Mad Men Season 4 and the Art of an Existential Crisis

Don Draper stares out his office window

Most avid television viewers can rattle off a list of their favorite shows. Many of us can take that list and narrow it down to a few classic shows that will stand the test of time to us. Then, there’s that next layer of obsessives who take things a little bit further and examine their favorite seasons of a show. What makes a single season of a series stand out? That’s exactly what we’re going to look at in this new series, “Standout Seasons.” This week, Andrew Grevas looks at Mad Men: Season 4. 

“Who is Don Draper”? The opening moments of Mad Men Season 4 would ask the question that defined this run of 13 episodes. Matthew Weiner’s critical darling had spent its prior three seasons telling a story of a man who, on the outside, had it all. Yet on the inside, he was desperately clinging to the false illusions he presented to the world. The third season was Mad Men‘s take on the end of America’s Camelot era, and it was the same for the character of Don Draper. The walls around him had come crashing down. Heading into the fourth season, Don was spiraling faster and faster into an existential crisis, much like how America itself was forced to take long hard looks at itself after JFK’s assassination, with civil uprisings and calls for change taking center stage.

Mad Men Season 4 was the year of change, both for the series itself and the characters within the show. The prior year had moved everyone in the cast forward to places of change and here, in Season 4, we got to see that new reality. Betty had left Don and married Henry. Sterling Cooper had been sold and transformed into a new, much more modern agency, with many familiar faces missing and new ones filling the office. Peggy and Pete were fighting to make their mark in this new, smaller company where fresh young talent should’ve been able to succeed, but both still had obstacles in their paths. Then there was Don, now free to do as he pleased post-divorce. While the prior seasons might have given the impression that Don would be happy to not have to come home to a wife and kids each night, that was not the case. Previous ideas and impressions of Don would continue to be challenged as we asked ourselves, “Who is Don Draper”?

Mad Men Season 4 opened with a reporter asking Don that very question and Don melting down under the pressure, completely unsure of how to answer. The rest of the episode was exposition-heavy, giving us insight into the struggles we would see Don face this season. The final scene of the episode was Don getting another shot at the interview and this time being full of much more false bravado, playing up the version of Don Draper he thought the world should see. What we didn’t know at the time was that the story of Season 4 was all told right there, in those three beats in the premiere. Don struggles with his sense of identity. Don does painful soul searching. Don, faced with an opportunity for growth, falters.


Don and Betty in their old kitchen for the last time.

As previously mentioned, Season 4 was a complete shift for the series. One of the major settings from the previous years, the Sterling Cooper office, was completely gone and replaced by a much more modern, yet less swanky office setting. The second major setting of the previous seasons, the Draper home, was seen significantly less. The evolving settings on the show alone drastically altered the show. Three years of a show is enough to make you feel “at home” in frequently used locations. Mad Men Season 4 removed that sense of security, forcing us as viewers to partly feel some of the changes Don was experiencing.

A cast shake-up also added to the overwhelming sense of change in this season. Gone were many of the previous office stalwarts, such as Paul and Sal, who had become synonymous with Don’s work life. With the new company being formed, it made sense from a narrative perspective to fill the new office with younger talent who would be less salary demanding. These new additions to the Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce team would also not have the same level of “Don worship” that previous employees did. They saw Don for who he was in that moment and based their feelings for him on his actions, not past success.

Season 4 saw Don now living in a small, dark apartment in the city instead of the beautiful suburban home he had left behind. The Draper home was a perfect representation of the image Don wanted to present to the world, yet this apartment represented who he really was. There was no glamour here, no prestige or beauty. It was lonely and dark, emotionally cold and empty. Don Draper had been fighting his sense of self for years and now his actions had forced him to take that dreaded self-assessment, which was literally the last thing he wanted to do.

For a man like Don, who came from nothing and stole another man’s identity, there’s a deep-seated lack of self-worth. The Don Draper identity provided him with a chance to have all of the things he thought he needed to feel like he meant something. The money, the power, the picture-perfect family with a beautiful wife and home—all of these things Dick Whitman thought would fill that gaping wound inside him, caused by pain that would be explored in later seasons. Season 4 saw a lot of changes, and those changes shattered Don’s sense of self, as fragile as it was. He no longer had the family or home. His co-workers didn’t praise him the way they once had. He was alone, left with nothing but his pain, and we watched him cope using sex and alcohol because that’s all he knew to do. Sex with random women and sex workers wasn’t about the desire or need to have sex; it was about the desire to not feel completely alone if even for just a brief time, no matter the means or cost. It was both escapism and an overwhelming need for something. It’s primitive behavior and it’s also incredibly depressing. We as viewers saw the drinking and compulsive sex as self-destruction, but for Don, it felt like a means for survival—a way to get through another day.


Don takes Peggy by the hand in his office

One of the most compelling elements of Season 4 was Don’s relationships with various female characters. There were women he used, women who were a good fit for him, women who he substituted for other women previously in his life, and women representative of cycles Don repeated. Don’s relationships with women throughout the entire series could be used as a barometer of how he was doing internally, and Season 4 provided the most frantic examination of that. Don was literally all over the place, trying to figure out who he was.

Bethany, played by the brilliant Anna Camp, was a woman Don went on a few dates with over the course of the season. Bethany was Don’s attempt to replace Betty, a chance to retrace his previous steps and recreate what had helped him create the illusion of happiness before. Bethany was young, blond, beautiful, and came from a similar social background as Betty. This was an obvious choice for Don to make in his quest to stop his free fall, but Don himself was never really interested in Bethany. There was something internally pushing him away from her, which could arguably be seen as a positive for Don.

Allison, a secretary seen throughout the first three seasons of the show at Sterling Cooper, made the jump to the new company as Don’s secretary, which had also been her role in Season 3. Don seduced Allison, who had helped him home from the office Christmas party early in the fourth season, and then he proceeded to act like it had never happened until she quit in the fourth episode of the season. Don’s relationship with Allison is mostly indicative of his self-centeredness at the time. Don wasn’t oblivious to her feelings at all but rather, he wanted to pretend the whole thing never happened and was willing to hurt her to ease his own guilt over doing something that he knew was wrong. With Don’s sexual relationships, the women almost always knew he was married or unavailable. That was part of Don’s attempt at creating a moral code for himself, as flawed as the logic is. With Allison, Don knew that he gave this woman false hope. He knew that she would want more of him than he was willing to offer. In behavior common among alcoholics, Don avoided responsibility and owning up to his actions in an attempt to “make it go away.” Don had gone against his own standards for affairs and other sexual encounters, and instead of learning from it, he would continue down this spiral, bringing various waitresses and other random women home—women who might have been hurt in this process, women who he had no intention of ever acknowledging again.

Anna Draper and Peggy occupied much different roles in Don’s life than other women. Anna’s passing in the Season 4 standout episode “The Suitcase” halfway through the season came at a crucial point during Don’s crisis of self. After her passing, Don felt a certain call to action. It really could’ve gone either way, as is so often the case with grief, but Don did begin to pull himself up a bit and stop some of the self-destructive behaviors. What makes Mad Men different than other series though, is that Anna’s passing wasn’t some magical happening that forced Don to re-examine everything in his life and wake up the next day and be a better person. The brilliance of the series, and this season in particular, is that Don rather slowed his free fall. He stopped his dangerous sexual activities and slowed down drinking some. He had a desire to be better following the passing of the only link to his true self, but what we saw onscreen was very true to life. People have a desire to change, to get better, but it takes time, and progress is more often slow and steady compared to complete turnarounds. The audience saw Anna’s passing as a chance for Don and Peggy’s relationship to change, an idea that took off after Don broke down crying in front of Peggy. The building of this relationship wouldn’t come to fruition here, however, despite the desire being there. Don still very much thought of Peggy as a younger version of him, and how can you have a healthy relationship with someone you see that way when you don’t even know who you are?

Faye and Megan were the other dominant female relationships for Don in a season filled with interesting relationships to dissect. Faye represented Don’s chance for growth. She was an independent woman who could stand toe to toe with Don. She didn’t need him but rather wanted to be with him. She was an equal not a damsel in distress or a younger woman not sure of her path yet. Faye and Don had undeniable chemistry and had the makings of a healthy relationship, with no skewed power dynamics. She was Don’s chance to break cycles. Then there was Megan. Megan was young, carefree, and fun, much like Midge from Season 1. She was sexually confident, had an exotic spirit, and was not troubled by the idea of a fling, much like Season 2’s Bobbie Barrett. She was also sweet with his children and displayed an easygoing yet compassionate side, unlike Betty and more like Season 3’s Suzanne. Megan was a hybrid of three seasons worth of mistresses and all of the things Don found attractive about them.

Season 4 was the story of Don Draper’s existential crisis: a broken man, desperate to figure out not only who he was but also how to stand on his own feet again. A major part of watching this man try to figure out who he was was watching him figure out what relationships he wanted to pursue. Bethany would have been trying to recreate the life he had with Betty, and he passed on that option. Faye would’ve been the path of uncharted territory, of truly trying to change himself and figure out his true self, and he passed on that option. Megan was the path of self-indulgence. All of the things he wanted from his mistresses and never got from Betty, he saw in Megan and perhaps most importantly, he saw an easy way of feeling good about himself again. Don viewed Megan as a way to fix himself but in reality, that relationship was a band-aid on a gaping wound. While Megan in later seasons would grow to be a much more well-rounded and driven person, Don picked her for the simple reason that she wouldn’t challenge him to improve his crisis of self more than he wanted to. When faced with the choice of simply stopping a free fall or actually addressing his crisis of self, Don took the easier softer way.

Megan calls her mother after Don proposed

Who Is Don Draper?

Mad Men was never the type of show to sugarcoat anything. Don Draper, despite all of his flaws, was still somewhat of a likable antihero during the first three seasons. Season 4 took the bold stance of telling us exactly who Don Draper was: a broken man who wasn’t willing to help himself. In television, bold storytelling is becoming more commonplace, but Mad Men Season 4 ranks as one of the boldest stories ever told. Not only did Matthew Weiner and the team change the show’s settings, its characters, and its tone, they held their lead character up and told the audience that the expectation for Don to be more than this should be low, but hey, enjoy the ride nonetheless.

The seasons that followed built the story from here. Mad Men wasn’t going to be a story of a man seeking redemption. The following years were dark and emotionally challenging, much more so than the first three seasons. Season 4 was the shift from the show’s past to the show’s future, a bold undertaking in and of itself. As viewers, we were left with a complete story that challenged us, defied our expectations, and opened up the world of the larger series for greater stories to come. A man’s existential crisis made into art, which resulted in one of the finest seasons of television ever.

Written by Andrew Grevas

Andrew is the Founder / Editor in Chief of 25YL. He’s engaged with 2 sons, a staunch defender of the series finales for both Lost & The Sopranos and watched Twin Peaks at the age of 5 during its original run, which explains a lot about his personality.

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