Brief thoughts on Mad Men Season 4
As the Siberian winds dump seemingly infinite amounts of snow on the UK, one tiny shard of light arrived in our living rooms at 10pm on Wednesday night. Alas, that too has now gone out, snuffed out by the cold wind of capitalism in the form of Rupert Murdoch; the last episode of Season Four of Mad Men, and, significantly, the last episode to go out on the BBC. No more uninterrupted, free-of-charge 1960s drama goodness for us. Instead, we will be forced to sign up to Sky Atlantic, and then to sit through ad breaks.
I suppose complaining about advertisements in a show set in an advertising firm is tantamount to irony. All the same, when it comes to watching such an elegant work of television as this without breaks, I fear we won’t know what we had ‘til it’s gone.
We, of course, are few in number; outside of TV critics, MM attracts a tiny audience. Quite why the Beeb never saw fit to reshow it on BBC 2 later in the week (or, to risk setting the cat firmly among the pigeons, just move it there in the first place) is anyone’s guess, but languishing in the rarified backwater that is BBC Four it was never going to pull millions of viewers.
Tonight’s episode was a fine example of why we happy few love Mad Men so.
The photography and editing is consistently brilliant and occasionally breathtaking. Delicate, filmic opening shots linger just long enough to make us uneasy, then cut to dialogue. Clever devices are employed throughout; having established the “Don goes swimming” motif over several minutes of a previous episode, it only takes five seconds of the same footage to snap us back to that moment and all its attendant meaning (not least that Don had, until now, spent more time standing around beside pools than swimming in them, not to mention the more obvious, somewhat belaboured, swimming-pool-as-baptismal-water metaphor). Not new or particularly clever, I suppose, but like everything else in Mad Men, exceptionally well executed.
The music’s got better this year, too; the painstaking chronological accuracy hamstrung the early series somewhat in terms of soundtrack, but as the 1960s progress on screen some pop gems come round on the clock. Whilst they couldn’t licence a track for the episode where Don took Sally to the Shea Stadium to see the Beatles, they did manage to get in the Rolling Stones and Sonny & Cher; it’s 1965 and the times they are a-changing, Peggy even went to see Dylan in Greenwich Village.
We’re used to this level of attention to detail from Victorian or Edwardian costume dramas, but mid-20th-century subject matter rarely gets such perfectionism. Everything from the pens, typewriters and desk lamps at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce through the immaculately crafted wardrobes of Draper, Sterling and Campbell is period-correct and fits together to create an understated authentictity, a profound soundness to the world in which we watch the narrative unfold.
Slick, beautifully crafted television with peerless attention to detail and effortless style it may be, but none of that matters as much as its ability to transcend the form and deliver compelling narrative. 52 episodes in, we still want to know who Don Draper is. To steal a Jay McInerneyism, both the viewer and Don are in a kind of “epistemological recession”; we know less now than we did before. Many of the things we thought we knew about Draper turned out to be fabrications, or else mistaken first impressions. The web of lies he has spun regarding his false identity (Draper is in fact Dick Whitman, but stole the identity of a dead man in a Korean War hospital to escape having to return to combat) is both the biggest deception and a symbol of all the other, smaller lies he has told. If we can’t believe even his name, do we know anything at all about this most mercurial of protagonists? Not only that but he is changing under our gaze as if under the influence of some sort of law of televisual quantum theory, becoming something different under the examination of the audience.
Don reached rock bottom somewhere around the moment he wiped the vomit off his shirt and fell asleep on Peggy in his office, and since then we’ve witnessed a miraculous transformation (or at least one that would be miraculous for most characters to undergo; how many characters, or shows, could take a character from kissing one character to proposing to another inside 40 minutes? When Don Draper does it, we just sigh knowingly and accept it!) He drinks less and cares more than he has done since somewhere in Season 2, and he just might be about to save SCDP into the bargain.
The denouement of the “Don gets better” arc, however, isn’t his proposal to Megan or his coming to the rescue of his apparently hapless SCDP partners so much as him finally acting like a father: cannonballing into the pool, tossing Bobby into the air, beginning to actually engage with Sally like a real human being. Hell, he was even civil to Betty. He’s sold both the Mrs Drapers’ houses, got engaged, suddenly we can see a new life ahead of Don. A rosy potential world just opened up, picket fence suburban bliss awaits. Is that Don’s style? Not until now, but New Don just might have a few surprises left in him. Is Megan just another girl fascinated by “the beginnings of things”, as Dr Miller put it? As tends to be the way with beginnings and endings, only time will tell.
Once again, everything that Don touches turns to gold. His Midas touch had deserted him earlier in the series, but true to form he is back to his best. The reversal between Don and Betty over the course of the season is stark, meticulously crafted over the course of the arc; the house, the happy relationship, the kids, all are Betty’s at curtain up and Don’s by the finale, brought into sharp relief by a particularly lovely cut between Betty alone in the spare room and Don engaging in pillow talk with Megan.
For all that “Tomorrowland” was a great slice of televisual delight, it also exhibited the flaws that Season 4 as a whole demonstrates: Roger Sterling has been reduced to a figure of fun, a court jester capering about in front of Don, prone to outbursts and rash behaviour but with no justification, no context any more. Post-Lucky Strike, he doesn’t have any accounts either, and one can’t help but wonder about his future in the show. Tonight’s storyline about Don marrying Megan only served to remind us that Roger married *his* secretary and promptly disappeared from view. Bert Cooper began this slide long ago, and we’re left wondering why he’s still here; perhaps next season he won’t be. More significantly, I can’t help but wonder how much longer we can be kept in suspense over Don; we’re in danger of seeing him make the same mistakes yet again and, rather than it seeming tragic, it just becoming tedious instead.
Those minor flies in the ointment aside, Mad Men is still the best thing on TV today by some distance. Roll on Season 5, even if I have to line the gilded pockets of BSkyB to watch it…*shudder* As we left Don, he was staring out of the window of his bachelor pad apartment, Megan sleeping on his chest. Yet another artfully lit shot, laden with more questions than answers. What is he looking at? What is he looking for? Does he think he’s found it yet? Come back soon, Don Draper.