MAD MEN: Season Four / Blu-Ray Review

Mad Men is perhaps one of the coolest television dramas of the last five years and year-on-year has continued to raise its own standards in television writing and acting. Superlative storytelling, performances and production have garnered the series a bevvy of much deserved awards and much critical praise. Season Four, about to be released in the UK by Lions Gate, is interesting in that its arrival was highly anticipated following creator Matthew Weiner's, at the time, shocking shake-up of the series at the end of the third year.

Continuing to map the inter-personal relationships of New York ad-men and their families in the 1960s, Season Three climaxed with most of the characters finding that the advertising company they were working for, Sterling Cooper, was being bought out by a British agency. At the same time, the enigmatic central character Don Draper (Jon Hamm) came under pressure from his wife Betty, who had finally discovered that she really didn't know the man she married, with Draper having taken on a dead man's identity during the Korean War.

As ever Mad Men continues to reflect the present day even though it is a period piece and as Matthew Weiner recently explained in the New York Times: "My job as an artist is to channel the feelings I have about society right now, these are the things I’m feeling about our isolation, about our ambiguous relationship with materialism, about failure, about our declining self-esteem. About our attitude towards change and technology. These are things I’m feeling every day, that I put into the show." 

"the only person who really knew me"
Season Four picks up with the new company Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce having moved into proper offices after first being established in a hotel room at the end of the last series and covers the period November 1964 to October 1965. This change, explored in the first episode Public Relations, is symbolised in how all the major characters have had to shift their roles in respect of the re-arranged hierarchies at the company.

As this plays out, Draper deals with his own internal crises about self-identity, his masculinity and his efficacy as the ad-man figurehead at the agency. The season depicts a man who goes through a self-destructive phase in reaction to the divorce from his wife Betty, the effects this has had on his children, and the complex nature of his relationships with several women at the office as well as the death of Anna Draper, the widow of the real Don Draper, whom he refers to as "the only person who really knew me."

We also see that the infamous and surefire Don Draper touch in winning over new clients has become the kiss of death and slowly the company hurtles into meltdown as clients old and new take their business elsewhere. Public Relations effectively brings all these themes to the fore and also takes some interesting views on how to develop positive relationships with the media showing Don failing to shine in a press interview and costing the company dearly. The show's propensity for humour is delivered in a brilliant advertising stunt that goes wrong engineered by Peggy (the fabulous Elisabeth Moss) where two women fight over a Thanksgiving ham in an attempt to get a company to increase its advertising budget.

In Christmas Comes But Once A Year the series depicts the office party from hell where Don has so lost touch with his Alpha male allure that Faye Miller, a psychologist working for a consumer research company, gives him the cold shoulder after a dinner invite, he doesn't get any interest from the young nurse he has as a neighbour and he sinks to an embarrassing and regrettable one-night stand with his secretary Allison. This crisis forces a re-evaluation that has ramifications throughout the series.

This episode also begins a brief story arc where the agency's biggest client, Lucky Strike, prepares to bail out and the process begins with its CEO Lee Garner publicly humiliating Roger Sterling (the brilliant John Slattery) at the party. Another story arc is established when Don's daughter Sally, always impulsive, re-establishes her friendship with a neighbour's boy, the very strange Glen Bishop who previously had his eye on Sally's mother, Betty. Her father's absence and how that affects her is a theme the series returns to over the course of thirteen episodes.

The series also further explores Don's relationship with Peggy, with the company's estranged accountant Lane whose long distance relationship with his wife in London is unraveling, and Don's continuing attempts to date Faye. By far the most emotionally devastating sub-plot is Don's final visits to Anna and his discovery that she is dying of cancer. In The Rejected the focus is more on the sexual tension between Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) as Campbell discovers that his wife Trudy is pregnant.
... a game of smoke and mirrors
Peggy is also handling a Ponds Cold Cream campaign and the episode's stand out moment is when a group of single women agree to complete interviews, conducted by Faye, about how they take care of their faces and what they use to keep beautiful. The interviews quickly diminish to a revealing discussion about how men treat them badly. In the group is Allison, Don's secretary, and this candid conversation inadvertently reveals to the office that she and Don slept together and, angry and depressed, she shames him in front of his colleagues. John Slattery directs this brilliant episode.

For comic effect we also have Allison's replacement, Miss Blankenship, making her debut in the equally impressive The Chrysanthemum and the Sword wherein war veteran Roger refuses to do business with the Japanese to win the contract for Honda cars. However, it also shows how Don is astute enough to handle the Japanese at their own game (the episode references anthropologist Ruth Benedict's book of the same name about the Japanese that popularised their distinction as a shame culture from Western guilt cultures) and, in a game of smoke and mirrors with a competitive rival ad agency, he manages to shame them over their own dishonourable tactics and get the first shot at marketing Honda's new line. Meanwhile, Betty is so concerned about Sally's behaviour (chopping her hair to pieces and masturbating while fantasising about David McCallum as she watches The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) that she takes her to see a child psychologist.

The generational divide between SCDP's older, more experienced employees and their younger, more ambitious ones is the theme of Waldorf Stories where Don, in a state of intoxication during a client meeting, steals an idea from a young designer, Danny who has approached the agency for a job. When Don tries to buy the idea from him, Danny insists that Don employ him even though Don doesn't want him working for the agency. Peggy upbraids Don for his unprofessional behaviour and this underlines the theme that Don has become so out of control that he will lower himself to stealing ideas. Peggy also has to deal with young staff designer Stan who criticises her for being uptight and she brilliantly calls his bluff as they brainstorm ideas for a campaign in a hotel room.

The Suitcase is probably one of the best episodes of the run and focuses purely on the relationship between Don and Peggy. It is an intensely emotional confessional between the two characters as they work overnight on a campaign for Samsonite. When Peggy discovers that her boyfriend Mark has set up a surprise party and invited her family along, she decides to stay working with Don and in the process breaks up with Mark. She has a disagreement with Don about her contribution to the agency's campaigns and she breaks down, claiming she is under appreciated at SCDP. During a meal out she confides in Don that other staff often believe that they are having an affair and that her mother thinks he was the father of the baby she had back in the first season.

She and Don return to the office but they are disturbed by the arrival of former employee Duck Phillips. Don and Duck, both very drunk, have a fight but Peggy manages to get rid of Duck and concerned about Don's behaviour, she asks him how long he can continue along this downward spiral. Emotions reach a fever pitch when Don learns that Anna has died and he breaks down in front of Peggy. It's a very raw, intimate episode and certainly reveals a great deal about Don and Peggy and their friendship. It makes you genuinely care about what will happen to these characters even though both of them have major faults. Hamm and Moss are astonishingly good too.

The Summer Man explores office politics as Peggy and Joan attempt to deal with the adolescent and inappropriate behavior of a young designer, Joey. Meanwhile, Betty is still trying to get Don out of her system and the episode explores their differing lifestyles and Betty's realisation that she, in fact, has everything that Don doesn't. Don, on the other hand, is slowly sorting himself out and many of his realisations are conveyed through the journal he has started writing. The themes about women in the workplace are further unpacked in The Beautiful Girls and Don deals with a runaway Sally in an episode that attempts its fair share of black comedy with the death of Miss Blankenship.
“the beginnings of things"
What also permeates Season Four is its focus on vice and addiction. The series is acknowledged for its characters heavy consumption of alcohol and cigarettes but this season those addictions seem to cause and exaggerate the existential poison and the identity crisis that slowly consume characters like Don, Betty, Midge and Anna. Anna has been consumed by cancer and Betty is driven by fits of rage while in Blowing Smoke Don's old flame Midge has turned to heroin. Don drowns in booze and sex until his body begins to show signs of intolerance and he understands that he must start down a different road. As SCDP haemorrhages business Don risks everything on a newspaper ad about the agency after they fail to win a major client.

Tomorrowland, the season finale, is the different road down which Don travels and it is hard not to see it as delusional, a result of his crisis and narcissism, and one he chooses, inexplicably between his secretary Megan and Faye Miller, in perhaps yet another bout of self-destruction, one that he feels could lead to him being 'ordinary'. It's interesting as he proposes to marry Megan, one of the many maternal symbols in the episode, that it is the fake Don Draper he aspires to be again, claiming to her “I feel like myself when I’m with you but the way I always wanted to feel.” The bright, shiny surface of California where Don takes the kids and Megan is as much part of that mirage, a simulation of life and a return to the 'other' Don Draper who was momentarily abandoned. As a tearful Faye remarks to him after he reveals that he intends to marry Megan, Don only likes “the beginnings of things."

Picture quality, as ever, is stunning and maintains the reference quality standard of previous Mad Men releases. Colour, detail, contrast are all exceptional and are the icing on the cake for the amazing work that the production designers and costumers produce every year. One of the great pleasures of Mad Men is how the show looks and BD really shows that off with stupendous detail and colour saturation in costumes and faces and in the beautiful production design. It's a very handsome looking series. Perhaps in some of the faster moving scenes there is a tendency for minor motion shuddering on the picture but that's being extremely pedantic about an immaculate image quality. Sound is also perfect and the DTS HD mix is fabulous, with crisp dialogue and David Carbonara's music elegantly showcased.

Special Features:
Each Blu-ray set of Mad Men has been loaded with episode commentaries. The Season Four set is no exception and the majority of episodes boast two commentaries - usually featuring creator-writer Matthew Weiner and one of the cast or crew or other cast and crew members and supporting players. Weiner is always good value for money and usually concentrates on the intricacies of writing, character development and shaping the season's themes. He often points out much of the visual symbolism in the stories too.

For example, he and actor Jon Hamm suggest Public Relations as a pilot where the series undergoes a fairly substantial reboot whereas an entertaining commentary for The Rejected featuring John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser and Cara Buono tends to be looser, more concerned with ribbing each other about their lines, recounting on-set stories and less to do with the mechanics of the show. Overall, there are some excellent tracks and very few duds. Dip in and out as there are a hell of a lot of conversations to get through:

•Public Relations / Two commentaries: Matthew Weiner and Hamm; David Carbonara and Jane Bryant
•Christmas Comes But Once a Year / Two commentaries: Joel Murray and Alexa Alemann; Matthew Weiner and Michael Uppendahl
•The Good News / Two commentaries: Melinda Page Hamilton and Jared Harris; Matthew Weiner and Jennifer Getzinger
•The Rejected / Two commentaries: Vincent Kartheiser, John Slattery and Cara Buono; Matthew Weiner and Chris Manley
•The Chrysanthemum and the Sword / One commentary: Matthew Weiner and Erin Levy
•Waldorf Stories / Two commentaries: Aaron Staton, Jay Ferguson and Danny Strong; Matthew Weiner, Brett Johnson and Scott Hornbacher
•The Suitcase / Two commentaries: Elisabeth Moss; Matthew Weiner, Tim Wilson and Chris Manley
•The Summer Man / Two commentaries: Christopher Stanley, Matt Long, and Rick Sommer; Matthew Weiner and Leo Trombetta
•The Beautiful Girls / Two commentaries: Christina Hendricks, Cara Buono and Kiernan Shipka; Matthew Weiner and Dahvi Waller
•Hands and Knees / Two commentaries: Vincent Kartheiser and Christina Hendricks; Matthew Weiner and David Carbonara
•Chinese Wall / Two commentaries: Jessica ParĂ© and Cara Buono; Matthew Weiner and Erin Levy
•Blowing Smoke / Two commentaries: John Slattery, Andre and Maria Jacquemetton and Robert Morse; Matthew Weiner, Bob Levinson and Josh Weltman
•Tomorrowland / Two commentaries: Kiernan Shipka, Marten Weiner, and Jessica ParĂ©; Matthew Weiner and Jonathan Igla

Marketing the Mustang: An American Icon (Dur: 27 mins)
If you're interested in the design of the period then you'll enjoy this treat exploring the development of the Ford Mustang and the car design's enduring legacy within American culture. Fascinating exploration of industrial design and advertising of the period.  
Divorce: Circa 1960s (Dur: 1hr 19 mins)
To tie in with the divorce between Betty and Don, this documentary explores, in three parts, the taboo of divorce and how it changed between the 1940s and 1960s and how divorce was portrayed in the media, through magazines, books and television. Several experts explore how divorce affected women and men in the period, how counseling impacted on them and the institution of marriage.
How to Succeed in Business Draper Style (Dur: 56 mins)
The power of Don Draper to bring home the bacon for his business is explored through a ten-point plan. This very engaging documentary explores the concept of leadership, self-belief and self-determination, how you think and what you do as a creative executive. A number of business and advertising executives discuss these ideas and numerous clips from the series illustrate how influential Don Draper is as the leading executive to his clients and the products sold on their behalf. Office culture, team building, selling techniques, rewards systems and peer recognition are also areas that the interviewees unpick.
1964 Presidential Campaign (Dur: 31mins)
More contextual material as this half hour looks at the election campaign run by Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater in 1964. The Cold War looms large in some of the campaigns, especially in the notorious television broadcast from the Johnson campaign with its scaremongering imagery of flower-picking children wiped out by a nuclear bomb, a warmongering Kruschev intercut with American children taking the pledge of allegiance or a pregnant woman and her young daughter upholding the Test Ban Treaty. There is some wonderful archive material here that shows both how sophisticated and blunt electioneering had become with the employment of ad agencies. The rest of this is taken up with Johnson's investiture as President and his speech.

Mad Men
AMC 2010
Season Four
Lions Gate Home Entertainment UK Ltd / Blu-ray / LGB94310 / Released 28 March 2011 / Running Time: TBC / Cert: 15 / Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic / Dolby Digital DTS HD 5.1 / Subtitles: English for the Hearing Impaired

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