'Mad Men,' Matthew Weiner's brilliant AMC series about ad executives in the swinging 60s, seems to tackle a single thematic issue per season, which usually isn't clear until a few episodes in. (Season three's theme, for instance, was about the characters' intersection with important historical events.) What's so interesting about 'Mad Men's' rollercoaster fourth season, is that its thematic center, for the whole season, is divulged in the very first episode. At the end of season three, we were given the rollicking finale in which Don (Jon Hamm), Roger (John Slattery), Cooper (Robert Morse) and Pryce (Jared Harris) broke away from the firm and started their own upstart advertising firm. That episode bristled with hope and excitement and it had a jaunty, 'Ocean's Eleven'-y vibe.
As season four opens, they've relocated, rebranded themselves (Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce), and are operating under different parameters than they're used to. In the first sequence, Don is being interviewed by a reporter from Advertising Age magazine. A question is posed: "Who is Don Draper?" Don stutters, falters, then thinks hard: Who is Don Draper indeed? Beyond the fact that he's assumed the identity of a fallen comrade during the Korean war, he's also a number of things to a number of people – an unfaithful, now divorced husband; a father; an ad man; a drunk – and it's with these cycle of options that 'Mad Men' season four plays out.
We've never really been sure who Don Draper is, exactly, what his intentions were, and although we've gotten to know him better throughout the seasons, it's mostly been on a superficial level. In season four, things start to fall away. There is, once again, a visit to California, to take a peek at Don's "other life," but unlike previous seasons, it isn't some melodramatic bit of soul searching. Instead, it's a warm, lovely interlude, one that doesn't spend time unnecessarily brooding.
Elsewhere, we even get to see a flashback to how Don came to work for Roger Sterling, which is really cute and not in the least bit a letdown. But we also get Don searching for who he is now, with his marriage to Betty (January Jones) dissolved, and his relationship with his children touchy at best. He's eager to move on, to transform, and in this season he battles his demons head on – his alcoholism, his promiscuity, his cruelty – with a wonderful device wherein he writes down his thoughts in a journal. It sounds awful and cliché, but in the skilled hands of the 'Mad Men' folks it works, completely.
It's this quest for identity that leads the season to its somewhat unsatisfactory finale, with a left-turn for Don Draper that I'm still puzzling out in my mind. (Though the Disney geek in me is, of course, thrilled that it's named "Tomorrowland.") It was a bold decision, for sure, and one that decidedly split the 'Mad Men' fan base.
But back to the positive – forget about the finale! This season's standout episode was "The Suitcase." Written by Matthew Weiner, it's easily one of the single greatest episodes of the entire series, and what's so mind boggling is that it's not based around any huge moments or revelations, but rather is a two-character piece with Don and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) stuck in the office trying to crack a particularly difficult assignment. As the night wears on, feelings are revealed, and the whole thing takes on an unexpectedly hilarious, emotional aura. Like the best of 'Mad Men' season four, the episode resonates with small revelations that reveal larger truths. Don Draper might have been on a quest for his identity, but lucky for us, he still remains elusive and slippery. Like an eel in a well cut suit.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Mad Men' Season 4 comes housed on three (count 'em three!) 50GB Blu-ray discs. Those discs, between episodes and extras, are maxed out, for sure.
'Mad Men' season 4 comes to Blu-ray equipped with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (aspect ratio 1.78:1) that looks much better than the compressed HD broadcasts from summer 2010.
'Mad Men' is one of the handsomest shows on television, with a keen eye towards period detail, particularly when it comes to props and costumes, and this transfer captures it all perfectly. Colors pop beautifully, accenting the genuinely beautiful textures – the bright red of the ladies' lipstick, the shimmery glow of Joan's dresses, the black and white spacecraft modernity of Roger's office; they all look marvelous. Skin tones look naturalistic.
Few television programs look as good as 'Mad Men' when it airs, but the high definition transfer is just dynamite. It has a striking amount of scope and detail (the episodes set in Los Angeles allow for some great visual variety) and, thanks to the transfer, said scope and detail looks even better.
I didn't pick up on any visual issues, and aside from some slight crush, it's mercifully free of technical glitches too. As far as television-on-Blu-ray goes, 'Mad Men' season four is pretty hard to beat.
There's only one audio option for 'Mad Men' season four but thankfully it's an ace, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 job.
The main focus of 'Mad Men' is on the dialogue, which is reproduced here crisply and clearly. You can hear the deep rumble in Don Draper's voice, and the shrill high pitch squeal of Betty Draper (and everything in between – like Joan's husky purr). Things are kept front and center but there's a surprising amount of depth to the dialogue. It sounds great.
The surround channels are mostly used to heighten the atmospherics of the show; during Don's prolonged sojourn to California, you can practically hear the rays of sunlight. Elsewhere, the additional channels are used for the show's vivacious pop music soundtrack, which culls from the era with great panache.
It's not the kind of mix that'll rattle your crystal tumblers, but it is the kind that exceeds through subtlety and dimensionality. It certainly sounds punchier than it did on television, and there aren't any noticeable technical issues to speak of, either. Like everything else on these discs, the audio mix is pretty spot on.
Typical of earlier 'Mad Men' releases, this set is loaded with special features (which can be found on the DVD set as well), including at least one commentary track per episode. It shouldn't take a Don Draper-type to convince you to check out these features.
I shouldn't have to be a Don Draper-like ad man to sell you on 'Mad Men' Season 4 on Blu-ray. It's more or less one of the most perfect television shows-on-Blu-ray packages I've come across, with peerless audio and video and a wealth of informative, entertaining special features. This is a "Must Own" as far as I'm concerned – for both longtime fans and casual viewers alike. A phenomenal package.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.