Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mad Men: Season 4 (so far)

As Season 4 of Mad Men begins, tremors of change are vibrating across America; as clear and irresistible as a Lennon-McCartney harmony. And Don Draper and company find themselves swimming in a murky sea of challenges and dilemmas that mirror those affecting America itself. Just as a recently assassinated President has committed America to the conquest of space, the mad men have set their sights an equally new frontier: a new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Price, and the growing pains of this talented, but unruly, newborn are rocky indeed.

Gone is the old brushed steel and cherry wood slave pit formerly known as Sterling Cooper. Gone is the abused gray carpet redolent with upchucked oysters, tragic lawn mower accidents and a million Lucky Strikes smoked in anger. Gone are the gleaming leather divans that supported the illicit intercourse of Pete and Peggy and the lonely, disappointed fanny of Conrad Hilton. In its place is a chrome and glass un-pleasure dome where all the perfect 90 degree nooks and grannies seem to lead right into the dark, confused libido of one Dan Draper (Jon Hamm), a dashing creative maven who has finally reaped what he has sowed, to the detriment of all he holds dear.

Episode One, “Public Relations”, has the thankless task of reintroducing us to characters who are familiar, yet profoundly changed by the events of the past year. As Don is interviewed by Ad Age magazine – an interview in which he stubbornly refuses to divulge much in the way of useful information – we get our first peek into SCDP’s modernly efficient new digs, featuring open offices and clear glass walls. The space is not only a cinematographer’s nightmare, but its fluorescent openness offers precious little room for Draper to hide and sulk with his rye bottle and his gnawing secrets.

We also sense the financial desperation caused by the new agency’s odd management structure: four partners and only one decent account. Their business model is as top heavy as office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), who is back where she belongs after a year of wrapping presents at Bonwit’s and bashing her husband’s skull with household bric-a-brac.

Draper has forsaken the leafy lanes of Ossining for a decidedly un-swinging Manhattan bachelor pad; a dingy flat so dark and cramped it reminds one of the freezing garret where Franz Kafka spent his last days coughing up blood. It is the last place in the world one would look for a high powered Madison Avenue executive, and therefore it suits Don Draper just fine – a place where he can loosen his tie and channel Dick Whitman safe from prying eyes.

This move, of course, was necessitated by the dissolution of the Draper nuptials, which occurred in Season 3 after Mrs. Betty Draper (January Jones) said to hell with it and opened her husband’s secret treasure box of blurry photos depicting the grimy rural past of the Whitman family, including images of young Don in short pants and sporting a soup bowl haircut. Betty was apparently able to stomach her husband’s serial adultery, but learning that her sleek Prince Charming was actually a hayseed from some place where they say “warsh” was too much for her class conscious nature to bear. Betty has quickly remarried Henry (Christopher Stanley), a Rockefeller apparatchik several years her senior. Henry is emerging as the most civil and level-headed of the lot, which is a good thing considering his new blended family is still living in Don’s suburban two story; a fact that will no doubt grow to be a major source of contention by season’s end.

Episode one has a weird, parallel universe feel to it, particularly when Roger Sterling (John Slattery) decides to set Don up with a disastrous blind date – a young actress of such appalling shallowness she would have ranked among Draper’s dullest conquests. After a boring and awkward dinner, Don tries to wrangle an invitation up to her apartment, but clearly his heart isn’t in it. This is not the same man who passionately ravaged Midge and Rachael and Miss Farrell and made them love it. No, this is a desiccated husk that only vaguely resembles Don Draper. But, as we learn later in the episode, Don has his eye on a different type of woman these days; a type that provides a link to his shadowy past as well as the ability to satisfy a newly revealed and shocking sexual appetite.

Episode 2 “Christmas Comes But Once a Year” is tinged with all manner of creepiness, including the return of unbalanced young Glen (Marten Holden Weiner ) whose cold eyes offer glimpses into a soul that seems to be teetering on the brink of evil. Glen has moved on from his Betty crush (which provided some of Season One’s most poignant moments) and now is quite smitten with little Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), who may be closer to his own age but is no better equipped to understand him. Mental Glen (sorry, couldn’t resist) elects to prove his love for Sally by committing a minor act of vandalism – which according to his warped perceptions was not only necessary but heroic.

The loathsome tobacco magnate Lee Garner Jr. (Darren Pettie) resurfaces just in time to royally screw-up the office Christmas party, causing Roger Sterling to give us a demonstration of just how low a desperate adman will stoop and, believe me, it ain’t pretty. Out of a similar desperation, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and her new assistant pull a publicity stunt in an effort to sell canned hams that comically backfires.

But leave it to Don Draper to sink to the greatest depths of all, as he gets pants-pissing drunk at the holiday fete and ultimately takes boorish advantage of the kind hearted Alison (Alexa Alemanni ), his loyal, long suffering secretary who took a leap of faith to move with him to this new agency. Even those of us prone to overlook Don’s past transgressions are having a tough time with this one, particularly in light of his demeanor with Alison the next day back at the office. The flashes of sensitivity Don has shown in seasons past utterly failed him here, and it’s tough to believe that a successful ad creator, when it comes to emotions, could have an ear of such heavily galvanized tin.

Episode 3 “The Good News”, is an odd one and seemingly does very little to advance the season’s narrative arc. It almost seems like a generic, multipurpose script that had been lounging on series creator Matthew Weiner’s hard drive for awhile – just plug in the characters’ names and roll film. It also has the distinction of being the first episode in the history of this series to lull this reviewer into a brief nap. Nominally on his way to Acapulco for a Christmas vacation, Don stops off in San Pedro and visits with the real Mrs. Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton) and we get a sense of the life he lived there as plain old Dick Whitman. As was the case in last season’s California episodes, Don seems much more relaxed in these sunny environs than when he’s lurking the corridors of Manhattan skyscrapers. There has always been a striking, if slightly icky, tenderness in the relationship between he and Anna Draper, and she dotes on him the way a proud mother would her favorite son. Don learns a startling secret about Anna’s health, and this information sparks a difficult moral dilemma. Don has faced plenty of those in recent years, and his record is less than reassuring, but here the better angles of his nature prevail and we can almost forgive him for the Alison debacle.

Don returns to NY to find his new agency virtually deserted for the holidays save for the brooding presence of one Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), the transplanted Brit bean counter whose snooty wife has decided to return to London, perhaps permanently. The two lonely men do what lonely men have traditionally done the week between Christmas and New Year’s - go out and get stinking drunk – and the evening is complete with flowing liquor and brazen strumpets.

Episode 4, “The Rejected”, feels more like a typical installment from years past, and is the first indication that the show is finding its footing in this new season. Several new and interesting narrative vistas open, as well as the tidying up of some unfinished business. The Alison issue is ultimately resolved – in a manner as cruelly thoughtless as it began. The Pete – Peggy – Trudy triangle receives its first serious attention of the year, and a surprising new development means there will soon be another piece to the puzzle. And the growing tension – both sexual and professional – between Don and Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono) is clearly heading towards critical mass. Like Midge, Rachel and Bobbi, Miller is intelligent, tough and independent, in short another Anti-Betty, so it is only a matter of time until she receives the full Draper treatment. However, Miller has an icy professorial edge that may prove to be immune. Plus, she represents the discipline of research-driven advertising, which is anathema to creative directors the world over. It will be interesting to see if these two stubborn executives – who by rights should be mortal enemies – can resolve their differences long enough to, well, you know.

This episode was directed by John Slattery and that probably accounts for the unusually high number of attempts at comedy. The opening sequence where he and Draper suffer through a conference call with a likely inebriated Lee Garner Jr. is a scream (“No Lee, the jockey smokes the cigarette”). Not all the bits work; Peggy pounding her head on her desk just flat seems wrong. But the good stuff is hilarious and quite memorable. In fact, everyone in this reviewer’s house has been asking “Did you get the pears?” all week. But all is not belly laughs, as we see Peter Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) reach a disturbing new level of ruthlessness and Peggy becomes involved with a group of avant-garde artists who will either broaden her horizons or seriously test her maturity, possibly both.

If we look at this new season as a play and these first four episodes as Act 1, it would be fair to say the start was inconsistent, but the stage is set for wonderment in Acts 2 and 3. And if this season is to maintain the high bar set by past years, wonderment is the word for what’s needed. Another word that comes to mind is disappointing. Yes, so far Season 4 has been a let down, and right now it’s hard to imagine any episode featuring the show’s new dynamic ever approaching the brilliance of such past masterworks as “The Wheel”, “Three Sundays” or “The Grown-ups”. But this is not the first time Matthew Weiner and his labor of love have been doubted, and each time he has left his skeptics in the dust, as his sagging and overburdened awards shelf attests. And, in a way, the imperfections of Season 4 have given us yet another reason to identify with the deeply flawed Don Draper. We miss his old life as much as he does.


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