When watching Mad Men, I am consistently struck by the realization that Mad Men is constructed like almost nothing else on television. With its serialized nature, television is a format rife for the possibilities of literary storytelling. However, with rare exceptions, the realm of character driven, mature storytelling has become the purview of genre fiction (fantasy programs like Game of Thrones or science fiction like Lost). Before you throw prime-time soaps in my face, they aren’t mature, intelligent storytelling and also, more often than not, on network dramas (prime-time soaps or other mostly procedural dramas), lessons are learned and episodes are almost entirely self-contained. HBO has had a monopoly on programs like Mad Men in the past (Six Feet Under and The Wire), but there’s a reason why Mad Men is one of the most celebrated TV programs of the last five years, and that’s because it’s proven that cable TV (and maybe, hopefully someday network TV) can do everything that the premium cable channels can do and more.
Betty and Don continue their separation though when Betty’s father has a stroke, they attempt to put their differences aside for a couple days and stay at her father’s house (who thinks Betty is his dead first wife and even feels her up at the kitchen table. Yeesh.) They have sex one evening but when they return home, Betty still asks Don to move back out of the house. Pete Campbell is facing marital problems of his own. He and Trudy are still struggling to conceive and Trudy brings up the possibility of adoption. Pete begins to warm to the idea when he tells his brother about it who then proceeds to tell their shrew of a mother about Pete’s plans. She threatens to cut off Pete’s non-existent inheritance if he and Trudy adopt a child rather than conceive naturally. Don and Pete go on a business trip L.A. together to represent Sterling Cooper at a prestigious industry convention when Don mysteriously disappears and spends several days with a group of wealthy swingers/nomads. Peggy finds herself attracted to the young European Kurt, one of the ad men that Duck brought into to appeal to younger audiences, and is set to see Bob Dylan with him when he unashamedly outs himself to the entire office (I’m guessing Sal wishes he had that kind of courage). Duck falls off the wagon and orchestrates the acquisition and merger of Sterling Cooper by a British advertising firm he used to work for.
Although Pete returns from L.A., Don completely disappears and we finally learn who he’s been writing letters to this season and who the woman was that knew he wasn’t Don Draper in the flashback earlier in the season. Her name is Anna Draper, and she’s the real Don Draper’s wife. Don has been financially supporting her for years. They’ve developed a brother/sister relationship over the years and she was legally Don’s wife for a long time before they got a divorce so he could marry Betty. Because Pete is now refusing to adopt a baby, under pressure from his mother, Trudy’s father pulls the Clearasil from Sterling Cooper (which is Pete’s biggest account). Joan brings her fiance Greg to the office to introduce him to everyone and my suspicions that their relationship was far from perfect are finally confirmed when he rapes her inside Don’s office (after he was unable to get an erection naturally in their bed). Duck brings the news of the merger to the partners at Sterling Cooper and they reluctantly decide to sell the company (where they’ll still be allowed to work. After Peggy lands an account all by herself, she gets her own office to the chagrin of many of her male co-workers. After three weeks of being AWOL, Don finally returns from California only to find the nation in the grips of the Cuban Missile Crisis (and Sterling Cooper on the verge of being merged). Betty discovers that she’s pregnant and has sex in a bathroom with a complete stranger at a bar. Though afterwards (and after receiving a touching letter from Don), she finally reconciles the marriage (for now). Duck, who will be the new President of Sterling Cooper, informs Pete that he’s making Pete the new Head of Accounts. Pete earns the confidence of Don by letting him know what’s happening in the company, and when Pete confesses his love to Peggy, she finally tells him that he was the father of her child and leaves him distressed and confused in the office.
If I found this particular stretch of episodes to be slightly disappointing compared to the last disc, it’s only because “A Night to Remember” was such a stand-out episode. Still, this particular disc took the narrative disconnect that I find so refreshing about this series and pushed it perhaps a little too far. The surrealism that defined the first four episodes of the season (particularly episodes 3 & 4) pushed past surreal and occasionally entered incomprehensible. Specifically, I’m referring to the episode “The Jet Set” where Don hooks up with a group of free-love not quite hippies in their borrowed mansion. Maybe it was the over the top French accent of the de facto leader of the group or the way that Don seemed to be taken this whole trip with such ease, I couldn’t buy it. Don went to California on a business trip and for all of his personal problems, he’s a hell of a businessman. For him to abandon Pete in the middle of a meeting and run off with some chick he just met seems like a real stretch for something that Don Draper might do, even taking his considerable emotional stress into consideration. While I actually enjoyed “The Mountain King” quite a bit, the moments in Don’s youth where he’s describing Betty just showed that man in far too happy of a light. There’s never been a point in this series where he seemed that innocent or that happy. And the scene where he’s talking about working with this group of mechanics he just met to make cars, it seemed like it had no place in the rest of the episode.
I think I can finally articulate why it is that I despise Betty Draper so much but I tend to forgive Don for his more upsetting trespasses. This goes the same for why I dislike Carmela Soprano and Skylar White but I root for Tony Soprano and Walter White. When Don does something hedonistic that might hurt others, he is almost never trying to be spiteful. That’s not an excuse for what he’s doing, but Don is simply pursuing his own selfish self-interest. He has full-knowledge of what he’s doing and he does his best to try and keep it from affecting the lives of those around him. That doesn’t make it right, but I can’t fault hedonism as long as it isn’t causing direct harm to others. Betty, on the other hand, is spiteful and self-righteous and (now) the world’s biggest hypocrite. In “The Mountain King,” she chastised her friend for having an affair with a man they had both lusted after for ages (I think this had more to do with Betty being jealous than real moral outrage), and then in “Meditations in an Emergency,” she goes right out and sleeps with a stranger. Don finally owns up (in his own subtle way) to cheating on Betty with Bobby Barrett. Yet, Betty makes no mention of her affair to Don. She’s pregnant and her doctor told her not to ride a horse. And what does she do, she spends half the episode at the stables (and drinks though that might be before they know it’s bad). Don would never dream of intentionally hurting Betty, but Betty is going out of her way to accumulate a list of things she could do to spite Don later on. Betty almost never acts on her own desires because she doesn’t know what she wants. Instead, she has to ruin the happiness of others (which she regularly indulges in by being a complete bitch to her daughter Sally). Though Don surrounds himself in secrecy, there’s an honesty and urgency to how he lives his life. Betty wallows in self-pity and misery and tries to infect everyone around her rather than try to change her situation (like say Peggy).
Peggy’s growth this season has been one of the most rewarding character arcs I’ve ever seen. When the season began, she was back at the office, but we had no idea what had happened with her baby. Slowly, like a knot methodically being undone, we learned more and more about Peggy’s personal life, where her baby had gone, and how she’d been coping for the last year and a half (surprisingly well thanks to Don’s tutelage). She’s on her way to becoming a female version of Don Draper, and while that isn’t necessarily the best path for Betty, it’s certainly better than the mousey, soft-spoken secretary she was when the show began. Watching her interactions with the preacher (and eventually standing up to him) and then standing down Pete Campbell when he put his heart on the line, Elisabeth Moss has placed an increasing amount of steel in the spine of Peggy, and at this point, she’s arguably the most well-adjusted and happy person in the office. Her career is on a meteoric rise, and I hope she continues to find success and growth next season. Though to be clear, I hope she continues to find appropriate and not overly-contrived drama of her own so her character remains dynamic and engaging. Elisabeth Moss is officially one of my favorite women in television because Peggy has become one of my favorite female roles.
I’ll end my ramblings about this season of Mad Men (which means I’ll begin my ramblings about the first season of Angel soon!) with one last note. Betty and Don’s separation (and then their reconciliation) bore many similarities to Tony and Carmela breaking up and getting back together on The Sopranos. Since Matthew Wiener got his start on that program, it makes sense and more and more, I notice a lot of thematic and visual similarities between these two great programs. I highly doubt that I’ll catch back up with Mad Men before Season 5 stops airing (partially because Angel has 22 episode seasons) so by the time I finally catch back up with this show, it will be like Dexter and Doctor Who where I’m years behind, but no less enthusiastic about one of the most refreshing dramas on American television.
Final Score: A-