So, this is out of the ordinary. Long time readers know that when I review seasons of television programs after they’ve stopped airing, I generally review them on a disc-by-disc basis (or I guess if the DVD isn’t actually out yet based on previous seasons). No one would want to read me do an episode-by-episode breakdown of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Doctor Who (actually, those are the two older shows I watch that people would have enjoyed that because the fandoms are so nerdy). I choose disc by disc reviews because some stretches of a season are good and some aren’t. For example, during the first season of Mad Men, it took me to the final disc of the show to finally understand what Matthew Wiener was trying to accomplish with this program. Similarly, I mostly enjoyed the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the first couple of episodes where the Potentials showed up were nearly unwatchable. I like to capture the ebb and flow of a season of television if at all possible. However, for multiple reasons with the third season of Mad Men (mostly that I watched all but one of the five episodes of the first disc before I went to Bonnaroo and then I watched the other episode when I got back and much of the action had became hazy in my head, plus I had written 4000 words for two articles for work and I was just feeling lazy), I decided to simply review the entire season at once. Even though this was the weakest season of Mad Men (two is my favorite), I regret that decision because Mad Men remains one of the most thematically complex programs on American television.
One of the reasons that I like to review a disc at a time is that my natural inclination to go on at length about the plots of TV shows (because of subconscious training I’ve received by reading Entertainment Weekly review/recaps) is restrained if there are only three or four episodes. Trying to cram a season’s worth of plot for Mad Men into one or two paragraphs will be interesting. Essentially, the season begins by focusing on the fall-out of Sterling Cooper’s sale to a British advertising agency and the new leadership of their British overseer Lane Pryce (Jared Harris). Although Don and Betty seem to have put their near marriage meltdown behind them from last season, it’s not long between Don’s infidelity and Betty’s general bitchiness start to tear their marriage apart. Don has remained rakish throughout and begins an affair with Sally’s teacher, Suzanne (Abigail Spencer), while Betty begins a romantic involvement with an adviser to Governor Rockefeller (soon to be Vice President Rockefeller), Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley). When Betty discovers the truth of Don’s past as Dick Whitman, she finally decides to end the marriage and to be with Henry. Sterling Cooper is sold again. This time’s it’s by the British company. Because Don, Roger, and Bert Cooper don’t want to work for the agency that they’ve been sold to (and Bert knows that his old age means his career is over with a new company), they decide to pull a fast one under the Brits by having Lane fire them, poach as many of the accounts as they possibly could, and start their own new agency. Except now, Don’s name is on the metaphorical door of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
I left out leagues and leagues of subplots there but that’s what happens when I don’t review a show in a more serialized format. TV isn’t movies and it doesn’t lend itself easily to highly condensed reviews. Honestly though, I just wasn’t crazy about this season. It’s still great TV, and intellectually, it’s leagues beyond everything else on TV. However, Mad Men always moves at its own, very deliberate pace. That’s fine. It gives stories a chance to truly develop at a natural pace rather than occurring at TV time. However, season 3 took the deliberate pace and turned it into a glacial pace. It took nearly seven episodes before I felt anything especially significant started to happen and it wasn’t until the final two/three episodes that major changes began to finally occur. And honestly, so many of these events carried such a weight of inevitability (Don and Betty’s divorce primarily) that it seemed like they were dragging things out for dramatic reasons. On other programs, that wouldn’t be so bad, but on Mad Men, much of its appeal comes from the way that things seem to happen so realistically. There were moments this season where I felt like I was being reminded I was watching a scripted TV program and it robbed the show of some of its magic. Also, the general lack of engaging dynamic character development (particularly on the Peggy Olson front til the final two episodes) lessened the impact of what is generally the greatest part of the show, its characters.
Thankfully, the acting was as top notch as always (except for January Jones anyways. She, and by proxy Betty, is the weak link in this program). Jon Hamm remains the second best leading man on television (behind Bryan Cranston). And I honestly think that Don Draper is a far more engaging character than Walter White. I just think Bryan Cranston is the best leading man in the history of the television medium (I can’t wait for Breaking Bad to come back). His performance as Don Draper this season was potentially his best yet as we finally saw Don at his breaking point. He’s often the definition of cool composure, but we saw his carefully maintained facade crack several times this season and it was wonderful. John Slattery continues to be the scene stealing ensemble dark horse of the program as Roger Sterling, and he had a lot of great scenes with Christina Hendricks towards the end of the season. Bryan Batt left the program this season (a mistake on the part of the show’s writers I believe unless he wanted out), but Sal also had a lot of great moments where he finally came to terms with his homosexuality only to be fired after someone from Lucky Strikes made a pass at him that he rejected. Elisabeth Moss kept her place as my favorite cast member even if she didn’t get to do a whole lot this season. Though the moments where she finally stood up to Don were some of the most engaging of the season. However, January Jones remains the worst leading lady on serious television so she weighs down the otherwise fantastic acting of the program considerably.
I’ll draw this review to a close because it’s much more difficult for me to write in-depth about 13 episodes of TV at once than it is for me to gleam insights from a single episode at a time. I still don’t quite understand why except for the fact that when you watch that much TV in a row, it all starts to blur together. I’m finally finished with this season of Mad Men though which means it’s time for me to return to the land of Joss Whedon and Angel. I actually watched the season premiere last night with my dad. There was a new character introduced who has the opportunity to be my new favorite character on the show. We shall see. So, we’re going to take a 22 episode break from Mad Men and then return for Season 4 after I finish the second season of Angel. A lot of changes did finally occur at the end of Season 3 of Mad Men so I’m excited to see what all of the fall out from these decisions will be. Also, among my friends who are fans of the show, there’s a general consensus that the fourth season is the best so that’s as good a sign as any. So, let’s say goodbye to Sterling Cooper (or should I say Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce) and say hello again to Angel Investigations.
Final Score: B+