The fourth season of AMC’s Mad Men marked the beginning of a new era for many of the characters, beginning with the formation of the Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price agency. The company, which in the final episode of the last season was based in a hotel room, has since secured a new office building, full of windows and sunlight, symbolising an aspirational and positive time for business. Not only are the men newly revitalised with confidence and a brand new image, but Joan (Christina Hendricks) has returned to the agency, and is now fully appreciated for her work – at last!
I was disappointed that the return of Joan did not also mean the return of Sal (Bryan Batt), who was a much loved character in the earlier seasons. The newer characters in Season 4 are mostly quite irritating, and do not seem to fit in with the suave image of the rest of the company. Freddy (Joel Murray) and Joey (Matt Long) are both rather sexist, and Freddy’s old fashioned values do not bode well for the agency. Joey is immature and frustrating in his conduct towards Joan, and his departure is hardly disappointing. What I found strange about these new characters was their lack of integration into the rest of the team: Joey, especially, is seen with Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) in the early episodes and seems quite funny, but later is exposed as the office prankster, and is basically a silly kid. Even Faye (Cara Buono), a brief love interest for Don (Jon Hamm) somehow does not ‘fit’ with the rest of the cast, and their relationship feels slightly forced. The initial team of characters remain the best loved, and although Lane (Jared Harris) is still an outsider, his character is deepened this season, and we feel sympathy for him as we witness the break down of his marriage and his cruel treatment from his abusive father.
Sterling (John Slattery) is as funny as ever, especially when getting used to his ridiculous office which has been decorated 60s-style by his wife Jane (Peyton List), who thankfully appears very little in this season. There is a brilliant flashback sequence involving Roger and Joan, which explores the beginnings of their relationship, and throughout the series there are constant hints that the two of them are very much in love, which hopefully will be investigated in Season 5, as both Roger’s and Joan’s marriages seem to be in trouble. There are also some flashback scenes which uncover the beginning of Don and Roger’s friendship, which show in depth Don’s rise from farm-reared pauper to Madison Avenue Prince.
This season, Don is set in a downward spiral until the very last episode, in which he proposes to his secretary Megan (Jessica Paré) who is actually a lovely character, and seems a genuine match for Don, despite her youth. Prior to this, however, we see Don drinking excessively, with blurry camera shots connoting his fading in and out of consciousness during work, as well as constant hangovers and tiredness. Don also breaks his own rules a lot this season, sleeping with 3 colleagues from work: Faye, Megan and his secretary Allison, who subsequently leaves due to heartbreak. In earlier seasons, although Don was never faithful to Betty, he kept his work and private lives separate (unlike Roger) and this fall from grace was a definite wake up call for Don.
His identity is also under threat in Season 4, as American Airlines and the FBI investigate the agency before starting to do business with them. Don is filled with panic and dread for much of this storyline, rashly confiding in both Faye and Megan, showing the level of his paranoia, and desire for protection and intimacy. His friend Stephanie’s death also affects him profoundly, and is one of the main catalysts in his self-destructive streak.
Season 4 also explores Betty’s (January Jones) new marriage to Henry (Christopher Francis), and reveals how unhappy she is and her awareness of her huge mistake in leaving Don. Henry is an impateint husband, soon realising Betty’s childishness and petulant nature and becoming tired of his new trophy wife. Henry’s mother is correct when she refers to Betty as a ‘silly woman’, and Henry is exposed to be shallow for marrying such a spoilt brat. In spite of her attitude, there are moments when we feel for Betty: she was young and naive when she married Don, and he is all she really knows about adult life, therefore their split sees her regress into infancy.
A great new addition to the central cast is Don’s daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka). Although she has been part of every season, this time Shipka has grown up and been allowed a bigger role, which she excels in, not only as Don’s daughter, but as a fully fledged personality. Throughout the series, Sally plays an important role in maintaining Don’s sanity, and even helps his decisions about his romantic life, as she proves to him that Megan is more suited to his family than Faye. Sally has also begun to look more like her mother, dressing in beautiful, stylish outfits, and with her new, cute bobbed haircut.
There is not much time for comedy this season, with office tensions after the departure of Lee Gardner Jr and Lucky Strike, and the deaths of some important characters; yet some brilliant comic moments shine through, most significantly the death of Don’s elderly secretary Miss Blankenship (Randee Heller), which is possible through some ingenious camera work in the glass offices.
Yet another fabulous season of Mad Men from the AMC team, packed with more emotion than scandal this time around, but maintaining the iconic style, subject matter and stories that the show has become renowned for.