Netflix has just made Mad Men available on streaming, just in time for the announcement that shooting for the long-awaited season five is due to start next week. This, of course, led my editor to propose that I watch and review season four, to get everyone all fired up for the fifth season, and thus it was that I foolishly consented to a Mad Men marathon over the weekend, forgetting that watching more than two episodes in a row tends to leave me in a state of deep depression and sensory overload due to the rich, layered complexity going on with this show.
Basically, I’d consented to eat the television equivalent of 13 flourless chocolate tortes in a row, without stopping. I briefly considered laying in a supply of martinis and curious foods artfully packed into Jello molds and decorated with sprigs of wilting parsley, in true ‘60s tradition, but ultimately, I decided to go it alone, fearing that I would become insensate from alcohol poisoning midway through episode three if I approached the endeavor as a drinking game (unless the game was ‘drink when you see a Black person’), and rightly avoiding Jello for the culinary and sensory offense that it is.
Hour One: ‘Public Relations’
Reestablishing our characters after time away; Don Draper in the grim surrounds of a rented apartment, a quick flash of Joan, impeccably dressed and raising a silky eyebrow. Betty, an uncertain ice queen. Peter is such a douche. I always forget what a douche he is between seasons, and then almost immediately, he reminds me of what a douche he is.
Mad Men is as much a show about setting as it is about characters, and the season opener establishes a dark, sombre setting. ‘The world is so dark right now,’ Don’s date (a blonde, bubbly casting decision who feels like an anachronism, lacking the classic good looks of the rest of the cast) says. For all Peter’s blustering about being a scrappy upstart, the agency is cramped, a veneer of flashiness sitting uneasily on top of limited space and an even more limited budget. The storm in Don Draper’s personal life has clearly spread to his surrounds, let’s put it that way.
Hour Two: ‘Christmas Comes But Once a Year’
Something about watching a Christmas-themed television episode in the middle of July just feels deeply, deeply wrong. In other news, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce should consider ‘Christmas: It’s the rapiest time of the year’ as a tagline, apparently.
Hour Three: ‘The Good News’
Bright colours! Hedonism! Grim medical diagnoses! Oh, wait, we don’t want an exclamation point for that one. Mad Men lets down its hair a little, and new strands are added to the web of secrets that seems to be choking the characters. Maybe the social revolution of the ’60s was really just the result of too many repressed secrets popping out at once.
I’m starting to feel a little frayed around the edges. The fabric of reality is starting to descend into the walls of a set and I peer up at the ceiling, suspicious about the lack of overhead lights. I’m also vaguely worried about the fact that the only paisley thing I have in the house is a pair of lime-green underpants.
Hour Four: ‘The Rejected’
Secrets, secrets, everywhere, all exploding on the screen! Revelations! Babies! But alas, no lesbian sex scene for Peggy with her new ediatrix pal, although this looks like only the beginning of her bohemian phase, so who knows! I make a note to look for Peggy/Joyce fic later.
Hour Five: ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword’
I imagine shooting rotting tomatoes at Roger during the scene with Honda. ‘Pew pew pew,’ I say to myself, quietly. As his face reddens with rage, I begin to wonder if I have crossed the fourth wall and am actually affecting the characters now. I purse my lips and blow when Joan walks by, but she doesn’t seem ruffled.
Betty-in-denial says that the troubled Sally is ‘fast.’ At age 10. Fast. I hope you mean you think she should go out for track, Betty.
I switch to airplane noises.
Hour Six: ‘Waldorf Stories’
Oooh it’s been a while since we’ve had a flashback episode. From fur salesman to award-winning advertising executive: The Don Draper Story. Meanwhile, Peggy Olson does battle with her working partner, who is a smarmy asshat. I’m glad to see Peggy regaining some of her fire, she was looking a little washed out, much like the sets this season. Don’t be afraid of colour saturation, Mad Men!
I’ve decided to make some sweet potato fries. It’s my current culinary obsession.
Hour Seven: ‘The Suitcase’
Poor Peggy. This day is not going well for her. Although I kind of want to dive into the screen to tell her to stop being a pushover for smarmy dudes with bad hair. Seriously, Peggy, you can do better than that, grrl!
And this appears to be the bodily functions episode. Hooray. Now I’m regretting those sweet potato fries.
(P.S. I think the mouse is a symbol.)
(P.P.S. You know?)
Hour Eight: ‘The Summer Man’
A splashy opener! Complete with…internal monologue? I’m not sure switching narrative styles midstream is a good call, y’all. Don Draper sounds like the voiceover on a cheesy detective story, especially with the (rare for Mad Men) incidental music. It’s really not working for me.
And either I’m hallucinating, or the show has introduced a Lovecraftian crossover, because I’m pretty sure Joan just turned into an elder god in the elevator. I add another note to check for Mad Men-Lovecraft mashup fic.
Hour Nine: ‘The Beautiful Girls’
This episode’s heavy-handed storyline: Civil rights. Peggy’s nascent feminist tendencies come complete with a side of racism as she plays oppression Olympics in a smoky bar.
I need a slice of pie.
Hour Ten: ‘Hands and Knees’
Betty gets a visit from the DOD and Joan’s back at the OB/GYN while Don hits up the Playboy club. Is Don’s carefully constructed identity about to fall apart? Is this ‘Don’s identity is about to be exposed!’ storyline ever going to resolve itself?
I find all these ties oddly mesmerizing.
Hour Eleven: ‘Chinese Wall’
Visually, this is a very dark episode. We get it, things are grim for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. You don’t need to belabour the point with contrast so low I can barely distinguish who is speaking. Positively funereal!
Or perhaps it’s just my gritty, tired eyes. I can’t seem to do television marathons like I used to. Am I out of shape? Do you get out of shape for these kinds of things? Do I need to see a personal trainer?
Hour Twelve: ‘Blowing Smoke’
This is like the speed dating episode; let’s watch all the characters desperately try to land accounts in a series of flurried meetings, only to be passed over in lieu of rival agencies. I can almost hear the bells dinging. Oh, wait, that’s the telephones ringing in the background while fired secretaries sob with boxes of belongings.
In a way, the framing of many of these scenes reminds me of a still life, with the artfully dressed sets and actors. Sometimes I get so distracted by the visuals that I forget to pay attention to what people are saying, you know? Or I think it’s the arranged fruit talking.
Hour Thirteen: ‘Tomorrowland’
Oh I see, when you go to California, you get colour saturation. Really? You have to be that stereotypical? But then you come back home, and it’s all dark and grim again?
IS THIS A METAPHOR?
Wait, it’s over? That’s it? I was just starting to get a second wind.
In summation, more seriously, and after a night’s sleep: Should you watch the fourth season of Mad Men? As an individual season, it feels a bit less sparkly than prior outings; there were definitely some clunky storylines that stood out, as though the show is trying a bit too hard to provide social commentary instead of just telling stories that speak for themselves.
However, there’s also a lot of great stuff to mine in this season, especially when you’re watching episodes back to back as I did. Mad Men is a slow, thoughtful kind of show, and it’s easier to see how storylines fit together and play out when you’re not letting a week lapse between episodes. Most importantly, it’s gotten me excited for season five. I still want to see where these characters are going and what they do next, particularly with the Elder God element, which I could see going in a lot of different directions as the show careens into the mid-60s.