"I suspect (Matthew Weiner) is after something darker and more mysterious, something tied into the intersection of personal psychology and social change....a show which explores the systematic dismantling of and destruction of the authentic self, and its replacement by manufactured images and feelings, the very images and feelings Don Draper is so adept at creating."
-- Matt Zoller Seitz, commenting at The House Next Door
"They need a game-changer," I told a colleague shortly before the season finale of Mad Men, and well before Mo Ryan effectively dismissed the notion of game-changers on TV shows. "We hear that all the time (and) yet games remain unchanged," she tweeted, before later clarifying her point: "Many shows DO them well. It's when (Executive Producers) SAY game-changer is coming -- then 'meh' happens." It's always a delicate balance on television between shaking things up and keeping them the same. We viewers are a fickle bunch, bored by the status quo yet easily alienated by change. There are a limited number of options, all of which have spelled disaster for a large number of successful shows: add new characters; move to a new location; devise a major plot twist; or make a feint to change only to revert back to the comfortable and familiar.
Nevertheless, it seemed clear as we entered the homestretch of this year's Mad Men that something had to give. As a big fan of the first two seasons, I was pretty dismissive of the snarky naysaying by James Wolcott, the now defunct Newcritics, and others going against the grain; but this year I had to admit that the miniscule flaws they had pointed out from the start were beginning to magnify and multiply. While Season 3 still featured the usual share of stellar performances -- with January Jones a surprise standout -- too often Mad Men had been getting bogged down in its own self-seriousness, pregnant pauses, and ennui. Don and Betty's extramarital dalliances, a source of rich comic and dramatic fodder in the past, took a sharp turn into dullsville; and the crack supporting cast often seemed adrift, underused. How many times can Sal be spontaneously groped by closeted gay men before the social commentary takes a turn for the ridiculous? (Answer: twice.) Even the intriguing addition of Conrad Hilton as Don's daffy new billionaire client ("When I ask for the moon, I want the moon") had the effect of taking over the series the way George Hearst did Deadwood, putting its main characters in a ceaselessly reactive mode.
Yet Matthew Weiner has a knack for pulling off what Keith Uhlich has called the "Tarantino longueurs," when interminable stretches of inertia are suddenly energized by startling developments. This season's macabre comic classic, "Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency," climaxed with an upstart British exec's grisly rendezvous with a drunken secretary on a riding mower. (His superiors' solemn epitaph:"The doctors say he'll never play golf again.") And this Sunday's giddily dynamic finale, "Shut the Door. Have a Seat," was turbo-powered by Don Draper's refusal to be absorbed in a monolithic ad agency's plot to buy out Sterling Cooper and its colonizing overlords. At the heart of Mad Men has always been Don's sales-pitch, his ability to "find the emotion" behind a product and give people what they need; and the fun of the finale was watching Don pitch to people who know his machinations, to see Roger, Pete and Peggy tell him what they need -- the validation that Don has denied them.
Jon Hamm, Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss, and John Slattery continued to shine in their scenes at the workplace. But it was back at the Draper residence that January Jones was a revelation. Betty's transformation from in-denial housewife to calling her husband on his elaborate pack of lies came in convincing gradations -- repression, role-playing (e.g., her stunning makeover in Italy), revelation -- to where, at the close of this season, she no longer bought his sales-pitch anymore. And yet, stuck with Henry Francis on the wrong plane to Reno, as it were, Betty seems right back where she started. That so many viewers find Betty loathsome (and side with Don under the "charming cad" clause) is, I think, a testament to the authenticity of Jones's performance, that she's gotten under people's skins deeply enough to provoke their defenses.
After three years of cultural Zeitgeisting, critical hosannas and innumerable Emmys, there has been the temptation to see Weiner the way Peggy sums up Don: "You have everything, and so much of it." So it's admirable to see that he hasn't grown complacent, or that he's not above lying to the press corps about whether or not the show would address the Kennedy assassination, which it did quite effectively in the penultimate episode. (I do hope the dramatic shake-up in "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" ends the lazy comparisons of Mad Men to the plot trajectory of each season of The Sopranos. By now it's clearly a false analogy.) Season 3, while less consistent in quality than the previous two, took some interesting risks that paid dividends with a core of key characters, led by Don, leaving behind a familiar world and staking out an uncertain future. In so doing, Weiner & Co. left their viewers with more than what they wanted: they gave us what we didn't know we needed.