The character of Donald Draper, played so masterfully by Jon Hamm these past four seasons that to many he simply is Don Draper, has transcended Mad Men...and become a part of our pop culture. This is a rare honor for a character that happens so infrequently, the last such occurrence might be Dr. Gregory House. And yet, everything that is the myth of Don Draper was torn asunder in Season Four of Mad Men, leaving the shell of a man as he attempts to redefine himself, and inexplicably finds himself drawn down the same paths of weakness and temptation.
Mad Men: Season Four is a character study of Draper that is mirrored in the advertising agency at which he works. Gone is Sterling Cooper, that paragon of 1960s cool masculinity. In its place is a much more turbulent and uncertain Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Whereas Don had an anonymity and freedom of movement in the former, he is a named partner on the latter. Just as his own domestic existence has cut him free, he finds himself securely attached to a new business venture. Now people are looking to him not just as the wünderkind ad guy, but as the employer who has to look them in the eye and make them believe their livelihoods are secure.
Any start-up business is difficult, but Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce launches in Season Four with a small number of clients and a lot of insecurity and instability. It was with a lick and a dream that four men decided to forge this new business venture, and it was with more hope than actualized promise that they convinced Peggy, Joan, Pete, and Harry to come along for the ride. This leads to some awkward kowtowing as they have to do everything they can to keep Lucky Strike happy, as the company makes up 71% of their business at the start of the season.
The new office space is far more humble than the open floor plan of Sterling Cooper, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in personality and intrigue. The narrow hallways and walk-through office space affords lots of eavesdropping, with characters dropping in on hushed conversations and awkward moments. In other words, it is a step closer to the cubicle mazes of the modern American workplace.
The tumultuousness of Don's world finds a kindred spirit in Don and Betty's daughter, Sally, who acts out by running away from home and finding her way to Don's workplace. It's a sobering reminder of the responsibilities he still has to his children, and the frustrations in dealing with Betty, who is now married to Henry Francis. Betty, however, is no happier with Henry than she was with Don. Betty is the classic example of a frustrated housewife, but she's played so authentically by January Jones, you may find yourself growing to despise her immaturity and lack of growth throughout this season. Here she is, finally free of Don Draper. We were led to believe he was the one thing stifling her from blossoming into a mature and beautiful woman. Now, however, we discover she's only been holding herself back.
Over the course of the season, Betty strains and irreparably damages her relationship with her daughter, while still blindly lashing out at Don and trying to blame him for everything. Impressively, Don actually plays it pretty straight, as if he's fully aware of her character flaws but ever so pleased they're no longer his problem to deal with. To make matters worse, Betty's not doing any better fitting in with her new husband and his family. They find her petulant and spoiled...which, of course, she is.
While the Draper saga takes center stage in Mad Men, Season Four provides peeks into the lives of the other characters with which we can piece together where their lives are and what's happening in them. Peggy Olson continues to blossom under Don's harsh guidance and allowances. For a man of his era, that he allows this young woman to flourish and find her own creative voice in a "man's profession" is an interesting juxtaposition to his normal womanizing and general dismissal of women's intellectual pursuits. If anything can transform Don into a truly better and deeper person, it will be his relationship with Peggy, just as she needs him in her life to become more. That their connection remains beautifully non-sexual into this season just makes it more evident that this is the union to watch. Perhaps by Season Six, we'll be watching the creative team at Draper Olson.
The highlight of Mad Men: Season Four, and of the Peggy-Don dynamic, comes in the seventh episode, "The Suitcase." In it, the two of them wind up spending a night in the office, working on a particular ad campaign. Peggy sees a fragile side of Don and has a choice to be his friend, or to be the aggressive shark that is sometimes necessary to achieve success in business.
Conversely, Joan's season is about trying to build a family after having spent so long focused on her career. While Joan has stayed more traditionally in the women's roles of the time, she has climbed the ladder to the highest possible position, and is an invaluable piece of the new agency. Her struggles are far more personal, as she wants to start a family with her husband before he ships off to Vietnam.
This is the reverse of Pete's situation, who finds out that his supposedly infertile wife is pregnant. Not to worry: in the same moment he discovers this, he makes a shrewd and calculated business move that proves he's every bit the ass we've come to know and love to hate the past three seasons. Pete is Pete, and we wouldn't have his never-satisfied, overly ambitious whining any other way.
A new woman comes into Don's life in the form of Dr. Faye Miller, who comes to the firm initially to help run focus groups on women's products, but becomes yet another significant female figure circling around Don Draper. Their journey is one that takes several expected turns before wrapping up in perhaps the most inevitable way of all. In fact, Don's arc this season seems to bring him full circle while at the same time pushing him in a new direction in his personal life. Professionally, he makes some bold and independent moves that jeopardize the immediate future of the firm, and cost several people their jobs. However, it could turn out to be just the kind of forward thinking that the agency needs to move into the latter half of the 1960s, when so much of the world was turned on its ear.
If you've never watched an episode of Mad Men, you can still step in with Season Four and find much to enjoy. In many ways, it marks a new beginning for the characters, and certainly for the ad agency at the show's core. Mad Men is at the top of its game creatively. There is a reason it has seen increased ratings in each of its first four years.
Since we have to wait until 2012 for Season Five, why not take advantage of that time to get acquainted or reacquainted with one of the best shows on television. It's so tightly written and forward-thinking, it even rewards multiple viewings where you can see foreshadowing and hints of things to come episodes and even seasons before they come to pass.
Each disc of Mad Men: Season Four is packed with audio commentaries for every episode, and then a rather striking departure from the norm with their video extras. Perhaps it was decided that, for those who'd like to get deeper into the making of the television show itself, the audio commentary is sufficient. The other extras instead take you deeper into the world of 1960s America.
There are four documentaries across the discs, broken up into approximately half-hour installments. These are in-depth analyses of the themes and topics of Mad Men: Season Four that are really only for the hard-core enthusiasts of the historical accuracy of the show or with an intense interest in the era. I could easily see them being used in a 1960s course in college.
"Marketing the Mustang: An American Icon" is a half-hour documentary breakdown of just what the title says. It's an interesting look into the mindset of the advertising community as a reflection of mainstream America. Next up, and perhaps a little too long, is the three-part "Divorce: Circa 1960." At more than 90 minutes long, it's probably everything you ever wanted to know about something that was taboo at that time, and yet has become commonplace today. For the sheer differences in society and the process of divorce from 1960 to today, it's interesting, but it can be hard to sit through, as it's pretty dry.
"How to Success in Business Draper Style" is equally trying, though aficionados of the business angle of the show might be intrigued. The final short, "1964 Presidential Campaign" takes a look at the growing importance of advertising in politics as television continued to grow. That one certainly resonates with modern audiences, considering how advertising is used today in politics.
All in all, while it's an odd collection of extras that seem more suited to a classroom study of Mad Men than a casual fan, you can't take away from the care and detail that went into their production. The extensive audio commentary almost makes up for the lack of any other background material to supplement the creation of the season, but not completely.
Twelve of the thirteen episodes have two completely separate feature-length audio commentary tracks, offering you multiple perspectives on the making of the episodes. Some are more insightful than others, but all of them offer unique takes on immersing yourself in the Mad Men experience. Series creator Matthew Weiner is on at least one track for each episode, with different members of the production crew. As always, he takes us deeper into the process of each decision and what each moment means, creating a whole new way to appreciate the season.
The actors track, if we can call it that, features virtually every principal cast member across the season on at least one episode, with many of them joined by their episode's writing team, or another key member of the crew for that particular episode. For the pilot, Jon Hamm and Matthew Weiner are paired together, while Elisabeth Moss provides great insight into her character on a solo run on "The Suitcase." It's pretty cool getting her take on the back-and-forth between Peggy and Don alone, as this is one of the strongest moments for her character. Moss takes us behind-the-scenes into how she thought about each scene, as well as her take on how things came together for the final product.
Watching each episode multiple times to hear all the available commentary is an ambitious undertaking, but it's inarguably one of the most extensive behind-the-scenes looks you'll ever see on a show, and they hit up everybody from set designers to costumers for key moments throughout the season. Truly, it is one of the most impressive and all-encompassing audio experiences you can have for a television series, and a testament to the care and thought that goes into each beat of this award-winning series. Sure, it's daunting to think of watching each episode three times to get the full experience, but what else are you going to do during the long wait for Season Five? Watch some lesser series?