Tube Tied: Notes on Mad Men's Fourth Season
Mad Men's fourth season, which finished this past Sunday night, had a dualistic quality, it seemed to me. On the one hand, the season had some of the strongest episodes of the entire series—particularly "The Suitcase," which I wrote about in this space before. On the other, it had easily the worst, most blunt, least moving finale of all four seasons. It also signaled a sort of repetition in storytelling that I think may show that the writers are running out of juice. I'm not sure how many times, for example, I can worry about Sterling Cooper in crisis, or tolerate Don unloading all his familial responsibilities on another wife he'll undoubtedly tire of.
The one consistency, it seemed to me, was that the show had a lot more trouble than usual writing its women this season. Much of the best writing centered around Peggy, which I've covered in past posts here, and who barely appeared in last night's finale, so let's talk about the other female characters.
Take, for example, Don's new fiancée Megan (Jessica Paré, who like Megan is from Montréal). Her grating, flat affect always makes me want to send Weiner some literature on the notion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Vaguely “artsy” without any actual and therefore truly threatening practice of actual art, pretty in any kind of dress at all but ultimately not afraid to spill strawberry milkshake on herself, and totally acquiescent to whatever Don wants or needs at any moment, Megan, as depicted thus far, is less of a person and more of a male fantasy. Her two-dimensionality is even worse when she’s juxtaposed with characters like Peggy and Joan; she seems to belong, in fact, to another show altogether, one far less subtle and interesting. And now, it looks like, were going to have to live with her in the next season as some kind of Betty replacement. Fabulous.
There was enough distance in the finale to suggest that the writers are not unaware, of course, that Don is Making A Mistake by marrying Megan. (Take, for example, the entire Peggy and Joan post-game of his oddly-theatrical engagement announcement, by far the best scene of the entire episode.) In fact, Don has done little other than make mistakes this season, living every single guy cliché in the book, right down to marrying his secretary. Don really does appear to be becoming everything he hates in Roger as the show goes on, doesn't he? No longer tethered to the earth by the Perfect Family at home in Ossining, he spent most of the season spinning out, and in that context, I suppose it is no surprise that he tried, at the end, to recover himself in a second marriage. The now-jilted Faye Miller (Carla Buono) called it, I guess, last Christmas: Don was remarried within the year. I only felt partially sorry for Faye, myself: she’ll be telling that breakup story for the rest of her life. I would have felt much more so if the show had bothered building her character into anything more than what was strictly required to make her last night’s martyr. (Read: goodness untempered by any real personality.) She was always just a flatter, less assertive Betty, with a graduate degree and intelligence we were more told about than shown. The only time she’s shown real gumption was in cutting Don off, last night, when he wanted to “meet up” and “talk,” forcing him to have the awkward conversation he wanted to have right there and then, without keeping her in suspense. I suppose a good parting shot is better than nothing.
Following on the theme of flat, lazy writing of women on a show that has traditionally been devoted to anything but, Betty, additionally, seems ripe for being written right off the show. I keep thinking there's no further way the writers can make her less sympathetic, but then there they go and have her fire Carla, the Draper/Francis' black housekeeper, over nothing at all. I don't demand, of course, that all the women on this show be saints, but I remain completely puzzled by the way Betty became this show's parking lot for every negative stereotype anyone's ever had about women. It’ll be interesting to see if January Jones even gets a renewed contract for next season. Given that her scenes are mainly limited to yelling on the phone, and being among the most unsympathetic, screeching portrayals of a housewife I can ever remember seeing on television, I wouldn't even blame the actress if she wanted, at this point, to leave.
Perhaps relatedly, I’m not sure why this show has had such trouble building more interesting new female characters on the show. It’s true, of course, that Peggy and Joan have been the beneficiaries of a lot of screentime devoted to character development over four seasons, but I simply don’t remember finding them, even way back in season one, as flat and uninteresting as I’ve found virtually every new female character on this show since the beginning of the third season. It’s like the writers used up their mojo early on, and now all we’re going to get is an endless world of Miss Farrells and Megans instead of Midges, Bobbis, and Rachel Menckens. It’s a much less interesting world, it seems to me.
And finally, I'm not sure what to make of the fact that Joan is, to the delight of most fans, I assume, still pregnant. Though it's hard to understand, given that the show has given us so little hint of what's going on inside her head, why she thinks the child will have to be presented as Dr. Rapey's. It's the kind of small detail I can't help feeling like the show used to know it had to fill in, that we would have to understand why Joan wanted to stay where she was. Perhaps we'll get lucky next season; perhaps there will be an explosion overseas, and Joan will end up a single mother. Or maybe this is just the writers' way of reminding us that for all Joan's early-series sexual freedom, she was never the kind of woman who wanted to do anything that much differently than anyone else. She wants the house upstate, and the smiling snapshots. She doesn't want the revolution, per se.
And the revolution, one supposes, can be for Peggy, it doesn't have to be for everyone, but it seems to me like this season has opened the door to a show where it will only be for her, while the show places on that character's shoulders all the burdens of depicting a rounded female experience. And that, I think, if it happens, will make Mad Men a lesser show.
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