Mad Men Season 4 Wrap-up

Sunday night’s “Tomorrowland” was the season finale of what has been a very good season of Mad Men. The first two seasons of the show were filled with twists and revelations as we encountered different aspects of Don Draper. In this season, we pretty much know who he is, and yet we’re still surprised by the things that he does (and there’s plenty of this in the finale). I want to talk about the things that really worked for me this season, and there will be spoilers:

The saga of Sally Draper. There’s a lot that happened this season, but nothing filled me with dreadful anticipation like Sally’s story. Betty has always been an awful person and a worse mother, however something seems to have snapped this season. It seems like every few episodes, Betty finds a new line to cross. I have been shocked over and over this season, from her sadistic force-feeding of Sally at her in-laws, to the slap, to the finale, where even Carla and Henry Francis can see her naked hatred for her daughter.
One of the great elements of this storyline, however, is that it’s not all about Betty. Sally’s relationship with her therapist is a good sign, as it means that she finally has a stable adult looking out for her (as well as somebody that’s willing to run interference between Sally and Betty). And Sally seems to be learning how to take care of herself, whether that means letting Betty think she’s winning her stupid power games or putting pressure on Don. It’s a testament to the care with which this show is written that she has become her own character, rather than being a plot device for Don or a flat symbol of the children of the era.
The slow widening of the show’s focus. Mad Men was never The Don Draper Show, but it did stick pretty close to Don in earlier seasons. This season still had plenty of Don, however even as he stays the center of the show, other characters have been given a little more room to have their own stories. The writers and production team are extremely good at writing shorthand, in media res scenes so that we get these constellation of connected stories without diminishing screen time for the main plotline.
Consider Henry Francis, a character that hasn’t had more than ten minutes on screen this season, and yet with short, well placed scenes, he’s moved from being a quasi-antagonist to somebody that might be good for Betty and the kids to somebody that perhaps regrets his marriage to Betty and is certainly becoming aware of the deep river of crazy that runs through her.
We’ve also seen a little more of the SCDP crowd, most especially Lane Pryce, Pete Campbell, Joan Harris, and Roger Sterling (this season has also focused on Peggy, but she’s been another focus for the show from the first season). As with the Francis household, short scenes establish character arcs that only have tangential relationship to Don Draper’s life.
The downfall of Don Draper/his women. I don’t think that Don’s downfall and the relationships he has can be separated this season. In terms of dramatic impact, I don’t think the show’s ever had a scene like Don having a panic attack in his apartment with Dr. Faye. From the beginning, the character of Don has been defined by his polish, his charm, and his ability to think quickly on his feet. This season has demolished all this. He’s not taking care of himself, he’s moved from the category of “drinks too much” to “drinks enough to lose a weekend.” And perhaps the most dangerous for Don, his work is slipping. Don has supreme confidence in himself (even at rock bottom), however he is ever conscious of how much the life that he’s built for himself depends upon the work that he does.
This season features a liberated Don Draper. In past seasons there have been women, but he’s always been forced to be discreet and careful. This season features a number of anonymous women (the woman from his apartment building, the woman that knew the name Dick Whitman), as well as Bethany, Dr. Faye, Allison and Megan. Bethany is a non-presence, an echo of Betty. Don treats Allison shamefully (I think we’re often on Don’s side when he does morally questionable things, but the way that he treats Allison [and, really, all his secretaries] shows that Don is a monster that I would probably hate if the show was made from any other character’s perspective). Dr. Faye and Megan both seem like good fits for Don, but given his talent for self-destruction, it’s hard not to be apprehensive about the proposal in the season finale.
The two New Yorks. The central, though usually hidden, conflict of the show is between the conservative, corporate, moneyed New York that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce operate in and the New York that is ground zero for the social changes that will happen (and are happening) during that time. Every season brings the social upheaval a little closer, and this season, through Dr. Greg in  Vietnam and Peggy’s downtown art friends, the revolution seems to be knocking at the door. The shoe hasn’t quite dropped yet, but every sexist joke, every dismissal of the women’s and African-American markets highlights the changes that are coming.
It’s been a very good season of Mad Men. In the first season, the glacial pace of the show used to frustrate me. In the subsequent seasons, that pacing has, if anything, slowed down, but I still find it the most engrossing hour of television in my week.

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