One of the many subversive pleasures of AMC's 1960's-set advertising world drama 'Mad Men,' is that no two episodes are alike, either in terms of tone or focus or structure.
Ditto the seasons.
While season 1 was an earnest exploration and examination of this world, led by the charismatic and slimy Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who works at the steely Sterling Cooper ad agency in New York City. The entire enterprise is set up, including the hierarchy of executives and creative crew and the troublesome gender politics (one of the show's most wonderful aspects is making the female characters, undermined personally and professionally, way more interesting). Season 2 took us down the Don Draper rabbit hole, closely examining who he is and his quest for some kind of personal resolution, while upping the professional tensions. Season 2 was a grimmer, less buoyant season, but it made some startling stylistic maneuvers and definitely kept us riveted.
The theme for season 3 seems to be history.
Previous seasons touched on historical landmarks with a wink and a nod, instead of out-and-out emphasis. You could tell the times are a-changin,' but part of the show's genius is that these characters are too self-absorbed to really notice. Season 3 dramatically shifts the focus to the way that the fictional characters interact and are affected by intense historic change.
Unlike the prolonged time between season 1 (set in 1960) and season 2 (1962), season 3 picks up almost directly after the events of season 2. In fact, towards the end of season 2, Betty Draper (January Jones), Don's emotionally abused wife, got pregnant, and she's still pregnant at the start of season 3. The events begin in the spring of 1963 and conclude by December of that same year.
1963, as we all know, was a fairly turbulent year for America. And it's a turbulent year for Sterling Cooper, having been sold off to a stuffy British company at the end of the previous season. The combined historical and internal tensions mean everything is already boiling before the messy interpersonal relationships even begin. All the while, we're subconsciously waiting for John F. Kennedy's motorcade to swing through Dallas (It happens towards the end of the season), which adds a whole other layer of tension.
Don (Hamm) is still having issues with fidelity, this season taking up with a teacher at his kids' school. His wife, Betty (Jones), after delivering the baby, starts to cotton to his continued philandering ways and takes up a relationship with a powerful man she had a tryst with last season. Meanwhile, in the office, the shift away from print to television advertising has begun and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) has taken up with former Sterling Cooper bigwig Duck Phillips (Mark Moses).
By the end of the season, things have shifted dramatically both for our characters and for the company itself. The season finale, in particular, has a jaunty, we're-all-in-this-together, 'Ocean's Eleven'-style vibe that sets the stakes incredibly high for the next season (which begins airing this summer). Something tells me, they'll deliver.
This might be the best season yet of 'Mad Men,' actually. It's not perfect (there are one too many flashbacks to Don Draper's childhood, flashbacks that there's no way he could have been conscious for), but it is damn good television. Series creator and executive producer (and frequent writer) Matthew Weiner decided to finally have his characters react and interact with the historical tumult in very real and emotionally resonant ways. It could have been a complete creative belly flop, but it totally works. For 'Mad Men' and America itself, 1963 changes the landscape forever.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 'Mad Men' Season 3 box set comes with three 50GB discs. Each disc automatically plays, but only the first disc shows a brief ad for the following season, which starts this summer. (This is the first set to not be released right before the start of the next season.) The set is region free and housed in a regular, slim Blu-ray box. (Your copy of 'Princess and the Frog' will be fatter.) True to form, the discs' interface is slick and easy to use and, going along with the package's 'drink' theme, every time you click on something you hear the soft clink of ice cubes. Also, while the discs are not advertised as being BD-Live ready, when you put in the discs they look for updates, so presumably the discs are BD-Live equipped and there may be additional content down the line.
'Mad Men' is a gorgeous-looking show and it's never looked better than in the MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfers in this set (aspect ratio: 1.78:1).
The show was broadcast in HD last summer but nothing compares to these discs, which bring the rich, historically detailed world to fully formed life.
Skin tones look great, color is outstanding, with detail and texture looking incredibly vivid (particularly in the immaculate costumes and suits). Shadows and blacks are deep and dark, with contrast looking outstanding in moodier nighttime scenes. When reviewing season 2, I talked about the three-dimensional quality to the transfer, and that can absolutely be applied to this season too.
The fine layer of grain seen in the season 2 set has been obliterated. There aren't any buggy technical issues, either. This is an amazingly clean-looking transfer, easily one of the best TV shows I've seen on Blu-ray yet.
Just like the last set, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is not quite as impressive as the video transfer, but it's still very good in its own way. (And just like season 2, this is the only audio option.)
'Mad Men' is a mostly dialogue heavy show, and it is reproduced (and well-prioritized) here. Just like season 2, the rear channels mostly handle the score and the immaculately chosen soundtrack selections, but can occasionally offer some subtle immersive elements.
There seems to be a greater range of locations in season 3, and those are all brought to life, fully, with this audio track. Everything sounds wonderful. This isn't a particularly dynamic mix, although there will be a few shocking sequences that will send you reeling (one in particular, which teaches us the dangers of riding a lawnmower indoors).
This is a really wonderful track. Just because it's not bombastic doesn't mean it's dull. This is a fully realized and immersive experience and should be given major kudos. It too makes this set one of the best looking and sounding television shows on Blu-ray yet.
There are also subtitles in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
Just like in the previous seasons, this is a fully-loaded set, extras-wise. So sit back with your scotch in one hand and your cigarette in the other (candy cigarette, please, real cigarettes are a ghastly habit); we're going to be here for a while. What's great about these features is that they perfectly mimic the season's overall theme of history. Well done indeed.
'Mad Men' is one of the best shows on television. Period. The 1960's-set advertising drama has the perfect mix of personal and professional drama and, in this, its third season, the writers stirred some historical drama into the mix as well. The results were truly captivating. With superb audio and video and a nice collection of extras, cemented by two meaty documentaries, this is a set for any 'Mad Men' fan, either casual or diehard. I may not have Don Draper's wizardly ability to sell anything to anyone, but when the product is as good as Lionsgate's season 3 'Mad Men' set, I might not need his magical powers of persuasion. Highly recommended.