Here we go: The phenomenal fourth season of Mad Men is about to begin. Things are radically different, but somehow familiar at the same time. The biggest casting change is the set: The old Sterling Cooper floor plan—offices around the perimeter, secretaries in the middle—has been replaced by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's tighter, more modern work environment. It's probably one that's more similar to the kind of office some of you work in now. And that's because the show is evolving at roughly the same rate as we are. It's 1964, and by the end of Episode 3 it will be 1965. Beatles LPs! Mini skirts! Psychedelic vortex art that sucks you right in! Can the sexual revolution be far behind?
Season 4, Episode 1: "Public Relations"
The start of Season 4 was nothing short of exhilarating. The show needed something drastic to happen after the bleak tail end of Season 3. And so we skip ahead a year, to when the new offices—cramped but brimming with creative energy—are in full swing. The walls are glass and the rooms are open, and accordingly, there’s a new sense of transparency at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Bert can no longer cocoon himself up in his Japanese sanctuary. Don is taken to task for keeping secrets from the press. Roger is even writing his memoirs. It’s as if the shutters have been opened and the sunlight has come streaming into the show. Hello, 1964.
The season begins with the question that hangs over the entire series (“Who is Don Draper?”), this time posed by an Ad Age reporter, who's profiling Don over a gimmicky floor wax ad that has garnered a lot of attention. All he gets in response is wall of icy inscrutability. No one has changed more between Season 3 and Season 4 than Don Draper, and it’s Don who seems the least aware of that fact. His old, aloof shtick is no longer going to cut it, not when a fledgling agency looking to grow needs to crow about its notable achievements. Outside of the office, Don has now had a while to adjust to single life, and has been occupying a sad little flat in Greenwich Village. There’s a new lady in his world, Celia the housekeeper, who pushes pork chops on him and nags him for not eating. He responds by snipping back at her about leaving his stuff where she found it.
Bachelorhood, it seems, is not sitting well on our hero, and chasing tail just isn’t what it used to be when there’s nothing dangerous or forbidden about it. Which doesn’t mean he’s not up for trying: Roger sets Don up on a blind date with a friend of Jane’s named Bethany. The actress and non-singing opera extra is pretty, smart, and enchanting... and not easy. “We’ll see where we are on New Year’s Eve. If it’s meant to be, it will keep,” she says, offering him what she calls a “soft no.” The look on Don’s face as he pulls away, alone, in his cab says it all: He’s not getting any younger, this isn’t getting any easier, and it’s most definitely not getting any funner. It’s almost as if he’s having trouble feeling anything at all anymore—which is perhaps why he now finds comfort in the company of a hooker, who he pays to slap him in the face during sex. Having bled the rock dry in the womanizing department, the great Draper must now find new, exciting ways to objectify women and explore his own self-loathing. It’s counter-intuitive to see him get smacked around, and yet it all makes perfect sense.
Betty and Henry have married, meanwhile, and Betty has grown during the hiatus from garden-variety awful mother to full-fledged monster. Her evil is on full display at Thanksgiving dinner at Henry’s mother’s house, where Betty tries to forcefully stuff a scoopful of sweet potatoes into Sally’s mouth, to disastrous end. Later, Sally attempts to make a late-night call to her dad, and is intercepted by Betty: “You want to call him to complain how awful I am? Don’t expect any sympathy when he hears my side of the story,” she says. I think Henry’s mother really speaks for the audience when she later confronts her son: “She’s a silly woman. Honestly, Henry, I don’t know how you can stand living in that man’s dirt.” Or house, for that matter. Henry’s not a particularly prideful man.
Any show, no matter how good, starts to feel its age around Season 4. This reboot took balls, and paid off in a huge way for the series. It is a series about change, after all.
Peggy and Joey, the handsome new junior creative exec, keep saying “John,” “Marsha,” to one another. They’re imitating a famous comedy bit by Stan Freberg (he was a comedian and puppeteer who later became an ad exec), in which he imitated two soap opera stars just speaking each other’s names. The record was released in 1951—not exactly the hot new thing in 1964.
Season 4, Episode 2: "Christmas Comes But Once a Year"
The Christmas episode introduces the various players in the Strindberg play that is Don’s new life of singledom: Namely, Faye Miller, the consumer researcher who eyes Mr. Draper like a hungry man eyes a roast turkey, and Megan, the French-Canadian beauty, who’ll eventually (we still have Ida Blankenship to deal with—yay!) take over his desk... and his heart. But before that can happen, Don needs to pull one more majorly idiotic move, and that will come in this episode, when he drunkenly sleeps with Allison, who genuinely cares for him and does a great job. Their excruciatingly uncomfortable reunion at the office is really just devastating to watch, with Don offering a chilly, “Thank you for bringing my keys,” then handing her a Christmas card with two $50 bills in it. My god, Don. I really wish I was a circa-1964 prostitute right now, because I’m really itching to slap you in the face. Dick Whitman indeed.
Elsewhere: Welcome back, Freddy Rumsen. The lovable leg-piddler has returned, 15 months sober, to present the firm with a little opportunity. He’ll bring them Pond’s Cold Cream, a $2 million account, in exchange for his job back. Pete isn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect. And speaking of rats who get people fired, Lee decides to show up at the office Christmas party, thereby raising the Christmas Party Threat Level "from convalescent home to Roman orgy,” as Roger directs Joan. I’ll never forget that conga line she led through the office, a parade of forced merriment to please a little cigarette fortune potentate—whose business accounts for 71 percent of the company’s revenue. Poor Roger. Now he’s the prostitute, only this time it’s the customer who’s slapping him in the face.
Season 4, Episode 3: "The Good News"
The indisputable highlight of Season 4's third episode is Don and Lane’s impromptu night on the town. Don, back from California depressed after learning Anna Draper is dying of a cancer that she doesn’t even know she has, cancels his New Year’s trip to Acapulco. Lane has pulled the plug on a trip back to London, saying there’s “too much to do” around the office. Some boozing later on a birthday gift from Pryce’s dad that has “no bite,” the two decide to hit the movies. They consider several high-minded selections, before we smash cut to Godzilla (hooray!) where the two drunkenly heckle in pseudo-Japanese. That leads to an intimate steak dinner where Pryce relays the details of the end of his marriage, and it dawns on the men that they are far more kindred spirits than they’d realized. Scotch, Godzilla, steak, stand-up comedy, and high-class escorts: the perfect New Year’s Eve. So many classic Lane lines in this episode: “Hayawaka kazawaka!” “Look at me! I got a big Texas belt buckle! Yeeehawwww!”
The episode ends with a great vignette: The principals gathering on Monday morning in the boardroom. Joan interrupts the silence: “All right. Gentlemen, shall we begin 1965?” The score playing under it, in case you’re wondering, is written by show composer David Carbonara. (If you ever have questions about songs you hear on the show, the Mediocre Music Blog is an amazing resource to consult.)
The two bachelors' excellent after-hours adventure is only to be outdone by Don and Peggy's in "The Suitcase."
1. What are your thoughts on Dr. Faye? (I never warmed to her character, feeling she pulled me out of the era, for some reason. I was actually relieved when Don rejected her.)
2. Don returned to California, and this time, it was a lot less fun. What did you think about that scene where he almost made a play for Anna's niece? What are your thoughts on his relationship with Anna? Should he have told her about her illness?
3. Let's talk Betty. Is there any way to sympathize with this character the way she's been written in Season 4?
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