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|Written by Lauren Cheal|
|Thursday, 14 October 2010 00:00|
Spoiler Alert! Spoilers for Season 4 up to Episode 10 (aired September 26, 2010)!
Mad Men is a good show. It has been since its first season, which aired in 2007. The first and second seasons of the show gave us a strong drama set in a fascinating time and place. It had elements of mystery (who is Don Draper?), but for the most part, the show was a period drama with captivating characters and situations. The third season of Mad Men hinted at some changes in narrative and style (the focus shifted from Don's personal life to business at Sterling Cooper and the future of the agency). The famous lawnmower scene in "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency" was shocking and hilarious in its own right but was made even more so because the show hadn't done anything like it before. The shake-up at the agency at the end of Season 3 was a further indication that the writers were comfortable taking the show in new directions.
We arrived at Season 4 not knowing what the state of the business was, not knowing what actors would be returning (and hoping dearly that somehow they could bring back Sal!), and not knowing where the show would take us. Suffice it to say, it has taken us to some truly great places. Season 4 of Mad Men is the product of a show that has really hit its stride and has the confidence to do things that it might not have done before.
One example of this newfound confidence is the use of comedy. Lawnmower episode aside, I don't recall often finding things to chuckle about while watching the first three seasons of the show (the things I do recall often involve Roger Sterling - his speech at his daughter's wedding, the ill-advised blackface routine, etc). But the laughs in Season 4 have been fast and frequent. Fans are divided about the role of Miss Blankenship, but I have loved every minute of her screentime (may she rest in peace). The idea that she is Don's punishment from Joan for treating his secretary like garbage was really wonderfully played out. He deserved it, and she kept the laughs coming: "If I wanted to see two Negroes fighting, I'd throw a dollar bill out my window." The show's confidence in pulling off a comedic turn (when they have had great success with a purely dramatic form) is impressive.
There has also been a great deal of plot development in Seasons 3 and 4. Finally learning about Don's big secret allowed the show to breathe a little more and explore some more interesting areas. The development of Peggy's storyline and the general focus on the women of the office (and of Don's bed) and how they are dealing with the 1960s is fascinating. It is possible that creator Matthew Weiner had this planned all along, but it is also possible that he felt out the story arcs in the first two seasons, saw what worked, and what worked really, really well.
The dynamic between Don and Peggy and their evolving relationship has been one of the most enjoyable things to watch in Season 4. Peggy is finally seeing herself as in Don's league creatively (although her insecurity about this comes out frequently as well), and Don is at least showing her a small amount of respect. Peggy has called Don out for his mistakes this season (like when he stole that crappy idea from Jane's cousin, Danny - you may know him as Paris's boyfriend Doyle from Gilmore Girls), and it is clear she is unwilling to be pushed to the side after helping him win a CLIO Award.
The show's treatment of Joan is another intriguing one. Quick disclaimer: I love Joan (who doesn't?). Joan used the transition into the new company of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to create a stronger role for herself. She uses her position in the office (head secretary, the highest post for a Sterling Cooper woman before Peggy became a copywriter) to exert an enormous amount of power. She has become a financial authority in the office: after SCDP loses a big account, it is made clear that all purchases must go through Lane Pryce (their chief financial officer) or Joan. Having this kind of authority didn't come overnight, and, while her title is probably still "head secretary," she is more involved in the top levels of the company than any other woman. She calls meetings of the partners and runs the entire administrative side of the business. Joan has been put into these roles simply because she understands the business as well as anyone could. It is her experience and her initiative that give her this power in the office.
While both Peggy and Joan are finding success in their careers (although Joan's success is definitely not labelled as such, nor is she compensated in a way that reflects her new role), Peggy's personal life is heating up while Joan's barely simmers. Peggy is becoming involved in the social scene of Greenwich Village, and it is clear that as a young professional, she is a bit of a hot commodity. Joan, on the other hand, is married to a rapist/doctor who she seems ambivalent towards. Joan's commitment to the office went as far as to dictate that she fall in love with the married Roger Sterling, and by the time she figured out that he wouldn't ever choose her, the rapist/doctor was all that was left. She is struggling to keep her head above water, fearing what will happen to her husband while he is in Vietnam and dealing with one last fling with Roger. Her newfound power in the office is not translating to an advantage in her personal life as it seems to be for Peggy.
Choosing to explore the way women of the 1960s were dealing with their new roles (from Peggy to Joan to even Faye and Sally) is making this season of Mad Men its best one yet. Weiner has taken a show that was a drama-filled mystery set in a riveting period and developed a compelling set of characters that has the viewers wanting more. The women are just one facet of the show, but their struggles accurately reflect the struggles of the country at this time and continue to speak to what it means to be a woman in business today. That, my friends, is boss.