Mad Men series 4 episode 8 review: The Summer Man

After last week's spectacular installment, Mad Men settles down for an episode of quiet introspection. Here's our review of season 4, episode 8...

4.8 The Summer Man

Is it just me, or is Mad Men getting funnier? While always sharp and wittily written, Matthew Weiner’s series has become increasingly humorous of late, offsetting the frequently depressing inner life of its characters.

Even as Don Draper’s life has steadily descended into the bottom of a scotch bottle, the events that occur around him have become fertile grounds for unexpected laughs. Take Don’s secretary, Miss Blankenship, for example. Gravelly voiced, absent minded and surly,  she lights up every scene she appears in.

Perhaps sensing that last week’s episode was insurmountably sublime – and irrespective of channel or country of origin, it ranked among the very best forty-or-so minutes of television drama of the last few years – The Summer Man was an altogether quieter, more modest installment.

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Having reached what appeared to be a crossroads in his alcohol dependency, where he faced the choice of either putting the scotch bottle aside or drinking himself into ruin, Don has wisely chosen the former path. This episode saw Don at his most thoughtful and introspective, going for a morning swim at the local pool – marking the first instance of actual exercise we’ve seen in four seasons of Mad Men – and quietly writing a journal at the table of his apartment.

At SCDP, things are less settled. Peggy’s team of creative minds are becoming increasingly unruly and chauvinistic, and when Joan steps in to prevent freelancer Joey from wrecking the new vending machine, she’s subjected to a series of abusive comments and cruel practical jokes.

While Don’s recovery is an important part of this episode, it’s the show’s female characters that form the main focus.

We saw Betty’s anger and jealousy when she bumped into Don and one of his several potential love interests. Then we saw the way Joey treated Joan, and how strong she has to be when she defends herself against their puerile remarks.

Meanwhile, Don is subjected to a mild dressing down from his young date, who insists that he spend more time with her. “We are from different generations,” he says, “because I don’t remember a woman pushing this hard.”

Later, he succeeds in convincing Doctor Miller to come out with him on a date. She’s another of Mad Men’s increasing number of strong-willed modern women, and it’s telling that, over dinner and a glass of wine, Don finally apologises for not listening to her advice in the office.

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Is this a sign that even Don’s attitudes are changing a little? Certainly, Don now seems more respectful towards women than the group of chauvinists that Peggy and Joan have to deal with.

This episode could therefore be seen as one of contrasting perspectives. Don’s taking stock of his life, understanding where he’s gone wrong and how he can improve, while the younger males in his business are clinging on to old and repulsive attitudes and prejudices (Joey’s question to Joan, “What do you do around here other than walking around as though you’re trying to get raped?” is extraordinarily shocking to modern, liberal ears).

While praise has been heaped at Mad Men’s feet for its exemplary writing, its detractors have also accused it of being too self-congratulatory. Its depiction of the 60s era of drink driving and casual chauvinism is, its detractors have said, not only inaccurate, but also serves to a kind of liberal pat on the back. By judging the attitudes and values of a fictional 60s, we can feel good about how far we’ve come and how enlightened we are.

I think those that accuse Mad Men of such things are missing the point; while the show does attempt to contrast the actions of the past with the present – few people would consider drinking quite so much alcohol at work these days, though some may wish they could – Mad Men is more about characters struggling within a stifling social framework.

Mad Men makes for satisfying television not merely because we can bask in the flaws of its characters, but because they’re fighting against the limitations that are imposed upon them.

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It’s compelling for the same reason that historical romances are often compelling – social and emotional divides, and characters’ attempts to cross them, make for fascinating drama. This is why Don’s journey from his humble, working class origins to money and success is so engrossing to watch – and why his often painful search for solace in the American dream is the most exciting TV I’ve seen in years.

A quiet, introspective episode of Mad Men, then, but one that is nevertheless filled with wonderful moments of drama.

Read our review of episode 7, The Suitcase, here.