Dear Julia and Patrick,
After a long wait, Mad Men returns to the airwaves on Sunday. Are you guys excited? I’m … getting there. I confess that the 18-month hiatus has had a strange effect on me. I feel like I’m suffering one of Grandpa Gene’s forgetful spells—I’ve been having some difficulty remembering what happened last season. I recall the major events: Don proposed to Megan; Lucky Strike broke up with SCDP; Joan hopes her baby doesn’t emerge from the womb with a suspicious shock of silver hair. But I needed to jog my memory on some of the slightly less momentous plotlines. Here’s a pop quiz for you guys: Which of the following events actually happened in season 4 of Mad Men?
a) Duck Phillips attempts to defecate on Roger Sterling’s new office furniture.
b) Lane Pryce is brained by his elderly father for falling in love with a black Playboy bunny.
c) It is revealed that Bert Cooper has no testicles.
d) Freelance artist Joey Baird gets fired for drawing a picture of Joan Harris fellating Lane.
e) Sally Draper masturbates to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Trick question! The correct answer is f) All of the above. Before rereading last season’s TV Club—and watching this four-minute recap video—I’d forgotten all these choice details. I didn’t even remember Joey Baird existed. (His only other contribution was casting doubt on Harry Crane’s heterosexuality.) Are you guys having similar troubles calling last season to mind?
I’m sure the longer-than-usual lag is mostly to blame. But I wonder if there’s also something about the events of last season that make them a little harder to hold on to. I’m not talking about a drop-off in quality—though there was a little too much Anna Draper for my taste, I thought last season was generally superb. But both at work and at home, the lead characters were treading water. Literally so, in the case of Don, who took up lap-swimming in his attempt to reinvent himself (or re-reinvent himself, really) as a city-dwelling divorcé.
It’s as if each character took a tentative step forward, then a step back. Don finally enters a seemingly healthy, adult relationship with a smart, confident woman—then calls her from Disneyland to break things off, on account of the fact that he’s just proposed to his secretary/baby-sitter. (Of all the dickish things Dick Whitman has done over the years, that call to Faye Miller has to be one of the worst.) Joan tells Roger that their days of hillside roaming and room service are over—then acquiesces to one last clinch.
I interviewed Matthew Weiner this week, and I asked him whether he thinks his characters are capable of change. He doesn’t. He talked about the human tendency to “revert to master”—that is, to repeat our mistakes in the hope that this time around they won’t turn out to be mistakes after all.
During the first three seasons of Mad Men, we were still getting to know these characters, often learning about them from their missteps. By the fourth season, we saw them falling back into familiar bad habits, reverting to master. I think that’s another reason I’ve found it hard to remember some of the fourth season’s details: When you first realize Don is a philanderer, it’s a jolt. The 10th and 11th unlucky ladies start to blend together.
I respect Weiner’s commitment to his belief that people have a very hard time changing, even when they want to. But it presents a dramatic challenge: How many times will we tune in to watch Don make the same mistake? I was frustrated by last season’s finale, because I thought Don had been making real progress by opening up to Faye Miller. It irritated me that he would throw that away for the latest pretty face to fall for his Draperly charms—even if that is truer to life than having him emerge from six months of crawl strokes and journal entries as a new, monogamy-loving man.
Of course, even as Don and company fail to change, the times keep changing at an ever more rapid clip, and that has helped keep the series from stagnating. Dollars to doughnuts says Don cheats on Megan by midseason—but afterward he’ll go on a long, brooding drive in his new ‘66 Ford Mustang Fastback, fretting about the bombing of Hanoi while listening to Blonde on Blonde.
One hope I have for this season is that it will focus more squarely on the fate of the fledgling firm. We saw very little of Don’s creative magic last season, save for the Glo-Coat spot, which was already cut before the action began. I look forward to seeing him back in the boardroom, unveiling his clever new idea for the Maytag mascot: a bored repairman!
Julia, you’re up next: What are your fondest hopes for Season 5, other than more outstanding intimates from Trudy Campbell? And Patrick, you’re the Ken Cosgrove of this TV Club, having taken a year off and now returning to the fold. (Thank me later for not saying you’re the Freddy Rumsen of this TV Club.) What were your impressions of Season 4?
Here’s to the beginning of things,
Slate’s TV Club will be chatting with readers about the Mad Men premiere and what to expect from the show’s fifth season. Join them on Facebook at noon on Monday, March 26 to take part in the chat.