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‘Mad Men’s’ exquisitely flawed family

For the fourth season of “Mad Men,” the viewers and characters of Matthew Weiner’s elegantly icy show are returning to a landscape blown open by divorce, a new business and the now-cresting cultural revolution of the ‘60s. Gone are the days of Betty and Don Draper exchanging curt pleasantries at the dinner table. Instead, it’s 1964 — the Beatles are invading with their mop tops, and little Sally Draper’s become a latchkey kid.

For Jon Hamm and January Jones, the AMC series’ marquee actors who have each been nominated for Emmys (along with several other cast members) for their portrayal of television’s most prickly pair, the change is radical but not unwelcome.

Hamm, who describes their new dynamic as a “frosty détente,” said the shift to an estranged couple negotiating child custody and living arrangements was a satisfying progression in storytelling. “This is the new paradigm,” he said from his first day of shooting “Bridesmaids,” the upcoming comedy co-scripted by Kristen Wiig, in which he plays a wedding attendee. “It’s uncomfortable and difficult for Don … some changes are being forced on him, and he’s having to suck it up and deal with it.”

His biggest priority is staying connected to his children. “Don knows what it means for a child to not have a parent around,” Hamm said. “He wants to be part of their lives.”

For Betty, the new reality with Don might be slightly more comfortable. As the keeper of Don’s secret about his past, Betty’s in a rare position of power over her first husband. “She knows she’s holding the cards,” Jones said. “It’s very awkward between them but somewhat amiable at this point … I don’t think there’s a lot left to say.”

As hard as it was on the viewers to watch Betty and Don shoot acid arrows at one another at the end of the last season, the emotional toll was greater for the actors.

“The scenes were beautifully written,” Jones said, “very dark and sad, but it was emotionally rough knowing it was the end for them.”

For Hamm, it was exciting to finally play the denouement of a multi-season story arc but taxing as well. “It had to be very real, and that wasn’t fun to tap into.” They lightened the tension by joking between takes, but despite the heft of the scenes, they didn’t spend any additional time shooting them. “We’re always moving fast,” Jones said.

Though Don may have to tiptoe around Betty and her demands, Betty also has her work cut out for her with new husband Henry Francis’ skeptical family, the dramatic stand-in for the era’s widespread disapproval of divorce. For Jones, the shift to her character’s new life was jarring. “When I came to the first table read, the script said ‘Betty Francis,’ and I nearly threw up.”

Betty’s nerves aren’t much better. At the Thanksgiving dinner in this season’s first episode (which drew in 2.9 million viewers, a record for the show), she cracks under the scrutinizing gaze of Henry’s mother. In response, Betty does what comes so naturally to her: “She takes it out on the kids, as usual,” Jones said.

Playing a woman whose maternal instinct is so appallingly bereft is a salty pleasure for the South Dakota native who speaks with a slight Midwestern twang. “It’s a weird job when you get paid to beat up on a kid,” she said. “But I find it fun to play one of the worst mothers on television. I’ll probably not get married or have kids of my own because of it,” she said with a laugh.

Jones and Kiernan Shipka, who plays sad-eyed Sally, have an understanding about their scenes. “Sometimes they’re just so ridiculous,” Jones said, “we both start laughing. We always have a good laugh afterward to make sure I’m not hurting her or her feelings.”

As for Don, his fracture with Betty hasn’t changed his philosophy of love one bit. He’ll go on trying to compartmentalize his life — business in one corner, romance in another — and his past will be as far away as he can fling it. Though his new business is proving to make that harder than ever.

“Don’s realizing that the rules of the game have changed significantly,” Hamm said. “They’re at a very different place with this agency; there’s not 40 years of history. Don is going to have to do some things he doesn’t like to do.”

But, as Hamm points out, if there’s one thing Don excels at, it’s adapting. When asked if he’s still learning new qualities about his mysterious ad man, Hamm delicately maneuvers around any future plot points. “Nobody lives life without it impacting them … the more we move on with that story, the more we can see the results of that life being led.”

Whether Don’s a cipher or the devil, as Times television critic Mary McNamara recently posited, Hamm reserves all judgment and instead seeks to accept Don’s many dimensions.

“He’s misunderstood in many ways. He’s a man of many charms and talents, but he’s also a man of many flaws. There’s certainly a case to be made that he’s not the greatest guy in the world, but I think all of that comes from circumstance and his history.”

Whatever complexities dog Betty and Don, it doesn’t mean the viewer can’t have empathy, even as they cringe at the sight of Betty dragging Sally by her hair or Don telling yet another lie about himself without a blink.

“There’s this thing in TV where people always want their characters to be likable,” Hamm said. “Don isn’t necessarily that, but he can be rooted for. That’s the line we try to walk.”

margaret.wappler@latimes.com


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