Five episodes into the fourth season of Mad Men and I must say I am very pleased. Much more so than I was at this point into the third season. Last year seemed to meander and it did little in the way of answering questions from season two. Somehow though, season three did manage to set up quite the cavalcade of questions of its own, and this season we’re getting answers for those questions and some recollections of season two as well.
While last night’s episode, “‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” was not my favorite this season, it did have several good belly laughs, which are always a welcome relief amongst the rest of the encompassing gloom and doom. Don’s new but very old secretary is the source of most of the comic relief, but I wonder how long she will last. Certainly such confusion on a younger secretary would have warranted a dismissal long ago. But Don is probably not ready for another pretty young thing, what with his last indiscretion so huge and so far removed from his previously unflappable self.
Last night’s plot – and I mean that in every sense of the term – involving the sabotage of another advertising agency by Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, is at least the second time this season that the startup has employed devious tricks to further their cause. (The first was Peggy and Pete’s staged supermarket scuffle over a Sugarberry ham.) There has been some attention given to the art of the ad, such as Don’s refusal to market Pond’s Cold Cream as a stepping stone to marriage (“You can’t predict how people will behave based on how they have behaved”), but there has been as much attention given to the politics of landing the client and keeping them happy. There probably aren’t many rules in advertising, but any that exist were ignored by SCDP last night when they pretended to be breaking the rules of a competition only to win over the hearts at Honda by following Japanese customs to a tee.
I suppose it was Roger’s turn from his usual savvy and quick-witted self to an earnest and racist old war veteran that threw me for a loop and soured me ever so slightly on this episode. Mad Men never shies away from showing us the antiquated racist and sexist attitudes that maybe plagued or maybe just permeated society in the ’60s, so I guess it shouldn’t have been such a shock. And while I missed Roger’s usual sharp-tongued but lighthearted quips (“I love how they act like choirboys. You know at least one of them is leaving New York with VD”), I did like the opportunity it provided to show us once again just how much Joan & Roger belong together. After his third or fourth fit, Joan calms Roger down by explaining to him that he fought to make the world a better place and he succeeded. The scene left us with a linger wide shot of Joan and Roger facing each other but standing several feet away, probably some sort of visual representation of the unfortunate distance between them.
After an episode or two sans Betty, we got another glimpse into her new home life, which is still taking place in her old home. Little Sally is very troubled but probably not as troubled as Betty…yet. Sally has spent the past two seasons acting up in a desperate attempt to get some attention from her mother, but all to no avail. Now she’s getting some attention from the school psychiatrist, despite initial resistance from Don and Betty. It was rock steady new husband to Betty, Henry Francis, who talked Betty into reliving her therapy days. I admit that Henry was quite a mystery to me last season. I didn’t see the attraction between the two and the relationship seemed to move awfully fast based on almost nothing (or maybe that’s how things were done in the ’60s), but the writers have done a good job this season showing Henry as the caretaker Betty longed for but couldn’t find in Don.
Which brings me to another theme I see emerging in season 4, and that is that I personally hate certain characters less and less. Henry Francis seems like an okay guy to me now. Why, he almost makes me forget that he is still the creepy guy who started a relationship with a married woman by asking to touch her baby bump. Joan’s husband Greg exhibited a modicum of professional competency as he stitched up her finger in episode 3. He doesn’t seem as whiny and self-absorbed as before, but I won’t be forgetting that this is the depraved man who raped his fiancée. And finally, Pete Campbell. I kind of hate that I don’t hate Pete Campbell. Once so ready to implode on himself, he seems to have settled into his place as partner (actually putting Roger in his place in this episode) and into his home life as well. It was pointed out in another season 4 recap that he talks business with his wife, something none of the other male characters do. We saw Trudy’s calming influence on Pete a few times last season. First she reminded Pete, who was competing with Ken Cosgrove over a promotion, that the company believed in him and did not want to hear his outrage, and then in the last episode of season 3 (Shut the Door, Have a Seat) she told him not to reveal to Sterling Cooper that he was looking for other work. There is definitely a good woman behind this man.
So overall this might be the happy season of Mad Men, though I’m guessing – and hoping – that it’s just the calm before the storm. Things are brewing all over the place. All is not well in Draper and ex-Draper land. Don is being called a has-been behind his back and is utterly lost without his wife. How is it that now that Don is a single man, all of his affairs seem so torrid and cheap compared to the extra-marital relationships he built while he was with Betty? Betty is still not on track to be mother of the year, and despite Henry’s rapt attention, I don’t think she is particularly happy in this marriage, either. Pete is getting ready to have a baby with Trudy, but let’s not forget the abandoned love child of Pete & Peggy. I think Peggy has found her crowd and will settle in nicely with the hipsters, but she has another relationship she needs to shake and that might not be so easy.
Also, while we’re in the habit fo bringing back former characters (Yay Freddy! Yay Ken! Oh, hi Smitty…) let’s PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE see some more of Colin Hanks’ doomsday preacher.
And finally, perhaps the best joke of last night’s episode came this morning when I googled “Dr. Lyle Evans” thinking this another ’60s reference I just didn’t get and found out that there is no such person. Well played, Mad Men, well played.