Mad Men behaves like nothing else on television, a distinction that, after the impressive ratings boost during the bleak, sinewy, and leisurely paced third season, is beginning to beam with triumph—insofar as a lyrically cynical, ethically convoluted portrait of early-’60s corporate marketing can be said to “beam.” Brimming with enigmatic, meticulously cultivated details that have endeared it to film buffs in particular, Mad Men imagines mid-century Americana as a dreamily, if painfully, transformative era, where the difference between heroism and villainy is often determined by corporate hierarchy, where sexual politics carry strong overtones of distaff uprising and masculine uncertainty, and where the dalliances and secret-harboring shoeboxes of business titans like Sterling-Cooper creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) seem to reference noir’s prototypes rather than the genre itself.
Instead of attempting to milk the nostalgic milieu for the usual lollypop-cheap family values, even by way of inversion, the show’s period social consciousness has continued to succeed by gently floating between contemporary non-topical commentary and irresistible flourishes of historical scholarship. Even a casual conversation about the paradox of perceptive empathy (is your color blue the same as mine?), significantly occurring between Don and an extramarital lover-cum-schoolteacher, subtly notes the subliminal tension-trafficking that typified the time’s psychology. And the pervasive nicotine-, alcohol-, and hate-infused social exchanges ruthlessly expose what we always suspected about our grandparents’ careerism—namely, that it was just as self-loathingly cutthroat and emotionally debilitating as that of our gig economy. And if we aren’t half-guiltily sacrificing African-American doormen on our way to the top anymore, Mad Men might amorally observe the lack of opportunities to do so rather than any progressively dissuading civil obligations.
And unlike the tonal sprawl of other collaboratively penned and directed programs, the microcosm of Mad Men has been strenuously smoothed and maintained by creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner; the result is a disillusioned but ultimately amused auteurist worldview informed by the same dissonant cultural touchstones that shaped U.S. postwar identity. The retro-technical lighting and cutting purportedly aim for Sopranos-grade cinematographic prestige, but the luminosity and rhythm more closely resemble the multi-cam-recorded teleplays of the late ’50s (it’s like watching Roger Deakins mimic the primitive, anchored cadence of a kinescope). Likewise, the often prosaically penetrating dialogue wavers between hardboiled facsimile and the headily self-exploratory testimonial of modern theater: Silver fox Roger Sterling (John Slattery) can nail disrespect into its place like the best of pulp employers, and Draper often intimates revelations with seamlessly integrated Arthur Miller-esque flashbacks. Even the show’s now-infamous, low-simmer plot longueurs complicate and magnify quotidian character motives to the existentially excruciating intensity of J.D. Salinger. There’s just as much of “For Esme, with Love and Squalor” as there is Sweet Smell of Success beneath the darkly human hood of Mad Men.
Watching the season four premiere, I was reminded of how memorable the third year managed to be while dispensing with the unnecessary storytelling tropes and thematic tethers that stalled the brilliance of the show’s first few plot arcs. Hegemonic relationships between secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), self-doubting but ambitious junior manager Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), and other members of the Sterling-Cooper talent pool compartmentalized the drama at the show’s inception. But season three was a discursive riff on antiquarian motifs, a 12-hour expansion of the deliberate, oneiric peak achieved with the earlier Palm Springs episodes: wrinkly hotel moguls seduced main characters away from central conflicts and into blind, Freudian alleys; lifestyle orientations sprang rigidly from the subconscious by way of Ann-Margret, only to be cruelly beaten back into the lonely shadows; and Don Draper’s “true” self, finally scrubbed of its audience-hooking mystery, was revealed as an incisive metaphor for the cracking open of Eisenhower-era insularity by the cohesive rallying, and then martyrdom, of President Kennedy. Bloody lawnmower mishaps and surprise, nausea-inducing hookups aside, to watch the most recent installments of Mad Men is to observe an artful metamorphosis from mere eloquence to woozy ineffability.
Splendidly, season four’s opener—the plot details of which have been spoiled and chewed over elsewhere—suggests the continuation of this cerebral, character-developing steadiness, even if it feels somehow anomalous. Picking up nearly a year after the Putnam Powell and Lowe-abandoning antics of the last broadcast, which oddly but confidently left few loose ends for us to agonize over during the show’s hiatus, the episode possibly represents Mad Men’s first narrative reboot. Rather than nervously witnessing Don dance upon the dangling thread of his marriage to Betty Draper (the brilliantly icy January Jones), we now see him picking up and caressing unsalvageable pieces of paternity as he readjusts to singledom and the boundless animalism of midlife dating; similarly, a startup crisis of self-esteem strikes the spanking new Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price, formed by the three masterminds of the company’s previous iteration and Jared Harris’s deliciously mannered British businessman. The brutal niceties and environment-establishing one liners certainly haven’t lost any bite (“For a guy from Ad Age, he can really write”). But after three years of gradually eroding the barriers many characters, especially Don, had painstakingly erected as survival mechanisms, Weiner et al. appear to be pulling their focus outward—toward the exploration of new relationships, conflicts, and mores indicative of the post-Kennedy counterculture revolution soon to come.
Indeed, the episode—titled “Public Relations”—even features allusions to Stan Freberg absurdism and the most blistering example of proto-rock n’ roll we’ve yet heard beneath the end credits (a British invasion rendition of “Tobacco Road”). And though they might elide the shockingly predatory sexuality and professional opportunism in which Mad Men usually wallows, these all-too-brief 45 minutes also include a fascinating nod to the postmodern manipulation theory that would shape the élan of advertising tactics in the century’s final quarter. Peggy’s poorly orchestrated publicity stunt may go embarrassingly awry, but the moments leading up to its clever conception are like a Homeric retelling of the discovery of viral marketing—a now-standard outreach strategy that, much like Mad Men, tosses the textbook out the window in an effort to sneakily harness the less-than-noble traits of humanity. Only by tuning in on Sundays will we discover if the tone of upheaval herein will define season four; regardless, Mad Men continues to hit its stride most indelibly while rendering the off-kilter uneasiness of transition.