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'Mad Men' got down to biz this season

Mad Men

10 p.m. Sunday, AMC

Risky behavior is the organizing principle of "Mad Men," an immorality play built around those bad habits of the 1960s that we now try to abjure: drinking, smoking, promiscuity and racial and sexual prejudice.

And the fourth season, which comes to a close Sunday on AMC, wallowed in the ugly consequences.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm), no longer so suave, drank and smoked until he got sick, staggering around his office with vomit stains on his shirt. An office manager's night of adulterous passion put her in an abortionist's office. A bohemian artist who enjoyed free love with Don in Season 1 was ready to sell herself to him in Season 4 to support her heroin addiction. The executive who dared to flaunt his love for a black cocktail waitress was beaten by his father.

All these downers couldn't be helped, really. When a seductively dark show gets into a fourth season, there is no place to go but down and darker still.

Yet a livelier drumbeat lightened that bleak melodrama. That was, of all things, office work: the chances that Don and his colleagues took to succeed in the volatile world of advertising.

And even more than the mid-'60s allure it's the water-cooler brinkmanship that makes "Mad Men" so unusual and so engrossing.

"Mad Men" channels an ethos when the rat race felt like an open competition. This season, even more than last, the show became a workplace drama in which promotions, pink slips and client meetings were packed with emotion and suspense.

Matters of life and death?

Most serious shows feel the need to raise the stakes of employment to matters of life and death. It's why "House" is set in a hospital, not a dentist's office; "The Good Wife" celebrates criminal defense lawyers, not accountants; and "The West Wing" showcased the White House, not a California congressional district.

Little that happens in Don's office is a matter of life and death, not even the demise of his secretary, Miss Blankenship (Randee Heller), who collapsed face-first on her desk. "She died like she lived," Roger Sterling (John Slattery) muttered. "Surrounded by the people she answered phones for."

That death was put in not for poignancy but as comic relief in an episode fraught with tension over the Fillmore Auto Parts account and a leftist writer who rattles Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) with a denunciation of the advertising business.

The most shocking moment pivoted on the defection of the firm's main client, Lucky Strike.

It was so momentous a loss that Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) left the hospital while his wife was in labor to deal with the calamity. The partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce summoned the staff for an announcement as somber as a declaration of war. Don was asked to add a reassuring word to the troops.

"We're going to push ourselves shoulder-to-shoulder," he said grimly. "And it will be exhilarating."

And it was.

Roger Sterling's insouciance slipped for once. He fought the firm's efforts to woo Honda out of loyalty to his comrades who died in the Pacific during World War II. Don came up with a Potemkin television commercial that tricked a rival firm into spending vital resources. And the high point may well be his shoot-the-moon strategy to finesse the Lucky Strike blow.

Office relationships

The best relationships in that contentious and unforgiving world were forged in office crises. Pete, who began the series as an opportunist, manned up this season and took the blame for losing a defense industries account to protect Don's secret past.

Even Don's big romance this season was a work thing: He got involved with Dr. Faye Miller (Cara Buono), a smoothly competent market researcher.

Don's real best friend is Peggy, a former secretary whom he didn't sleep with but did promote to copywriter.

They quarrel about ad copy but share a deep bond forged in protecting each other's secrets. They both live for their work. Even though she is fighting through a thick wall of office sexism, Peggy's love of the business keeps trumping her efforts to find love.

"I know what I'm supposed to want," Peggy told Don after her boyfriend dumped her for choosing to spend her birthday working. "But it just doesn't feel right or as important as anything in that office."

This season, she was right.

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