In the case of quality TV shows, it seems that four is the magic number. Shows like: The Wire, Dexter, Friday Night Lights, and The X-Files all experienced creative highs in their fourth season. With only two episodes left of this season’s Mad Men, season 4 is shaping up to be the series best season ever.
But that’s not to say what came before it was chopped liver. In fact, Mad Men season 4 wouldn’t be anywhere near as good without the character and story groundwork laid before it. All of the drama in the fourth season wouldn’t mean much if we hadn’t already spent so much time with these characters in the universe concocted by creator Matthew Weiner.
Mad Men season 4 has been the most radically different season of the series. Almost everything we have come to know and love was turned on its head. No more Sterling Cooper, no more Draper family, no more Sal, and yeah … Don is a mess. The once lothario hero, is now a complete wreck, a shadow of his former (successful) self. He is losing his edge both in the office and in the bedroom and can’t close a deal in either situation.
The season started with a journalist asking the question we all have been trying to figure out: “Who is Don Draper?” We have spent the majority of season 4 watching Don self destruct as he tries to inwardly answer that vague question. Four years ago, who would have ever thought we would get to hear Don’s innermost thoughts as he records them in a sobriety journal? Don has spiraled out of control this season, and is now a (an even) less functioning alcoholic. Knowing what he is capable of from seasons past, it makes his fall from grace and journey back to reality that much more interesting to watch.
The format of Mad Men is unique in that it follows a very specific time-line: 1960s, a real period of time that experienced a massive cultural, social and aesthetic change. Mad Men doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and in more than any other show (except possibly The Wonder Years) the cultural shift will influence every character in major ways. Season 4 is so great because it takes place on the tipping point of the Cultural Revolution, and watching the characters we have come to know and love deal with this change has been an absolute TV dream.
Some aspects of Mad Men seem uncomfortably real, others pure fantasy, but the one area where Mad Men truly excels is high stakes, realistic drama. Let me explain. In other shows, the drama and suspense come from highly improbable circumstances. Therefore, our reaction is visceral but we know what is happening is highly fictional. Mad Men can’t really kill off too many characters and still stay true to the show’s realistic voice, instead it can raise the stakes by having us say goodbye to characters we love (Sal) in shocking ways, in order to raise the stakes. Instead of using death as a shocking device, Mad Men has used it to highlight its unique brand of dark humor (Miss Blankenship face plant anyone?).
After a somewhat stale season 3, I really feel that Mad Men’s best work is yet to come. There has been talk that the run of the show would take us through the complete evolution of the 60s. If that is the case, next summer can’t come soon enough!
So what do you think? How do you feel about Mad Men season 4? Is this the show’s best season yet? Sound off below!
(Images courtesy of AMC)