Spoiler alert–do not read this if you don’t want to know what happened in Mad Men, Season 4, including the season finale.
In the Mad Men season four final finale, shortly before main character Donald Draper (Jon Hamm) proposes to his secretary, he tells her, “We all try, we don’t always make it.”
Mad Men’s characters are flawed, dark and irresistible. And as much as the clothing and sets dazzle the eye, it’s the complex performances that have made the show a cultural phenomenon.
Very few of these characters are role models. And yet we all kind of want to be them, whether you could imagine a life in advertising or not. Something about midday cocktails and a mid-afternoon nap in your office just seems kind of great.
In a recent GQ interview with Hamm, the writer, who spent some time on the Mad Men set, theorized that a big part of the show’s success to the fact that the actors are not really actors — they are split-personality cases who have completely lost themselves in the characters. It gives the performances a magnetism that is rare in television.
And when we watch them lie and cheat on their spouses we become that much more interested in their lives.
No Mad Men review would be complete without singling out Hamm of course, and his iconic redefinition of the classic American hero. But it is easy to forget how much of a revelation it is that none of these characters ever say or do what you expect them to, (kind of like real people).
Roger Sterling (John Slattery) for example, is portrayed as both hero and villain. But Slattery’s pitch perfect performance as the man with the silver tongue makes him hard to stay mad at. Even after we see him perform in blackface in season three and go on a racist anti-Japan rant in season four.
An oddly simple fact that is rarely reflected in the movies or on television is that no one is all good or all bad. It’s refreshing to see the show carry on with the unpredictability of real life. In one of the show’s early blunders, season two started to get a bit soap operatic in the middle of the season, with Draper’s affair with a comedian’s wife and manager beginning to feel like daytime programming. Also, a seemingly endless plot with Betty Draper (January Jones) at the horse stables in the same season added nothing.
But season four had none of those trappings. Each episode was dense with complicated interweaving storylines.
Before creating Mad Men, Matthew Weiner was brought on as a writer and eventually executive producer for The Sopranos when that show had fallen into some of the same pitfalls of mundane storylines. He took the series into unfamiliar terrain, most memorably in an episode he co-wrote with David Chase where Tony Soprano takes peyote in the Las Vegas dessert. It shook things up and the show ended strong.
It seems that Weiner is still determined to shake things up.
In what looked like it was going to be a hand-wringing episode about the ad agency Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price running out of money, the viewer is instead whisked off to California. And then of course, Draper’s proposal arrives completely out of left field. Even Betty seemed to want to reconcile in the final scene–with all these brow-raising developments there’s certainly fertile ground for more mischief in season five.
No matter how badly these characters behave, we still root for them, sometimes for reasons that are hard to understand, but always fascinating to watch.