Mad Men, Season 4

Week 7: Work-Work Balance
Talking television.
Sept. 8 2010 10:15 AM

Mad Men, Season 4

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Week 7: Work-Work Balance

"Mad Men" Cast (left to right), Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Betty Draper (January Jones), Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), and Joan.
Mad Men

I loved that Don capitulated to Duck by crying "uncle." It reminded me that at the outset of Duck's courtship of Peggy, he disguised his identity from her nosy colleagues by announcing himself to her secretary as "Uncle Herman." A sly callback? Probably not.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

On to an echo that was more plausibly intentional. Several TV Club readers with long memories have noted in the comments that Don's hand-squeeze at the end of this episode recalls the squeeze Peggy gave Don in the series pilot. That was back when Peggy thought that sleeping with the boss was de rigueur; her awkward touch was meant to signal her availability. Don rebuffs her, either adhering to the "rules" he claims to have about work or because Peggy hadn't quite achieved "cute as hell" status yet. How elegant to have Don and Peggy's new relationship consummated by the same gesture, now invested with entirely different meaning.

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Remember January Jones? I think Randee Heller might have more Season 4 screen time than her at this point. I'm not complaining. In fact, I'll come out and say it: I think this has thus far been the strongest season of Mad Men yet, and Jones' scarcity has something to do with that. This isn't a knock on the actress. It's just that I prefer Mad Men's office dramas to its family ones, so I've been thrilled by this season's focus on SCDP, particularly in the last couple of episodes. I got antsy last season when we spent long stretches cooped up in the Ossining Hospital maternity ward or in the stifling spare bedroom with Grandpa Gene and his Gibbon.

Mad Men hasn't abandoned personal stories for professional ones. But it now seems more inclined to explore how personal issues play out in the professional setting. Pete parlays news of Trudie's pregnancy into the Vicks coup. Freddie Rumsen nabs the Ponds account by working his AA connection. Roger's lingering resentment of the Japanese nearly kills SCDP's chances with Honda. Don's drinking leads him to steal Jane's cousin's corny idea. (Also: Don opens up to Faye Miller about his struggles with Sally and gets some good parenting advice from a colleague.)

Obviously the personal and professional have mingled on Mad Men before—Don's rules do not preclude him from sleeping with clients or spokesmen's wives. But throughout this season, we've seen personal issues play out in the confines of the office. In this episode, the Time-Life Building provides a hiding place for Don and Peggy, both of whom are trying to avoid personal problems (Anna's death, Mark's persistence). Earlier this season, Lane tried to escape the loneliness brought on by his estrangement from his wife and children by working through the New Year's holiday, at least until he was rescued, after a fashion, by his lonely colleague Don. It's not just the women of SCDP who are struggling to find a work-life balance—it's the entire payroll.

I've loved this season so far because I find the story of upstart SCDP and its troubled but talented staff more compelling than the more familiar tale of the frustrated suburban wife. (Julia, you mentioned Mary Tyler Moore, and it occurs to me it's a series that became more of a workplace drama over the years, leaving behind Phyllis and Rhoda in favor of more time spent at WJM with Lou, Ted, and Murray. I always liked those final MTM seasons best, too!)

Alas, the little teaser for next week's episode suggests Betty and Henry will be back soon enough. Speaking of those teasers, they've become a strange little art form unto themselves. (Andy Bowers, the editor of SlateV, called my attention to this.) Each week, whoever creates these teasers manages to string together 30 seconds of portentous one-liners and fraught reaction shots that at once convey great meaning and give no hint whatsoever at what the next episode might entail. The spots have become so meaningless, in fact, that they're essentially a joke, and kind of a funny one, so long as you're at peace with the fact that no hints are forthcoming.

Any calls for me while I was on the toilet?

John

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