After the third season finale, the AMC drama about early 1960s Madison Ave advertising executives did what it needed to cement viewers for next season. A game changer that had been in the works through the season, it felt exciting and logical but managed to surprise and delight nonetheless without being an unsettling cliffhanger. I first reviewed Mad Men in its first season and rereading that post, agree with my initial assessment and can now see how well planned creator Matthew Weiner's scope for the series is.

I think the reason for Mad Men's devoted, if small by cable standards, following is that its storytelling is underplayed and rewards its audience's close attention. Scenes are mostly about subtext, the real reasons driving characters to say something in a world about appearances and hype. In fact, so subtle are the performances that it's the only series I sometimes go back and watch scenes again for their rich texture and density.

This season, the downward trajectory of Don Draper, captured every week in the classic animated opening sequence, reached about as far as it could go as his deepest secrets, locked away in his desk drawer, came into his wife Betty's hands. This emotionally blocked but incredibly talented man who doesn't have a clue about true love faced the loss of everything he'd so dysfunctionally undermined by repeated affairs and lies. Now that he and several of his most gifted co-workers and colleagues have risked all to gain greater independence, there's a new chemistry to the show that makes me wonder if there's a chance Don can begin his own climb into a somewhat more functional human being who truly values relationships. It was a season that, at one point, I almost despaired of ever seeing a chance for Don to change-yet another affair, this time with his daughter's school teacher, for heavens sakes, had me thinking that the man was stuck in a cycle that he could never break and thus any hope of moral progress seemed lost, yet he wound up being broken anyway as Betty, exhausted by his behavior and fighting with her own demons, finally had enough.

Though I and so many viewers had held out hope for some sort of rapprochement between two of the best-looking characters on television, it was pretty unrealistic to not let this marriage crack under so heavy a weight. And knowing what we do about Don/Dick, why do we still root for him? Because he's a stud and looks great with that suit and hair? Or does Jon Hamm's incredibly nuanced performance let us glimpse the tortured soul beneath the tanned face?

I've been scarce with plot details in this post because I want those uninitiated to discover this shows pleasures and rewards for themselves. If this intrigues you, you might want to check out the first two seasons on DVD (via sources like Netflix) and if you're get hooked, iTunes has season 3.

I wonder if Weiner has an endpoint in mind for his admen that will allow the epic/intimate period piece to somehow resolve itself, rather than going into a slow decline. Such an endpoint would help Mad Men stand as one of television's enduring works of art, not just mere entertainment.

Posted by: Alex Wainer