Mad Men Season Three Review

Mad Men Guy Walks

Warning: This review contains spoilers….obvs.

Well, let’s begin at the end: The Mad Men season finale was excellent. Practically every scene had something important, and every plot twist, even the ones you could see coming like Roger recruiting Joan to the new agency, was welcome.

Most great finales are the ones that shake things up, and this one did exactly that. Once news got out that PPL had been sold, and Sterling Cooper with it, Lane Pryce “fired” Don, Roger and Bert so they were free to start their own agency. As a result, much of the episode involved recruiting others to the new company. Many of these recruitments took the form of confrontations that were long overdue: Pete’s worries about his place in the company, Peggy’s about her relationship with Don, Roger’s about how expendable Don now views him. All of these scenes allowed characters to hash out things that had burdened their relationships for a long time, extending back into Season One. And all of them were executed well.

What may have been the most interesting thing of the finale, though, was what it had the potential to set up. With Roger, Bert, Don, Lane, Joan, Pete, Peggy, and Harry all working together—and in the close confines of a hotel room—in a new, upstart agency, the show can integrate the business aspect of the show in a totally fresh way next year.* And while it worked very well in this instance, this is not necessarily the best strategy to pursue in a finale.

*In some ways, this parallels the Friday Night Lights Season Three finale, in which Coach Taylor was fired by a team fresh off an appearance in State, and relegated to coaching the high school equivalent of an expansion team.

Ideally, a finale, either for a series or a season, feels like a fitting conclusion to a specific arc. It can also be the beginning of a new one, but it should primarily feel like a climax. Mad Men has generally been great at this. In Season One, Don’s pitch about The Wheel was a perfect glimpse into his feelings about his private life. In Season Two, his willingness to walk out on Duck, (capped with the great line, “I sell products, not advertising”) contrasted with his willingness to apologize to Betty, showed him balancing his independence with a rare ability to commit. Season Three, though, had no real arc, and thus had no sense of conclusion with its finale. Instead, the finale was putting the pieces in place for the future. 

And really, that was the major flaw of this season of Mad Men. Far too much of the storytelling this year felt like it was putting pieces in place for some grand moment that never really came. A month into this season I said that the first five episodes had felt like a prologue. While there were a few great moments after that, particularly the stunning episode “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency,” the season never really got past that point.

The biggest reason for this problem was that so many of the stories and relationships seemed rushed through and underdeveloped. The relationship between Sally and Grandpa Gene, for example, was developed in an episode and half, and yet the show relied on this bond for several emotional moments with Sally throughout the season. “Oh yeah,” we were supposed to think, “Sally liked Gene because they once ate ice cream together.”

This was a relatively small part of the story, but it was symptomatic of a larger problem. The pregnancy storyline, which was ostensibly a huge part of the season and, according to Matthew Weiner, one of the reasons for starting the story when he did, was rushed through unrealistically quickly. The story was the centerpiece of the fifth episode, but after that, the baby was hardly ever heard from again, unless the baby needed to cry at strategically emotional moments.

Now, I’m no childcare expert, but from what I know, babies take up a lot of time. Having a baby is a pretty defining part of your life for the next few months. You can’t just put it in the corner while you pursue adultery storylines and trips to Italy.*

*It’s not impossible to buy both Don and Betty as absentee parents. Nevertheless, Season Two ended pointing towards the repercussions of the baby on their marriage. Season Three began with it as a primary focus, and returned to it at convenient moments. But it was an afterthought of about 85% of the season, which makes any emotional impact of the birth or the strategically placed crying minimal.

Certainly the worst example of these rushed through, underdeveloped storylines (although there were plenty: the Ken/Pete rivalry, Peggy and her roommate, etc.) was Betty’s “relationship” with Henry Francis. We first met Henry (as did Betty) in episode 3, when he briefly hit on her at a party. Then he returned in episode 7 to flirt with her. By episode 9, they were pen pals considering having sex in his office, and in episode 12 he wanted to marry her. They share a screen for approximately 30 minutes during the whole year (and there is no indication that they’ve had a relationship beyond what we’ve seen), and now Betty is ready to leave Don and start a new life with Henry. I have absolutely no idea what either of them sees in this relationship.

Henry is even worse than all of Don’s more or less interchangeable conquests: With them, we at least see moments of connection and chemistry, plus secrecy and romance, as opposed to just assertive declarations of intentions followed by elopement.

What this storyline brings to mind, as do most of Mad Men’s bad storylines (and even a lot of its good ones), are bad episodes of The Sopranos. Matthew Weiner worked on The Sopranos for three seasons, and it’s no accident that the shows are so thematically similar; Mad Men is really just The Sopranos in suits. And the Henry Francis storyline felt like those episodes of The Sopranos in which Carmela flirts with and lusts after Furio, before finally getting fed up with her husband’s lies and infidelities and telling Tony to move out. Sound familiar? And those are really the worst episodes of The Sopranos.

The Henry storyline was really just a subset of the larger disappointing story that was the soap opera surrounding Don and Betty’s marriage. Season Two handled the problems of this marriage beautifully. The emotional moments were earned, the plot turned suddenly but inevitably, the characters had to deal with real fallout and risk. This year, though, nothing really changed in the marriage. Don wants to be a good husband, but still keeps this distance between himself and his wife—a distance he fills with other women. Betty doesn’t understand why Don won’t be more open with her, and assumes it can only be because he doesn’t love her. But all of that was clear by the end of last season. Instead, this season sought to retell what we already know by having each of them pursue an affair with an essentially inert character who was basically only there to be an Other.

Briefly, it looked like the marriage plotline was going to pay off and go somewhere new and interesting when Betty discovered the truth about Don’s past. The scene in which Don confessed about who he was and the lies he’s lived were brilliant: January Jones and Jon Hamm took these moments to new heights.

The Gypsy and the hoboThis seemed like a huge turning point for the show. Don’s secret has been in danger before—most memorably when Peter blackmailed him in Season One—but nobody has ever been told the full truth, and it was particularly important to see Don himself tell it. Once this lie had been removed from his marriage, we could finally see if Don could be totally open with someone who knew the real him. For Betty’s part, she seemed to accept Don’s vulnerability. “The Gypsy and the Hobo” ends with them appearing as a real family.

Unfortunately, this confession didn’t lead to anything interesting at all. By the next episode, Betty wanted a divorce once again. Her reasons had little to do with the confession—it was just one more in a long list of lies. Something like Don’s confession should have real ramifications; it shouldn’t just be brushed aside for a more convenient story.

Another drawback of all the time spent not going anywhere with Don and Betty’s marriage was that it took Don out of the Sterling Cooper office. The most interesting stories in Mad Men are generally office stories, in which Don has to interact with Pete, Roger, et. al. And while the Conrad Hilton story had its moments, and Don had some nice scenes where he berated Peggy, there was far too little of the intra-office dynamic. Even when the show spent time on characters like Pete and Peggy, it was often in regards to their personal lives. 

The Sterling Cooper office, however, is where the thematic elements of the show coalesce best. It’s no accident that the two “climax scenes” I highlighted initially were office scenes: This is where emotional subtext can bubble to the surface, and where personal and historical events are made sense of.

Every Mad Men season has reached its conclusion by dealing with a seminal historical event: Season One had the 1960 election, Season Two had the Cuban Missile Crisis and Season Three had the Kennedy Assassination. The first two seasons did this beautifully: the 1960 election represented the rivalry and duality of that season, both between Don and Pete and Don and Dick, while the Missile Crisis represented impending disaster that lurked in both Don’s private and professional life.

The Kennedy Assassination, however, had no real connection to any of the Season Three stories. Indeed, in contrast to the first two seasons, in which historical events coincided with personal confrontations, the world of Mad Men more or less stopped for the assassination. Characters sat around and watched TV. And while this made for some compelling visual moments, it had little resonance for the specific characters.

The reason for this is that this season failed to develop an arc that could connect to history. There were a ton of allusions to current events (Medgar Evers, the burning monk, Grandpa Gene’s declaration that “all hell’s gonna break loose,” etc.), but few of them had any complex connection to the story at large. In fact, any connection that was there was often ruined by a character flatly stating what it was (Mad Men tends to handle subtlety and symbolism like an anxious gift-giver too eager to tell you what he got you to let you open the wrapping paper).

mad men seven twenty three don draper dick whitmanMad Men has a tendency to do this—to give sly wink to the modern viewer who knows the historical outcome. This is largely a drawback. When the show relies on the dramatic irony of its chronology to make a point, it seems awfully stilted.

What the historical element of the show can bring, though, is an element of perspective. In Season One, for example, the show drew many parallels between Don and JFK. On the one hand, they had painted him as an antagonist for Don, the self-made man. When Pete asserts that he “deserves” a promotion, Don asks, “Why? Because your parents are rich? Because you went to prep school and have a $5.00 haircut?”

At the same time, though, when Bert, just a few seconds later, asks Pete “Who cares?” about Don’s past, Don is aligned with Kennedy. President Kennedy, a man with a criminal for a father and a questionable past, is a figure of the future, as is Don. This kind of complex identity parallel could have paid dividends this year had they teased these connections out, but the show instead chose to depict the assassination from an essentially objective, historical perspective.

When it’s at its best, the show is delving into contradictions—both the contradictions of personal character and the historical contradictions of a society’s self-identity. Season Three kind of dropped the ball on that. It was more or less a rehash of threads that had already been unspooled in the first two seasons.

At the same time, the show still had moments of excellence. The writing can be fast and funny, as well as emotional and provocative. The acting is the best on television right now, throughout the cast. And, as I said at the beginning, this week’s finale leaves me only excited for the next season and the possibilities for where it can go. Mad Men can take a mulligan on Season Three, and come back next year with a clean slate.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Rosie on November 16, 2009 at 6:20 PM

    “This year, though, nothing really changed in the marriage. Don wants to be a good husband, but still keeps this distance between himself and his wife—a distance he fills with other women. “

    Of course nothing changed. That was the point. Don and especially Betty thought that having a third child would finally change their marriage for the better. And the point of S3 was that it didn’t. And it helped bring about their breakup at the end of the season.

    Yes, I saw some flaws in S3. But I had also found flaws in S2 that bothered me. However, “MAD MEN” is still one of the best shows on the air right now.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Fish1941 on November 16, 2009 at 6:23 PM

    I think you need to rethink this article. Some of your complaints do not make any sense to me. For example:

    “The reason for this is that this season failed to develop an arc that could connect to history.”

    What exactly were you trying to say with this comment?

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on November 18, 2009 at 9:17 PM

      In each of the first two seasons, the historical event at the end of the season (the 1960 election, Cuban Missile Crisis) seemed to represent the perfect climax to a story in Don’s personal live that had been brewing all season. In Season One, the Nixon/Kennedy rivalry underscored the tension brewing between Don and Peter and, more significantly, the tension between Don Draper and his past as Dick Whitman. Like Kennedy, Don had a father of questionable character. Like Kennedy, Don lied and cheated to his job. But, like Kennedy, he was still really good at it.

      In season two, the Cuban Missile Crisis represented the threat of disaster that was hanging over Don’s marriage and Betty’s pregnancy. Like that event, the specific crisis was avoided, but the tensions weren’t so much as solved as brushed aside.

      I thought both of these payoffs were appropriately poignant, but I didn’t feel Season Three had any of that. Not enough had really been developed during the season for it to have a satisfying conclusion. Instead, the ending essentially wiped the slate clean.

      Reply

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