by Karl J. Paloucek
Arguably the most neatly scripted series on television returns to TV this month. And if there’s anything you can say about Season 4 of Mad Men, it’s that anything could happen. That was the takeaway from Season 3’s end and it’s what we hear loud and clear from series costars John Slattery (who plays Roger Sterling), Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell) and Jared Harris (Lane Pryce).
Last season’s finale was effectively a tabula rasa: Rather than become drones for McCann Erickson, Don, Roger and Bert conspire with Lane to start a new agency — stealing away with Sterling Cooper’s best accounts, talent and resources in a weekend raid. And in the wake of Betty’s discovering Don’s concealed identity, she’s seeking a divorce.
“I think he did an amazingly courageous thing in climbing up the ladder and pulling it up behind him,” Slattery says of series creator Matthew Weiner. “I think it’s a hugely frightening thing, too, for him, to blow up this office situation, Don Draper’s marriage, his professional world — so that you have nothing in front of you. A blank page — which has got to be horrifying. And yet, once you sort of figure out how to reset all that, and where it lands, there’s nothing but potential.”
“Potential” by definition implies uncertainty. And with Don, Roger, Bert and the others casting their fates to the wind, we have a lot of it. As Season 4 opens, what will be different? First, according to Slattery, we may be looking at a two-year jump ahead to 1965. (Weiner has discussed in the past that he would like to take the series through the end of the ’60s, so the leap would make sense.) But the passage of time won’t be the biggest change.
“Everybody has to account for themselves now,” Slattery explains of the vibe at the new agency. “Whereas before it was just ‘My name’s on the building, so I can do whatever I want,’ now no one can just do what they please — everybody’s responsible for everybody else as well. These people have all gone into this proposition willingly and knowing the risks, so now all of those things start playing out.”
Kartheiser actually sees this same change in terms that Pete Campbell might express. “This is a group of people who are all taking different-sized risks,” he says. “With some of the characters, like Roger Sterling or Don Draper, you get the feeling these guys are doing pretty well. … But they have a bit of a net, whereas other characters are really risking their finances and their futures, whereas Don Draper and Roger Sterling might be risking their names and their reputations more.”
But what about would-be beatnik Paul (Michael Gladis) and the others left behind at Sterling Cooper? Have we seen the last of their world? “Well, this isn’t The Sopranos, you know? No one’s dead,” Kartheiser suggests. “Those doors are left open. The advertising world is like any business. It’s a small business — small world. There are only so many firms and so many people who are going to stay in it. There’s only so many people who can really do it at any kind of professional level. And so there’s a high likelihood for all sorts of things to happen, and that’s a very nice part about this show is that there can be high stakes like The Sopranos, with the idea that losing your job, you know, is a pretty close third or fourth to losing your life. In this case it’s nice because you can come back.”
Of those going forward at the new office — no, they’re not still in the suite at the Pierre Hotel (“The [new] office set is incredible — beautiful,” Slattery swears, having just finished directing much of the action for the fourth episode on its set) — Lane is the biggest uncertainty, which Harris himself acknowledges. Up to now, Lane has been an overseer and a bean counter, and distrusted as a stooge for the London office. Now it’s an entirely different game of cricket. “He’s thrown his hat in with these guys, so the social game becomes more important,” Harris offers. “It didn’t matter before whether they liked him or not, because he didn’t work for them — he worked for the people back in London. Now, of course, he has a social element that he has to be good at. And I don’t know how good Lane is at that.”
Harris acknowledges that to some extent, Lane has been playing a dangerous game ever since he arrived at Sterling Cooper. “I always thought that it was a dangerous thing being sent overseas to go and run some other company because everybody’s got enemies and once you’re out of the office, it gives them room to maneuver — for your enemies to move around and try and get your head chopped off,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to succeed for youself, but it also gives an opportunity for your enemies to stab you in the back. In this situation now that he’s faced with, now he’s got to form relationships with these people, and there’s probably some lingering resentment there. Who knows?”
There’s only so much we do know that we can point to as we go into Season 4. The questions are varied and many: Did Pete Campbell really manage to bring all of his clients over to the new business, or is he just as willing to cut corners as he is throats to make partner? Will Sal (Bryan Batt) be onboard in the new digs? Will he and his wife — who had just begun to figure out her husband’s secret — still be together? Is Peggy going to have a second child with Duck? And most of all, what will have become of the Draper family?
We’ve seen Sunday’s premiere episode, and while we can’t give out any details, we can at least verify everything Slattery, Kartheiser and Harris have told us. Expect a somewhat different world than the Mad Men you knew — one that’s bolder, though at the same time maybe a little less sure of itself. One that’s getting a little more frayed, although the furniture and people are still pretty to see. Remember the opening title sequence with the guy falling down past the ads and buildings? Keep that symbolism in mind. We may be entering free-fall at any moment.
Season 4 of Mad Men premieres on AMC July 25.