The good news: That gives newbies plenty of time to catch up. True, that’s no salve for the chapped hides of fans, but season four, now on Blu-ray and DVD, was so splendidly rich, a revisit is worth the effort. Plus, once 2012 comes around, you may need the refresher.
“Mad Men”’s fourth year — and sure-to-be-fourth Emmy win for Outstanding Drama Series — picks up following the previous batch’s shocking, game-changing finale that saw the dissolution of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency and Don Draper’s marriage. Now, the powers that were at Sterling Cooper have set up their own shop and doing pretty well, thanks to having Lucky Strike as a client, but Don (Jon Hamm — or Jon Yumm, as my wife calls him), even free to go about his tomcatting ways, is as miserable as ever.
Therein lies the delicious irony of the ’60s-set “Mad Men”: The worse off Don is, the better the show gets.
The new structure pushes Don’s ex (January Jones) to the fringes, but that’s OK, as this season is not wanting for excellent story lines. You’ve got the racist, drunken rants — in meetings, no less — of Roger Sterling (John Slattery); Don’s flirtation-cum-affair with a research expert (Cara Buono); the burgeoning feminism of copywriter Peggy (Elisabeth Moss); the return of loutish Duck (Mark Moses); and, to keep Don from getting into sexual trouble with another secretary, the hiring of the elderly, scatterbrained Miss Blankenship (Randee Heller). Although that last one’s played for laughs, they aren’t cheap.
One can argue that every episode of “Mad Men” is a near-perfect hour of television that bests all but the greatest movies, but the highlight — not only of the season, but potentially the show’s entirety — falls in the middle with “The Suitcase.” Essentially, it’s a pas de deux between Don and Peggy as the former forces the latter to work late, and the two argue, bicker and comfort one another over the course of the long, long night. Reminiscent of a sparse, one-locale stage play, it’s masterful acting, made possible by masterful writing.
And just as the previous year wrote itself into a challenging corner at its end, so, too, does season four, as Don drops a bombshell that has “impending implosion” written all over it.
With audio commentaries for each, the 13 episodes come spread across three discs. The extras amount to historical documentaries, many feature-length, that shed further perspective on themes and events that weave their way into “Mad Men”’s plots, from the 1964 presidential campaign to the big no-no that was divorce. While these docs utilize not talents, but talking heads, they manage to make the educational enlightening.
If the only negative thing I can say about “Mad Men” is that the gulf between seasons is too much to bear, that’s a strong case for it being the greatest thing to grace our modern airwaves. —Rod Lott