Mad Men Season Four Review

Am I the only one who thinks Don Draper made the right choice? As Chuck Klosterman tweeted the day after Mad Men’s Season Four finale: “There’s always social pressure to disagree with Don Draper’s personal decisions.” This is oddly true in a way that’s not true of other television protagonists. In a television landscape that is littered with antiheroes, including serial killers, drug dealers, and mob bosses, Don seems to anger the audience the most for, basically, being a bad husband.

It is true that Don can be a rather lousy significant other—even during a season in which he wasn’t married he somehow managed to find a way to cheat, spurning Dr. Faye Miller, his primary love interest this season, to propose to his secretary in Sunday’s finale. This choice angered many fans, since Faye had become such a popular character and, well, we don’t know all that much about Megan the secretary (as Roger says when Don announced the news, “Who the heck is that?”).

And yet this choice is a great illustration of all the things Season Four did right.  Unlike Season Three, a disappointingly boring and uninteresting season that hardly threw any surprises at the audience until the finale, Season Four was full of surprising revelations that actually advanced the characters and the story. And while Don’s decision was a shock, it wasn’t at all out of character. Don has been known to do rash things before, like asking Rachel Menken to run away with him in Season One, or taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times on a whim a week ago. But this is the first time that one of Don’s impetuous decisions has actually led to a commitment, as opposed to something he could later pretend never happened.

So Don’s choice represented both a continuation of his character, and a stark departure for him. While I liked Faye, I feared that she was, like Betty before her, the sensible choice for Don. It may seem weird to compare Faye and Betty—basically the only thing the two have in common is hair color—but they both seemed to represent what was reasonable and expected of Don. Betty seemed to be the beautiful, docile trophy wife that someone of Don’s stature deserved. On the other hand, Faye was the safe choice for a different reason, because she was smart and sensible and so much like Don and, now that Faye had been fired by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, uncomplicated. It would have been good for a while, but is there any doubt that a marriage to Faye would have had Don cheating again by Season Five?

On the other hand, Megan represents someone new—a message that was hammered home in the season finale, plainly titled “Tomorrowland.” Unlike Betty, she is ambitious and mature (and she doesn’t flip out over milkshakes, like some people), but unlike Faye, she is good with Don’s kids. She represents someone with whom Don would not have to divide his life in two like he has throughout the series. He won’t need to hide his real self from his family (as was indicated by Don’s willingness to tell his kids who “Dick” was) or keep his personal life guarded at work (note Don’s eagerness to tell the office about the engagement). Indeed, Don was even somewhat honest about his past, correcting himself when he first told Megan that the engagement ring came from his family. In this sense, Don’s marriage to her is not just another instance of a man marrying his secretary (as Joan called it later in the episode), but a rare instance in which Don seems to actually be looking for something that is both stable and real.

This kind of storytelling, the kind that draws on the deep well of knowledge we have about these characters while also moving forward in new and interesting ways, is the kind that made Season Four such a refreshing rebound from last year’s disappointment. Whereas Season Three was, basically, twelve episodes of running in place followed by one thrilling finale, Season Four included something great in almost every episode.* Whether the episode focused on something that was more or less new, like Don’s friendship with Lane (“The Good News”), something that we’d glimpsed at occasionally throughout the show’s run, like Pete’s relationship with his father-in-law (“The Rejected”), or something that has been the cornerstone of the show, like Don’s relationship with Peggy (“The Suitcase”), the stories functioned both as interesting vignettes and as added layers to the larger Mad Men world.**

*Oddly, this has led to a lot of people to compare “Tomorrowland” unfavorably to lat year’s “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” It is true that last year’s finale had more excitement than this year’s, but that’s what happens when you save a season’s worth of stories for one episode.

**Compare this, for example, to typical episodes from last season, which often settled for one of the other (sometimes accomplishing neither). An episode like “The Gypsy and the Hobo,” where Don was forced to confess his past to his wife, was a thrilling hour of television, but ultimately didn’t go anywhere—they broke up in the next episode for pretty much unrelated reasons. On the other hand, an episode like “The Fog” introduced Don and Betty’s newest child—who became important to their marriage as well as Sally’s story—but was pretty boring to watch.

All of these layers make me just as excited for the possibilities going into Season Five as I was going into Season Four. There are still questions surrounding the survival of SCDP—the new account Peggy brought in during the finale was only 1/100th the size of Lucky Strike—and now there are as many questions about Don’s family as there were last year as well. And this, of course, is omitting the questions around Joan and Roger’s baby, Pete’s financial and family situation, Lane’s personal life, and Peggy’s future role in the firm (also, IS ANYONE GOING TO GIVE CARLA THAT RECOMMENDATION?). Season Four, then, has left me excited for Season Five, and it didn’t have to drag its feet for a year to get there.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Elizabeth on October 19, 2010 at 2:28 PM

    “In a television landscape that is littered with antiheroes, including serial killers, drug dealers, and mob bosses, Don seems to anger the audience the most for, basically, being a bad husband.”

    Alright, yes, you could say that. But the fact that Dexter, Walter White and Tony Soprano are (arguably) viewed more favorably than Don does make sense. These hobbies/careers were all built into the framework of those characters. They do terrible things on a daily basis. It’s part of how they live their lives. Therefore, the focus becomes more on the redeeming qualities of those characters, and that’s the lens through which we view their actions. We take for granted that they are people who do Bad Things, and that just makes it more gratifying when they do good things, or when they exhibit admirable character traits.

    Don, on the other hand, has it SO EASY. It’s almost as though we judge Don more harshly BECAUSE we live in an age with all these other characters. He doesn’t have to kill people either because he has a “dark passenger” or in order to get what he wants, he’s not dying, and he doesn’t appear to have a burning desire to become a drug dealer. All Don has to do to overcome his own personal demons is not sleep around. And he CAN’T DO IT.

    Because we as an audience don’t view the show within the larger framework of being about a serial killer, a drug dealer or a mob boss, we have more realistic expectations for Don. And because he repeatedly fails to live up to expectations that are so much simpler than what it would take for other characters to become “good people”, we view him as being a worse person.

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on October 19, 2010 at 4:14 PM

      For the most part, I think you’re correct. As opposed to a Bad Guy who sometimes does Good Things, Don is presented as a Good Guy who does Bad Things, which makes the audience more frustrated when he does them. And yes that’s a function of the storytelling, but I also think it represents a weird standard of morality. I mean, we don’t just take for granted that Dexter or Walter White kills people, we actively root for them to do so. And yet when Don commits a much more mundane sin, people get super offended.

      Of course, another reason for the difference is probably that a much higher percentage of Mad Men’s audience is women, who are undoubtedly offended on a personal level by his infidelity.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Matt on October 19, 2010 at 9:59 PM

    Great write-up!

    Season three was good; but you qualified your comments well.

    One more question: who will Don sleep with next?

    Reply

  3. So was this whole season one big set-up for a “Don Draper gets his legs broken and his secret outed by an angry Mr Miller” plot-line in season 5? It’s been established that Faye’s father has strong mob ties…

    I don’t doubt it was the right choice for Don to marry Megan — at least, it wasn’t out of character — but I question springing this on the audience in the last episode. It certainly managed to keep the show surprising, but proposing on the third date — hell, on the third screw — felt like more tenuous a connection than Sally had with Grandpa Gene. At least they shared an intimate moment over ice cream.

    And, for all the show’s attention to detail, somehow I sincerely doubt that there were direct connections between home phones in New York and military bases in Vietnam in 1965; nevertheless, what’s Dr Harris gonna do when that baby is born with white hair?

    Reply

  4. [...] Men‘s fourth season, which John S reviewed this week, concluded last Sunday, and Vulture featured a series of interviews with the show’s cast and [...]

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