I wanted to wait until after the Mad Men season finale to respond to David Simon Cowell’s post about the Curse of Season Four, and particularly his criticism of this season of Mad Men.
I disagree with DSC’s basic assertion that Mad Men season four is fundamentally inferior to the previous three seasons. If a Curse of Season Four does exist, it certainly didn’t infect Matthew Weiner.
Since DSC began his argument by asserting that Mad Men’s season wasn’t bad, I’ll likewise admit that it wasn’t perfect. The season had several prominent flaws:
- As DSC pointed out, the return of characters like Freddy Rumson and Ken Cosgrove was a disappointment, particularly when viewed in the overall arc of the season, when it becomes clear their returns served no purpose other than to bring in familiar faces.
- An underwhelming finale. “Tomorrowland” isn’t a bad episode, but it can’t help but suffer in comparison to the thrilling, Ocean’s 11 capering of the season three finale.
- The making of a monster: Again, as DSC noted, the character of Betty Draper has transformed from a complex, somewhat sympathetic and confused desperate housewife into something resembling a pure villain.
There were also a couple uneven episodes sprinkled throughout the 13-episode run. However, my argument is twofold: 1) season four’s flaws weren’t more prominent or egregious than those of previous seasons, and 2) the good stuff outweighed the bad mightily.
I don’t have a ranking of the four Mad Men seasons. Each has its own pros and cons (mostly pros), and all four are of a similar level of quality. My favorite season is probably the third, but that’s due more to personal taste than critical conviction.
Season one hit the “Hey, it’s the ’50s! Everyone is racist and smokes a lot!” buttons too hard and too often. Season two contained far too much Duck Phillips for anyone’s liking, and got lost in a few unnecessary subplots involving minor characters. Season three made the mistake of addressing the JFK assassination without adding anything new to the already-bloated pop culture canon on the subject, and inflicted the Grandpa Gene Dies storyline on us. All four seasons range somewhere from A- to A, but none is perfect (unlike, say, The Wire’s fourth season, about which DSC is more wrong than he has ever been about anything in the history of ever.)
And as for what season four did well…
The descent of Don Draper was fascinating to watch, and I disagree with Cowell that Matthew Weiner chickened out in eventually halting Draper’s decline. I think this was always Weiner’s design: to show a Don Draper untethered by committment and social responsibility, to show the effects of divorce and an uncertain professional future. But Don managing to curtail his drinking and whoring, and at least partially turn things around rings true. It may have been interesting viewing to watch him wallow around at the bottom for the rest of the season, to see him lose his job and remaining human connections. But that’s not what usually happens to guys like that. As Faye Miller pointed out in the season premiere, Don Draper is a type, and he’s too self-involved to allow himself to irrevocably crumble.
If the overriding question of season four is “Who is Don Draper?” then the answer is “Same as it ever was.” By the end of the season, Don shows his innate cowardice and neediness by choosing the maternal Megan over the complex Faye. The good Dr. Miller would have continued to challenge Don, and make him face painful truths about himself, and Don Draper does not like to be challenged. People don’t change. That’s what Weiner is telling us. Their circumstances may change, and they may focus on different parts of their character, but they don’t change who they are inside.
Season four also gave us the decline of Roger Sterling, and the ascent of Pete Campbell and Peggy Olsen. Sterling has been play-acting at being an account man for years now, and it finally caught up to him this season. Lost in nostalgia and writing a memoir that only serves as unintentional comedic fodder for those who stumble across it, Sterling’s good-natured cynicism is turning into panicked bitterness. He’s less than thrilled with his trophy wife, he seems to have lost Joan for good, and he nearly destroyed his new company through negligence. This is a broken man, and it’s been mesmerizing watching John Slattery play that.
Meanwhile, Peggy continues to assert herself, and is finally beginning to reap the personal and professional rewards she’s long craved. The indelible image of this season is of Peggy, driving in circles on a scooter in a closed studio, with a look of bemused contentment. I disagree with DSC that Pete Campbell was less layered this season — I just think there wasn’t the time to properly devote to his character. The focus of the season was squarely on Don and Peggy, and with a cable-length season, that means there’s not enough time left to give even a great character like Pete his due.
And while the season may not have given us much in the way of compelling new characters, it did develop Lane Pryce into one of the show’s highlights. And frankly, I’d rather spend the time learning about Lane’s love affair with America and chocolate bunnies than having some random new dudes thrown into the SCDP environment.
On top of all its other successes though, season four gave us “The Suitcase,” the single best episode in the show’s history. “The Good News,” in which Don learns Anna is dying and then gets drunk with Lane, is also a top-fiver. If in a 13-episode season, you produce two all-time great hours of television, then you’ve done your job.
Much of the negative reaction I’ve read about Mad Men, and specifically the finale, stems from the misguided notion that if a TV character doesn’t behave how viewers would like, then the show itself has failed in some way. (This is separate from my disagreement with DSC’s thesis, by the way, I’m not accusing him of this inanity.) In numerous reviews of the season finale, the sentiment was, “I can’t believe Don chose Megan. He should have chosen Faye. Therefore, the finale was not very good.” It can go further than that too — if storylines don’t play out as you expected, or conversely, if you’re not sufficiently surprised by the outcomes, it’s easy to blame the show rather than your own limitations.
These critical pitfalls especially hold true for shows with a little age on them. Viewers develop attachments to characters and rhythms, and feel betrayed when their expectations aren’t met. It’s true that most shows don’t age well, but through four full seasons, Mad Men is defying that trend, and I see no reason why season five won’t continue to do so.