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‘I don’t want to have a fight.’
‘Then stop talking.’

The best show on television is back, and clichés be damned, it really is better than ever. Season three of Mad Men starts off more or less where the previous season left off – the Cuban Missile Crisis has been averted, Don Draper (John Hamm) has come back to Sterling Cooper in the midst of a British buy-out crisis, and Betty Draper (January Jones) is still pregnant. Season three starts at more of a crawl, and takes more time to dig in its heels than the second season did (season two featured a bit of a lull in the center when Don found himself lost in California). The first handful of episodes are a bit of a trudge to Betty’s baby birth, and the actual birthing episode is not very good comparatively speaking (too often the characters are left saying what is usually left unsaid, and the normally subtle art direction errs towards the goofy). But once the production gets over that hump the narrative track is laid, and the plot charges forth, like the most subtle and graceful bullet train ever crafted. It’s really unfortunate that new viewers can’t possibly jump on the bandwagon here without being entirely lost, because season three is the most brisk, and all around eventful season yet. The cast and crew don’t approach simplifying their complex, and multi-leveled styles, but there’s a streamlined approach to every single episode (save the one), wherein not a single morsel is over or under valued. Even the lesser lead up episodes feature picture perfect parts

Mad Men: Season 3
‘Change isn’t good or bad. It just is.’

The season theme is changes, and the changes are huge, all the way down to the finale, which is the first to end on a high note. Betty begins to see herself capable of living without Don following her father’s death, while Don finds himself entirely uncovered for the first time in the series’ history. Peggy continues her struggle for identity outside her family, briefly fashioning herself after Joan, who’s marriage problems sideline her in the major narrative. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) threatens to discover his identity, and his relationship with his wife finally settles. The only victim left at the wayside is Sal (Bryan Batt), who apparently will not be coming back for season four, which compounds the tragedy of his exit, which may be too tragic for even the dark show’s own good. But the vast majority of these character arcs work very well. Considering the relatively brief time we’ve been with these people (less than 40 episodes total), the profound realism and momentum is practically unheard of, especially since the majority of the character defining moments are underplayed, and require reading a hundred layers of subtext.

The character changes are the forefront trimmings, but the historical backgrounds feature even more delectable changes. The ‘60s as history mostly defines there era are officially marching into the Mad Men world, and some of the characters are going to be devastated by the results. At the end of this season only two of the most defining moments of the era have occurred. We still have assassinations, Vietnam spiraling out of control, the British Invasion, Nixon’s presidency, and a whole lot of flower children to look forward too in coming seasons. The impeding social changes subtly push focus towards the show’s only fully formed child character, Sally Draper, who was a surprising standout in season three, both in terms of time spent with the character, and actress Kiernan Shipka's performance. Given the prop-like treatment of the Draper children in the first two seasons Sally’s growth and arc is the shows second most stunning curve-ball, just behind the place our characters end up in the final episode.

Mad Men: Season 3
‘Have you been drinking?’
‘The whole country is drinking!’

Last season ended with Peggy confronting Pete, and it was the highlight of the entire television year. This season features more than its share of similarly incendiary sequences (standalone sequences, not necessarily those that shock and awe from a plot standpoint). The first is Peggy barging in on the beatnik pot party, and proclaiming she wants to get high. The second sees Sal revealing way too much of himself to his wife. The third is the most notorious moment in the series’ history, and involves a riding lawn mower taking a shot at a footfull of toes. The fourth comes while high society white ladies talk about equal rights while Carla (who, like Sally, finally grows into a real character this year) the quiet black maid toils in the background. The season finale features the most fist-pumpingly exciting moments (quite possibly the best heist flick I’ve seen in a decade), but Betty confronting Don upon finding proof of his past is probably the most moving 15 or so minutes of screen time in the collection. The realistically rendered performances, the restrained, precise editing, the release in terms of storytelling, and the Gordon Willis inspired visuals are all so immaculate they ache. Oh, and Christina Hendricks playing accordion and singing in French is no shrug either.

‘With you or without you, I'm moving on. I don't know if I can do it without you. Will you help me?’

Mad Men: Season 3

Video


Once again Lionsgate and AMC provide a satisfying 1080p transfer, which is, to my eye, the best one yet. Stylistically speaking, season three is brighter, and more painterly than the previous seasons. Generally speaking each frame features more colour, and overall compositions more definitively recall René Magritte’s most popular paintings, which I’ve suspected was a major visual inspiration from the beginning. This season also visually differentiates the sets and locations a little more implicitly. For example, the Draper house is often shot a little softer (sometimes dreamlike and almost foggy), with more amber warmth, while the office scenes are cooler, stiffer, and feature more popping elements (usually Joan’s red dress). The good news continues. Details are unequivocally sharper on this collection when compared to the previous releases. The difference is noticeable enough that I wonder if the production changed cameras or something (I no longer have cable television, has AMC started showing stuff in 1080p?). Seasons one and two were worth the Blu-ray price for clarity, lack of compression, and general colour quality, but season three sees a sizable difference between the Blu-ray and DVD versions (the DVD being the spot I grabbed screen caps from). The overall contrast has not changed, Mad Men is still a very softly shadowed series, covered by even gradients, but the edges are crisp and clean. The focus is also pretty even-handed, aiming for a slightly shallow look, but there aren’t many big close-ups, and even in wide shots minute production values are wonderful. The only nitpick I can really grasp here is the general hue of the flesh tones, which are a bit on the red side.

Mad Men: Season 3

Audio


The Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track follows the new precedent set by the sharper video quality, and is generally a step up from the previous season releases. Things are still mostly low-key, centered, and dependant on dialogue over effects, but this time there’s no denying the impact of all 5.1 channels. The buzz of the office is downplayed, but there are some pretty startlingly realistic stereo and surround elements, creating a very immersive feel on the track. The Draper household is a definitely more quiet than the rest of the Mad Men world, but the soft dialogue is occasionally made more real by the sounds of arguing children, a ringing phone, or the buzzing TV. The stereo and surround channels also get a decent workout away from the home and office in the form of airplane noise, a hotel fire, and that vicious lawn mower that roams around the office. David Carbonara’s mellow and moving music is intricately rendered on the track, and is quite often the only sound during particularly dramatic moments. There isn’t a lot to say concerning the LFE channel in terms of throb or punch, but the hum of the musical bass is warm, and plenty thick.

Mad Men: Season 3

Extras


The extras once again start with a whole bunch of audio commentaries from the cast and crew. Some episodes feature more than one track. Instead of culling through the collection’s commentaries episode by episode I’ve decided to take the easy way out and jump around throughout a second viewing (time is not on my side). Creator Matthew Weiner’s tracks (often shared) are usually more about subtext, visual cues, and best of all, specific story and character points, which fans know are easy to miss. He and his directors and writers also specifically reference fan feedback, which creates that sense of interaction digital media has promised for years. When actors are involved Weiner overshadows them until you forget some of them are even there. The cast only tracks are more scattered, formless, and silly, but this is okay too, especially since we have Weiner’s tracks to fall back on for information purposes.

Disc one also features ‘ Mad Men Illustrated’ (13:50, HD) a look at Dyna Moe’s internet-based faux-vintage illustrations, which are brilliant, and which were available as part of the Facebook advertising campaign. Learning that her approach to vector art is so similar to mine (minus Zen state) was particularly satisfying.

Mad Men: Season 3
Disc two has a few more things to offer, starting with ‘Clearing the Air: The History of Cigarette Advertising’ (25:30, 20:00, SD), a two part featurette on, well, the history of cigarette advertising. This pair of mini-docs goes way back, covering the history of the cigarette as a thing, the technical innovations, the development of health concerns, the advertising’s innovative effect on advertising on the whole, and the counter advertising. The disc also features ‘Flashback 1963’, an interactive photo gallery with ‘play all’ and ‘interactive mode’ options. Categories include car models, celebrity births, consumerism, cost of living, celebrity deaths, entertainment, inventions, politics, science, sports, technology, US events and World Events.

Disc three features the most substantial extra, ‘Medgar Evers: An Unsung Hero’, another two part featurette (39:00, 31:00, SD). I knew next to nothing about Evers, and I’m happy to say these featurettes fixed that problem. There aren’t many stones left unturned concerning the sobering hardship of the Civil Rights movement, and Evers’ brother, widow, and daughter are among the interviewees. My only complaint concerning the featurettes concerns the production values, which are a problem in terms of sound and image quality. ‘We Shall Overcome’ (16:40, HD) completes the extras with a look at the historic march on Washington that culminated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Here the speech is set against a series of slides including images from the event, and pertaining documents.

Mad Men: Season 3

Overall


So you still aren’t watching Mad Men? I understand. It’s certainly not a show for everyone. I know there are times I don’t feel like participating with my television entertainment, and I understand multi-faceted, mysterious, and slowly reveled characters can be frustrating. Mad Men can be very demanding, requiring multiple viewings, and sometimes it even incites in-depth discussion among viewers. Like its lead character, Don Draper, the show shimmers with a smug, self-important veneer, and requires we dig beneath the skin to appreciate the layers. But did you know that Mad Men makes fun of you behind your back for ‘not getting it’? That’s right, it thinks it’s better than you, and I heard it say so. Are you gonna let Mad Men get away with that? I certainly wouldn’t. If I were you I’d get all three seasons and start again from the beginning, really study the series so you can tear it apart, and talk about its mother behind its back.

*Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps, which have been taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page.


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