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Welcome to my review of the fourth season of AMC Mad Men. This time I’ve decided to run down each episode, rather than struggling through another all encompassing season review. There are spoilers to follow, but I’ve done a lot to try to keep from being too specific about a particular plot point.

Mad Men: Season 4
Public Relations starts us off by tossing us into the deep end in the usual Mad Men manner. It isn’t immediately clear how much time has passed since the season three premiere, but it’s clear that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has made a foothold, and Henry and Betty have been married following her divorce from Don. Among many themes, and a lot of big news, is Don’s discovery of his place as a leader. By the end of the episode he’s harnessed his angst and anger like a true Sith Lord, and with a drum crack the season officially begins. Overall this premier does its job in setting up the new situation, but is a little overwhelming, and a few minor pieces, such as Don preferring to be slapped by a prostitute during sex, aren’t really picked up on again. Still, we thoroughly get that the new agency is running, if not a bit off the rails, Don is depressed, and Betty and Sally are antagonizing each other.

Christmas Comes but Once a Year features a relatively weak Sally B-story where she deals with the divorce (Sally was one of season three’s strongest developing characters, and she’s dumped a bit in season four), but is otherwise one of the stronger episodes. Here, Roger’s little plunge into self-destruction begins to develop, and the writers have a bit of fun comparing period and modern politics (a little on the nose, but still funny). The best piece of the episode, which colours the mood several other episodes, appears at the end when Don’s is forced to deal with the consequences of his post divorce sexual appetites.

The Good News is, of course, a relatively ironic title, but this episode does feature plenty of Mad Men’s patented backhanded sweetness, especially sequences concerning Don’s side of the narrative. Any episode featuring his relationship with his ‘ex wife’ Anna is a keeper, and any chance to get an honest glance behind his curtain is reason to celebrate. This is also the first Joan heavy episode since early in the third season, when it briefly appeared that she was going to be written off the show entirely. And Don and Lane’s trip to see Gamera is among the show’s most disarmingly charming moments. I suppose my only complaint would be that The Good News feels a lot like two separate episodes.

After opening with a hilarious phone call, The Rejected gets right down to throwing newly ‘knighted’ Pete to the wolves. This is one of the season’s more guiltlessly funny episodes, but every funny bit is spiked by a brutal climax, such as Peggy’s nasty and protective turnaround on poor Allison. The backgrounds are teeming with goofy gags like Peggy peaking over the partition into Don’s office, and Cooper reading the paper while eating an apple in the office waiting room for no reason other than it’s amusing. In true Mad Men fashion the episode ends with a kick of unspoken poignancy.

Mad Men: Season 4
The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is a lynchpin episode full of aggressive interaction. Don battles his new rival Ted Chaough of CGC, and wins through a Sting-worthy ruse. Roger antagonizes Japanese clients from Honda, leading to a massive argument with Pete, who finally asserts himself as an equal. In the episodes most controversial set of circumstances Betty gets into it with Sally, whose erratic behavior pushes her mother to almost villainous reactions. Betty’s reactions have led to a lot of healthy arguments among fans. Many have turned entirely against the character, while others recognized her immaturity and felt sorry for her. I’d say the most telling scene in this argument is the one where Sally’s prospective psychiatrist silently recognizes Betty’s childlike mindset.

Waldorf Stories starts off reaffirming various relationships. Don is still the dominant personality in his relationship with Peggy, he and Roger are still friends, and Roger and Joan used to be an item. This episode also features a revealing flashback that sets up Roger and Don’s first meeting, which reminds us just how much we still don’t know about all these people. Waldorf Stories is also a cringe inducer, as Don falls off a wagon he wasn’t really on in the first place (Roger’s debauchery doesn’t surprise at this point), unfairly dumps on Peggy, and forgets an important meeting with his kids. Pete’s problems are a little old hat at this point, but it’s good to keep the character in the loop. The episode’s most inspired sequence involves Peggy egging the new art director Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson) into putting his money where his mouth is when he won’t stop looking at Playboy instead of working.

The Suitcase isn’t just the season’s strongest episode, but it’s possibly the best episode in the show’s history. Personally speaking this opinion is largely because it focuses pretty sharply on Peggy and Don’s relationship, which is a continuous source of glee. I’m not sure exactly what it is about their platonic, master and apprentice union that does it for me, but it’s always a joy. Perhaps it’s the fact that when they argue they actually communicate their thoughts and emotions together, while keeping both bottled with every other interaction. In some ways, it’s the only ‘real’ relationship in the entire show (at this point it seems that Don’s platonic relationships will always outlast his romantic ones by leagues). Creator Matthew Weiner himself is credited with the teleplay, and peppers it with his usual witticisms and efficient storytelling. Track is also laid concerning Peggy’s team of boy-men, and their future interactions with Joan. I’m afraid if you don’t choke-up at the end of this one you might be a horrible monster.

The Summer Man feels kind of like the Goodfellas episode. It’s shot a lot like a Scorsese flick – including a series crash zooms, Don coolly walking in slow motion, and Rolling Stones music blaring on the soundtrack. The unusual inclusion of main character narration keeps this theme going. Betty’s part of this story doesn’t fit this mould at all, but it’s an ideal time to reintroduce her into the narrative after some major time away. Other impressive direction includes a visual motif featuring alcoholic beverages practically begging Don to drink them. Besides pushing Don’s plot, this is the first really Joan-heavy episode of the season, and one that acts to remind us how fragile the character is despite her porcelain façade.

Mad Men: Season 4
As the title suggests, The Beautiful Girls puts the boys in the corner in some respects, and is another particularly strong Peggy episode. It’s always fun to root for Peggy’s romantic interests post-Duck. The episode also reintroduces us to Sally after some memorable time away, and reminds us that she’s being left in the lurch during Don and Betty’s bickering. Her interactions with Don may seem to err on the side of obvious, but in reality kids don’t usually do subtext, and her assumptions are textbook. The rum covered French toast is a nice touch. Some fans have chided the episode for its bout with rather gruesome black comedy (a lot of folks didn’t like Miss Blankenship, and probably didn’t like her leaving the show with so much fanfare), but I think this little piece of madcap is just what the season needed before it dove headfirst into its endgame.

Hands and Knees is a little heavy on the historical framing, but sets everything in its place with real purpose, including Lane’s affection for an as yet not quite socially acceptable woman, Don’s use of The Beatles as bribery, not to mention the inclusion of the Playboy club. The A-story is a strong piece of ongoing narrative, and a nice bookend to the Don/Pete standoff that ended the first season. It’s refreshing to witness Don and Betty interacting civilly, and the moment their paranoia overcomes them and they realize their conversation may be wire tapped is the funniest in the episode. Roger and Joan’s side story is a bit of a backtrack for the narrative, but treated admirably by the actors, and features a genuinely unsettling sequence between Joan and a crying mother at the doctor’s office.

Chinese Wall is a delectable bundle of nerves – Trudy and Pete are having their kid, a major investment is ditching the firm, Roger is keeping secrets, and Don is going to mess up the one good thing he has in life. There’s some levity (Peggy’s faux pas is worth a few smiles, and the coda is definitely touching), but for the most part this is the rough stuff we’ve come to expect from Mad Men. There isn’t a lot to say about the subtle ins and outs of this particular episode, other than it keeps things moving, and flows perfectly into the final two episodes in the season.

Blowing Smoke begins as more of the same, and continues pushing the majority of the characters through the eye of the needle with absolute style and grace. Then Don takes a curveball to the head as hard drugs tear up his forgotten past, and with newfound strength he takes possibly the biggest chance he could with his new business. Things end with a bittersweet mix of collateral damage and hope for the future. We also get our first glance at Sally and Betty’s relationship with their therapists, then Sally steals the episode by waxing philosophical about the Land ‘O Lakes box.

Tomorrowland deals out some last minute shocks, and a series of hasty decisions. Betty loses pretty much every ounce of good will she managed to soak up over the last two episodes with a painful choice, then Don makes an even more shocking choice, and we discover Joan had already made a hasty choice all her own before. More importantly Don begins to let his children into his hidden life, hinting at a possible personality turn in the future. It’s always good to actually like our lead character. If the show hadn’t been picked up for another season this would’ve been a decent place to end the whole thing, or at least Don’s part of the story. Thankfully things will continue though, and we don’t have to settle (Peggy and Joan especially have some interesting places to go). Great one-off moments include Pete making some unintentional, heavy handed double entendres.

Mad Men: Season 4

Video


Overall this season looks a lot like the last two, but in what might be an acute case of Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome, I’m thinking this transfer is sharper than I’ve seen from the series yet. The opening of Christmas Comes but Once a Year is a good example of how crisp the bulk of the episodes appear, with its deep, dark backgrounds failing to swallow up tiny details like flecks of snow, or the edge highlights on the fur trees. Don’s creepy apartment appears as a sickly mud slick in standard definition (I usually watch the show on non-HD iTunes), but in 1080p the blacks are deep without absorbing the subtle greens and browns, and the highlights are sharp enough to make out the important details (like who the hell is talking). One of the more endearing colour play elements comes from the rather extreme production design found in Roger’s office, which is more or less black and white except for the characters that populate it. Usually these characters are Don or Roger, who dress in grey shades, but Joan and her warm wardrobe really pop in this particular arena. Occasionally the high detail and utter sharpness works against the production, leading to some minor edge enhancement in the widest wide shots. There is still plenty of fine grain, especially over the whitest backdrops, and I caught a few bleeding reds (also usually when set against white backdrops), but there’s very, very little to complain about. The episode The Beautiful Girls is the closest the set comes to a black eye. It features the most grain, bleeding, and some comparatively fuzzy details.

Mad Men: Season 4

Audio


Mad Men continues to not be an action based series with a lot of aggressive surround sound elements, and even goes out of its way to create a subtle and cool aural environment. This will be disappointing for folks looking to work out their top-of-the-line sound systems, but no big deal for anyone with realistic expectations for this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The track does buzz with office work, street noise, and at its best, the echo of voices around an inside pool, but there aren’t any outstanding blasts or booms to rock the subwoofer. Sometimes the dialogue track is a little uneven, and suffers from obvious post-production tampering, but there’s never a point at which the dialogue becomes hard to understand or distorted. This season does have a little more in the way of non-score music outside of the end credits. The Summer Man’s use of ‘I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)’ is pretty brash, and possibly the best I’ve ever heard the song sound.

Mad Men: Season 4

Extras


Extras once again begin with a seemingly endless series of commentary tracks featuring the cast and crew. Disc one features commentaries on every episode including Public Relations (creator Matthew Weiner with star John Hamm, and David Carbonara with Janie Bryant), Christmas Comes but Once a Year (Joel Murray with Alexa Alemanni, and Weiner with Michael Uppendahl), The Good News (Melinda Page Hamilton with Jared Harris, and Weiner with Jennifer Getzinger), The Rejected (Vincent Kartheiser with John Slattery and Cara Buono, and Weiner with Chris Manley), and The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Weiner with Erin Levy). Disc two features commentaries on Waldorf Stories (Aaron Stanton with Jay Ferguson and Danny Strong, and Weiner with Brett Johnson and Scott Hornbacher), The Suitcase (Elisabeth Moss solo, and Weiner with Tom Wilson and Chris Manley), The Summer Man (Christopher Stanley with Matt Long and Rich Sommer, and Weiner with Leo Trombetta), and Beautiful Girls (Christina Hendricks with Cara Buono and Kiernan Shipka, and Weiner with Dahvi Waller). The third disc features commentaries on Hands and Knees (Vincent Kartheiser with Christina Hendricks, and Weiner with David Carbonara), Chinese Well (Jessica Pare with Cara Buono, and Weiner with Erin Levy), Blowing Smoke (John Slattery with Andrea and Maria Jacquemetton and Robert Morse, and Weiner with Bob Levinson and Josh Weltman), and Tomorrowland (Kiernan Shipka with Marten Weiner and Jessica Pare, and Weiner with Jonathan Igla). I’m going to be honest – I didn’t listen to any of these. I just didn’t have the time based on the collection’s arrival date. I imagine they compare positively to previous releases’ tracks.

Additionally, disc one also features ‘Marketing the Mustang: An American Icon’ (27:00, HD), a brief history of the design and sale of the Ford Mustang. This includes some of the original television and print ads, which were aimed at both sexes in all walks of life. No footage from Bullitt unfortunately. Disc two features a solid and thoughtful three part documentary called ‘Divorce: Circa 1960’. Part one (20:20, HD) features a piece of footage from the show pertaining to family, mixed with discussion concerning the state of marriage going into the ‘60s, part two (28:30, HD) looks more closely at the laws involved with the divorce process at the time, and part three (31:20, HD) covers the sociological implications of the process, specifically concerning women and children. Disc three starts with ‘How to Succeed in Business Draper Style’, a two part intellectual study and discussion of the Don Draper character’s modus operandi. Part one (28:20, HD) runs down a list of the character’s defining aspects, and how they apply to the real world, while part two (28:20, HD) finishes the thought with a more critical eye. I’m not really sure why this one was split into two parts. The final disc ends with ‘1964 Presidential Campaign’ (31:10, HD) a look at Barry Goldwater and Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 Presidential ad campaigns, mostly made up from the actual ads themselves, and Johnson’s swearing in.

Mad Men: Season 4

Overall


Mad Men ends another great season, possibly their best yet. Despite some contract disputes, and other bickering between the show’s creator Matthew Weiner and the studios that front the cost of the show (Lionsgate and AMC apparently wanted to cut every future episode shorter, along with two members of the cast), rumour has it that we’re in for a few more seasons. Unfortunately, these won’t start until December of 2012. That’s a long way away. Until then we have four solid Blu-ray and DVD collections to rewatch and tide us over. This season four collection features the strongest 1080p transfer of all four releases, and doesn’t falter on the DTS-HD front either. The set also includes some entertaining and educational extras.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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