The fourth season of the acclaimed TV show continues its fascinating exploration of the life and times of a New York ad agency.
By now Mad Men is something of a phenomenon. Even though it doesn’t get huge ratings, it has captured the hearts and minds of critics, cultural tastemakers as well as receiving multiple awards, including thirteen Emmys and four Golden Globes.
The end of Season Three saw the partners at ad agency Sterling Cooper dissolve their copmany to start afresh and the cultural eruptions of the 1960s and the personal dramas of the characters continue.
Opening in November 1964, this series begins with recently divorced Don Draper (Jon Hamm) still struggling to balance his personal and professional life, as he juggles relationships and deals with revelations about his past rising to the surface.
Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) continues her rise at the agency despite the sexism of the times; the senior partners have to deal with a tricky major client; the Vietnam War is beginning to rear its head and affect Joan (Christina Hendricks), whilst Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) deals with the personal ties that conflict with his work.
As with previous seasons the creative standards are very high, with the acting, writing and direction as good as anything you’ll see on television.
The production values and period setting are as impressive as ever, but Weiner and his creative team go beyond just recreating a past era and skilfully explore the social anxities of the time, which also neatly reflect the current turmoil in Western culture.
One of the chief pleasures of the show as it progresses is the way in which it conveys the compleys layers of the characters lives. Don still remains enigmatic despite numerous revelations about his life, Pete is a much more sympathetic character than he was in Season One and the painful realities of divorce are explored through Don daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka).
As for new characters, perhaps the most notable is Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono), a market research consultant who represents the data driven approach to advertising that contrasts with Don’s old school approach.
There are some outstanding episodes this season: the opener “Public Relations” sets the tone for the season; “The Rejected” explores the very real drama of a market research group; “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” depicts the lingering tensions of World War II and what can be learned from Eastern culture; and “The Suitcase” sees Don and Peggy stay up all night to work on a Samsonite ad, in what could be the best single episode in the history of the show.
If I had a quibble about Season Four it would be a major late development that had my head spinning after the final episode, although how Wiener and his writers develop it will be interesting, to say the least.
Visually, Mad Men is the most filmic of TV shows. Not only is it shot on 35mm, but the compositions and attention to detail are reminiscent of cinema, whilst the influence of Hitchcock can be felt throughout the series in the opening credits, the blonde females and camera movements.
It is worth remembering that when it began life what was primarily on a movie channel in the US (AMC) and Matthew Wiener didn’t want it to look out of place.
The visual craft and attention to detail make it perfect for the Blu-ray format and the show looks gorgeous in high definition – with a AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78:1 – and the costumes and production design come across in exquisite detail.
The box sets for the series have been notable for some fine supplementary features, which include documentaries and news footage exploring the historical backdrop to the show. Season Four is no exception.
Commentaries: Every episode has at least one commentary and although the most revealing tend to involve show creator Matthew Weiner, often alongside a key crew member, the actors can also be good value, providing another perpective on their characters. The list of commentaries includes:
- “Public Relations”: 1) Weiner and Hamm; 2) David Carbonara and Jane Bryant
- “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”: 1) Joel Murray and Alexa Alemann; 2) Weiner and Michael Uppendahl
- “The Good News”: 1) Melinda Page Hamilton and Jared Harris; 2) Weiner and Jennifer Getzinger
- “The Rejected”: 1) Vincent Kartheiser, John Slattery and Cara Buono; 2) Weiner and Chris Manley
- “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”: 1) Weiner and Erin Levy
- “Waldorf Stories”: 1) Aaron Staton, Jay Ferguson and Danny Strong; 2) Weiner, Brett Johnson and Scott Hornbacher
- “The Suitcase”: 1) Elisabeth Moss; 2) Weiner, Tim Wilson and Chris Manley
- “The Summer Man”: 1) Christopher Stanley, Matt Long, and Rick Sommer; 2) Weiner and Leo Trombetta
- “The Beautiful Girls”: 1) Christina Hendricks, Cara Buono and Kiernan Shipka; 2) Weiner and Dahvi Waller
- “Hands and Knees”: 1) Vincent Kartheiser and Christina Hendricks; 2) Weiner and David Carbonara
- “Chinese Wall”: 1) Jessica Paré and Cara Buono; 2) Weiner and Erin Levy
- “Blowing Smoke”: 1) John Slattery, Andre and Maria Jacquemetton and Robert Morse; 2) Weiner, Bob Levinson and Josh Weltman
- “Tomorrowland”: 1) Kiernan Shipka, Weiner, and Jessica Paré; 2) Weiner and Jonathan Igla
- Divorce: Circa 1960’s (HD; 1:19:36) A three-part documentary that explores the issue of divorce during the 1960s, a major theme in Season Four as Don and Betty’s separation begins to affect their children. Various experts give us insights into the subject, such as how people viewed it at the time and the difficulties it posed for people involved, whilst using illustrative clips from the show.
- How to Succeed in Business Draper Style (HD; 56:29): A two-part featurette which interviews several businessmen and how Don Draper is a role model for today’s business executive. Most of this plays like a Tony Robbins-style seminar and I can only imagine it was included as an ironic comment on how some modern males perceive the central character as a hero (i.e. they love the smoking and drinking, whilst ignoring the emotional turmoil).
- Marketing the Mustang: An American Icon (HD; 27:07): An excellent featurette on the iconic car that was introduced by Ford in 1964, which Don is seen driving in some of the episodes.
- 1964 Presidential Campaign (HD; 31:12): A fascinating compilation of campaign ads for the 1964 presidential election between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, which resulted in a landslide for the Democrats. There is the infamous ‘Daisy‘ TV spot of a little girl picking daisies followed by a nuclear explosion, which played on the fear that Goldwater would use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. But there is also the inclusion of several others, which show how much (and how little) political campaigning has changed since.
Mad Men Season Four is out on DVD & Blu-ray from Lionsgate on Monday 28th March 2011