Monday, 9 November 2009

Of Mad Men Season 3

Well that marks the end of Mad Men Season 3 and this also marks the beginning of my third and final review of the show this year. Yup you read that right, I've reviewed all three seasons of Mad Men in these short 11 months. All I can really say is that Mad Men is without one of the best, if not the best, show that currently airs on television. Breaking Bad and Lost can both come close to reaching it's consistency but Mad Men just has that something that takes to a higher (and if you watch any of the shows I've just mentioned you know they're at a very high level to begin with).

So without further ado my review of the shows third season. If you have yet to watch the show then all I can really say is that there will be spoilers and that you should probably go out and watch it, it's just amazing.

So first off I want to get the acting out of the way just due to the fact that if you watch the show then you already know the high calibre that they have on the show. Jon Hamm continues to be superb as Don Draper, the character is just magnetic and Hamm just owns the character and his multiple layers and the dark past that he hides underneath all the business suits. January Jones as Betty was again amazing this year, as was Elisabeth Moss as Peggy, who sadly was sidelined a little after two superb episodes kicked off the year. John Slattery continues to steal pretty much every scene he's in as Roger Sterling with the best lines of anyone on the show. Christian Hendricks as Joan and Bryan Batt as Sal both were spectacular but they two sadly were left early on (but for completely understandable reasons). Also I need to mention Vincent Kartheiser as Pete for also being fantastic.*

However those were the main characters who we know are fantastic, this year we had several new characters and one in particular stood out. Jared Harris as Lane Pryce was an utterly superb addition to the cast this year. Jared Harris can be recognised for his work as Mr. Jones last season Fringe (ie the villain) and whilst he was a very good part of Fringe, he really shows off some astounding talent on Mad Men. It does seem like the writers were doing something similar to what the writers of Lost were doing in Season 2 when they introduced the character of Henry Gale. In Lost they were looking for an actor to portray the leader of the Others and went looking for an actor, if that actor worked then he would stay around, if he didn't he'd be killed off and they'd look for someone else. In both cases it worked and Michael Emerson came into play Henry Gale and is currently one of the best things about Lost and is easily one of the best character actors working today. Jared Harris has done a similar thing. Of all the scenes this season, I found myself looking forward to his scenes the most. He was funny and just a joy to watch, and with how the season ended it does look like he may be bumped up to main cast next season.

Now for the main crux of the season. Of course the show is set in the 60s and we've been told we'd see the entire decade in about 5 seasons. However the first surprise of the season was that the season didn't open like last year with a jump of a year but instead only a few short weeks. Meaning we saw a lot of the pregnancy announced at the end of last season. This led to some very trippy scenes which signaled that Mad Men was going to play around with pre-concieved notions of how the show normally is. There were hallucinations, sojourns to Italy, firings of not one but two main characters and unlike most cable shows the major event of the season didn't take place in the second to last episode but in the third to last episode AND the last episode.

Then there was the lawnmower scene. Mad Men doesn't do violence or push the censors much. Of course the show is dark and there's lots of sex and occasional swearing but overall it's done in a tasteful and realistic way. However the lawnmower that runs over someones foot was completely unexpected, in much the same way as the vomit scene in season 1. It comes out of nowhere, or at least whilst it's obvious that something is going to happen, you don't think that THAT would happen. But it does and blood sprays everywhere and it was shocking. It shows that Mad Men isn't playing it safe and wants to mess around with the conventions that it's made for itself.

We of course have to mention that Sal and Joan both left Sterling Cooper this reason. Sal for reasons that amounted to black mail due to the fact that he wouldn't sleep with a male client. Sal is by far one of the most interesting characters. He's the only gay character in the cast and the 60s attitude to homosexuality is something that has only been lightly touched on and I just hope he comes back in Season 4, even if we don't see him get his job back. Then there is Joan who leaves for different reasons in the fact that it's due to the belief that her husband will be able to support them both. He doesn't and we get some awesome moments, particularly due to the fact that this was the guy that raped her in season 2. The best moment being hitting him around the head with a vase and of course the "Hell Yeah!!" moment in the finale when she shows up to help save the day. Whilst this did lead to the false hope Sal might come back to do something similar. Instead Don kicks in the door, which if anything was even awesomer.

Of course this being Mad Men, it isn't really a straightforward story. The show is more a random collection of events in the lives of the people at Sterling Cooper. When you begin a season, you have no clue how or where it will end up. At the beginning each episode will be very loosely connected to what preceded it and it isn't until about episode 7 or 8 that the landscape of the season becomes clear. Mad Men did that this year, adventures based on different characters. There were moments for both Peggy and Pete to shine. Sal's secret came out to Don, the episode where Betty gave birth and Betty's father, Gene dying (which led to Kiernan Shipka make me take back what I've said about child actors been incapable of acting unless they're on The Wire).

However then we saw where it was going.

This season is where it happened. Betty found out about Don's true past. How he stole the real Don Draper's identity. Of course she didn't take it well, although at first it did seem very strange. Divorce papers and photos of a man called Dick Whitman. Then we got the scene where it all comes out. It was played superbly and of course in the background we had the fact that Don was having an affair with his children's teacher who was sat in the car during the entire confrontation who could make this already tense scene blow up even more than it already had. She didn't but it was quite possibly the tensest thing the show has ever done. Betty forgave him after she heard the full least until the next episode where she revealed her plan to divorce Don. Which is where we ended season 3, Don and Betty's marriage has come to end. Whilst it was inevitable due to Don's endless affairs and secrets it does change the landscape of the show significantly.

The other significant event? Nope it wasn't the assassination of JFK which occurred in the second to last episode. Nope it was the shocking turn of events which led to the entire collapse of Sterling Cooper and the formation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. This is the game changer that the show unleashed on us in the finale episode. A pitch perfect episode from start to finish. Whilst it did contain some dark and emotional moments such as Don threatening to beat Betty when she announces the divorce and the reaction of their children to the news, the episode was actually amazing upbeat, hilarious and a hell of a lot of fun. The episode was built like an old fashion caper like Ocean's 11 where we got to see the building of the team over the episode, there was jazzy up beat music and of course some brilliant lines. We had the return of Joan where then she and Roger acted like an old married couple**, Peggy deadpanning a no when asked to coffee. The brilliant reaction of Pryce when he told his bosses how he'd fired everyone, got himself fired and then managed to wish the a merry Christmas. It was superbly well done and of course we got some beautiful moments such as the conversation between Don and Peggy and how he would spend the rest of his life trying to hire her if she didn't say yes to his offer. So by the end we'd lost a large proportion of the cast and I honestly have no clue where we're going in season 4.

Overall Season 3 was fantastic. It took Mad Men to unexpected and unusual places. It played with normal conventions and mixed in the normal fantastic writing and acting we've come to expect. I haven't even mentioned some of the mixing of real life events of the sixties and key figures. There was of course the matter of race where we found out about racially motivated murders, the fact that Conrad Hilton (yes Paris' grandfather) was a key character and then the murder of JFK. Mad Men is essential television. It is the best thing currently on the air, this season showed it doesn't go for the expected conclusion instead throwing frequent curve balls that constantly keep you guessing.

If you aren't watching Mad Men then honestly there is something wrong with you. The fact the show gets very ratings proves that the vast majority of people of idiots. Mad Men is one of the most unique and brilliant shows on the air. I have no clue what is going to happen in Season 4, how long will the time jump be? Will Don stay away from Betty for long? Will SCDP be succesfull? Will we still see all the old characters? When is Don going to have his next affair? All I do know is I can't wait till next August and the return of the best show on television. Especially with the scope of the show now being expanded beyond the confines of the Sterling Cooper offices.


*If the acting quality weren't so high on this show I may have focused a little more on or two specific actors but it is and I love it for that.

**Side note, get those two back together in a relationship!

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