportive, a good mother and with that occasional hint of cleverness that keeps him entertained. Earlier this season, Don was presented with a choice between Faye and Bethany. Megan is the synthesis of those two – young, attractive, compassionate, smart and not quite predictable. Don’s always hedged his bets until the last possible second. Megan is the natural outgrowth of that tendency.
  2. You’re right that Betty and Sally not having a scene together was a missed opportunity. Part of that, I fear, comes from Matthew Weiner wanting to give the moral for Betty – “Just because you’re unhappy doesn’t mean everyone else has to be!” – to his son, the actor who plays Glen. But if we take it as deliberate, it’s part of the same Betty-as-child arc that’s been playing out this whole season.  Betty sleeps in Sally’s room while Sally’s in California. Betty and Sally can’t confront each other because Betty can’t take that direct of a look at herself.
  3. It is a little soap opera. Amanda’s point is apt. One of the easiest ways to inject drama on a TV serial is to add a pregnancy or a cancer diagnosis. All right – nine months of B plot!  That being said, I think this is about as pro-choice a storyline as the More Sixties Than The Sixties Mad Men will give us. Joan had the option to get an abortion. She chose not to go through with it.  She’s been portrayed since S2 as desiring the typical paths of a female career – marry well, have a family – so this decision is at least consistent. If a little backward. But if S5 contains a scene of Dr. Rapist shaking Joan by the shoulders and yelling, “AM I THE FATHER?” and Joan running away in tears, I’ll be sorely disappointed.
  4. Would you have been happy with a white knight riding in and saving SCDP? The big speculation, given that we’ve all known this episode was called “Tomorrowland” for months, was that SCDP would land Disney. That would have been exciting, sure, but it would also have been highly atypical of the show. When Draper landed Hilton for Sterling Cooper, that was more of a feather in Don’s cap than a sea change for the agency. It also introduced as many complications as it did rewards: Don’s odd hours, Don having to sign a contract, Don’s father issues. I’m happy with this because it puts our protagonists’ backs against the wall. What hope there is comes in small doses – a quarter-million in billings won’t save the ship, but it “broke the streak.” I expect we’ll see an even smaller workforce next season and a continuing struggle for new business. Which is fine. If SCDP isn’t The Little House that Lucky Strike Built, then who are they?  That’s the question everyone’s asked in S4.

Belinkie: Okay, lots of conversations going on at once. Let’s talk about the ad business first. Don’s letter in the penultimate episode reminded me of a book I read in college, The Conquest of Cool. The author, Thomas Frank, talks a lot about how the advertising business managed to appropriate a lot of the counterculture to sell sneakers and blue jeans. Think about the famous “I’d Live to Buy the World A Coke” ad, from 1971. A group of multiracial young people frolic on a hillside while singing (and I swear these are the real lyrics):

I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,
Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves.
I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,
I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.

This is two years after Woodstock. Madison Avenue works fast. You can see the connection to Draper’s letter. He’s taking the language of youth and rebellion, and making it a business strategy. He’s PRETENDING to be something heartfelt and genuine, when he’s really cynical and calculating. He’s ahead of his time.

But the finale gives no indication that his “Conquest of Cool” strategy is going to work. The account Peggy lands doesn’t want a way to appeal to her bohemian friends – the ideas she pitches to the pantyhose company seem cutesy and quaint. You asked if I wanted a white knight to save SCDP with a giant account. No, I wouldn’t say that. What I did want was some indication that Don’s letter hit a nerve and pointed them in a new direction. I wanted one small new account, but the kind of account that the old SCDP would never have landed. I wanted a sense that the advertising game was starting to change. I’m sure it’ll come next season, but that was absent from the finale.

Perich: Is there really a youth culture yet? Do the youth know enough to know they’re a market force? I get the vague impression that, in 1965, there were a lot of parties in Greenwich Village lofts and angry nerds writing manifestos for the Voice and their local equivalent. But we’re just witnessing the beginnings of a movement. Don comments on the “Berklee thing” when he hangs out with Anna’s young friend in California (Episode 3). I think we have to wait until the U.S.’s Vietnam presence escalates for this to become more prominent.

The biggest signs we saw of the ad game changing were Bert Cooper retiring in a huff (“You there! Get my shoes!”) and Roger Sterling being shuffled quietly to the side. Out with the old, in (eventually) with the new.

Goodnight lamp.

8 Comments on “Mad Men Season 4: In Which There Is No Fresh Start”

  1. Katie #

    Oh, yes. I love the show but find that my feelings about one episode are usually mixed. But on rewatching the finale things began to feel more balanced– Megan was no longer quite so out of the blue, for example.
    I kept hoping Peggy would call someone on something: Harry for being a nasty skeezeball, or Don for marrying his secretary. But no, she just had the best-ever bitchfest with Joan. Those two (and Faye) could solve any mystery and it would be the best thing ever.
    After Ep. 12, I was on Roger-Suicide-Watch; but now I agree with you that he’s just going to hang around being useless or worse (but comic relief). People don’t change, and Roger hasn’t done an honest day’s work since he got out of the military.
    Also, poor Lane. His family seems to be back in New York, one further emphasis on the theme of “there is no such thing as a fresh start”. He had this American-dream for himself in New York– Rich, single, dating a playboy bunny! — and now he has his wife back, and he seems to think of her a shrew who’s just reminding him that London is always going to be better.


  2. Nick #

    I’m well aware that Mad Men doesn’t work this way and are always willing to drop well loved characters/actors, but I really hope that they don’t skip forward more than a year simply on the basis that if they keep skipping ahead they’re going to get too far forward for Kiernan Shipka to keep playing Sally. And that would be a shame because that girl is fantastic.


  3. Kit O'Connell #

    Thanks for this writeup. I have to be a movie nerd and point out that Lane and Don actually appear to be watching the original Gamera movie in that episode, not Godzilla. Your comments covered a lot of my thinking on the series, and I enjoyed reading them. For the most part, I have faith in Weiner and company to wow me next season as they di in this one.


    • Kimbo Jones #

      You are right, sir, it was totally Gamera The Invincible. As far as Japanese monster movies go, it’s actually pretty good.


      • Kit O'Connell #

        Gamera is really neat! Gamera is turtle meat! We believe in Gamera!


  4. sherwood #

    I think you missed the point of this season- and I think it is a bridge period- meaning the results of past actions and the beginnings of the next. There was great stuff on women and all the actresses, including Sally, had fascinating developments in their characters that drove the plot.
    I look forward to the next season and hope that Kiernan Shipka is back as Sally. That kid deserves an Emmy!
    As to Don getting attached to Megan- look at the scene in the diner for a clue. She shows that she, Megan, is going to be the next woman to watch. She is a liberator for Don and the children. Perhaps there will be a move to California in the future, as well.


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