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Television Review: Mad Men – Season Five

Mad Men – Season Five (AMC; 2012)

American television’s pre-eminent zeitgeist-defining drama Mad Men returned for its fifth season this spring after a lenghty hiatus (arguably a self-imposed one, depending on where one stands on the subject of creator Matthew Weiner’s dispute with AMC over creative control and compensation). Thirteen episodes of entertainment followed that were intermittently enlightening, engrossing, hilarious, painful, ridiculous, and maddening. Critics can complain of uneveness and wish for consistent quality, but Mad Men, like any piece of entertainment that often manages to portray real life with uncomfortable accuracy, embraces the messy contradictions and emotional swings of human existence. With so many fascinating and varied characters lurching clumsily through the world of mid-1960s Manhattan, coming off as dirty-faced angels one moment and silver-lined demons the next, it cannot be surprising that the fictional frame that contains them is mixture of frustration and elation as well.

Those breasts aren’t real.

The show’s main protagonist and thematic fulcrum Donald Draper (Jon Hamm) began the season where few of Mad Men‘s more cynical devotees expected him to be at the end of Season Four: in a state of wedded bliss and sexual fulfillment with new wife Megan (Jessica Paré), his former secretary and now a junior copywriter at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. This supposed bliss, and Don’s uncertainty with it, was visualized by Megan’s slinky performance of French torch song “Zou Bisou Bisou” for him (and in front of a roomful of guests) at his birthday party in the premiere “A Little Kiss”. It shouldn’t be surprising to those of us who know Don better than Megan does that he wouldn’t entirely appreciate the gesture, although there’s also little doubt that Megan’s youthful devotion made for a more contented Dick Whitman.

But Don’s renewed monogamous engagement has left him unengaged at the advertising agency, leaving his one-time protégé and now leading creative workhorse Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) stretched ever thinner in her effort pick up the slack, and feeling increasingly underappreciated as she does so. Even the addition of whip-smart clever young Jewish writer Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) has not helped matters much. As good as Ginsberg is, he clashes with Don frequently, partly because he is so talented that he exposes his boss’ own lack of engagement and increasing generational distance.

Don’s long-time partner-in-crime Roger Sterling (John Slattery, still a weekly delight) is also detached from the agency’s accounts that he once dominated with silvery grace, though for the opposite reason: his own second marriage to a younger former secretary (Peyton List) has disintegrated into open hostility. The personally smarmy but professionally irresistible Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) has stepped in to fill the void with new acquisitions, even as he and his growing family have moved out to suburban Connecticut and he inherits Don’s restless dissatisfaction with settled domestic adulthood. Meanwhile, money man Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) struggles to keep the firm’s financial house of cards from collapsing, an effort which takes on ever more of a personal toll on the buttoned-down Brit accountant. And formidable office den-mother Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) approaches a point of reckoning in both her unhappy marriage to army doctor Greg (Samuel Page) and in her role at the agency.

Mad Men has never veered too far from its core set of themes, namely the pursuit of happiness in American life, its constructions at the entwined hands of capitalism and social convention, and the individual price of that pursuit and its inevitable failure. The show’s treatment of those themes were often startlingly direct this season, nowhere more so than when Don browbeats a Dow Chemical executive (who had casually told Draper over cocktails in an earlier episode that no major corporations wanted to work with his agency after Don’s fuck-you letter to departed mega-account Lucky Strike Cigarettes) with the certainty of his lack of happiness and the insatiable need for ever more money, prestige, market share, everything (“Commissions and Fees”).

As always, Joan is the centre of attention.

Simultaneously an ugly and an inspiring moment for Draper, the outburst in the meeting was so convincing because Don was, of course, talking about himself first and only, possibly, his prospective client second. So giddy with the melding of his professional, domestic, and sexual lives by having Megan in the office with him at the start of the season, Don’s old transient feelings of distrust and malaise were suggested to be returning in the finale episode (“The Phantom”). The first major blow was Megan’s decision halfway through the season (in the intriguing “Lady Lazarus”) to leave off copywriting at SCDP, work that she occasionally succeeded at and that made her even more desirable to her older husband, but did not feel as passionately about as acting, which she vows to pursue with renewed vigour.

With Megan out of the office environment and mostly at home while failing to find thespianic gigs, Don feels increasingly alienated from her but undergoes a professional resurgence that may turn out to be too little, too late in the face of a shifting cultural paradigm. Confronted with an ambiguously open elevator shaft and the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”, Don is equally baffled by both, just as he fails to fathom the basis for the enthusiasm of young Rolling Stones fans while pursuing the band to cut a goofy parodic jingle for Heinz Baked Beans (“Tea Leaves”). Ironically, the bon-vivant Roger proves much more adaptable to the changing times, becoming a devotee of the enlightening powers of LSD after taking the hallucinogenic drug at a dinner party (“Far Away Places”).

But Megan’s exit from SCDP was only the prelude to two much more stunning exits from the office near the end of the season, each of which shone a harsh and revealing light on Don’s battered soul. Next out the door was Peggy (in “The Other Woman”), Don’s psychological equal and his intimate confidant in last season’s stand-out episode “The Suitcase”. Certainly she was frustrated with being taken for granted by Don, and his monstrous cad move of throwing money demeaningly in her face was the immediate stresser, no doubt. But Peggy’s acceptance of an offer from a rival agency that understood and appreciated her ability also had to be partially driven by her traditional mother’s rejection of her non-traditional decision to move in with her boyfriend Abe (in “At the Codfish Ball”). The also-traditional Don likewise reacted with initial refusal to the evidently-rehearsed announcement of departure by Peggy (in the immediate aftermath of the firm winning the much sought-after Jaguar account, no less, ascent and descent in immediate contrast). But as Draper recognized her resolution, he flipped through the stages of grief at lightning speed, from naive disbelief to resentment to sad acceptance, as he chivalricly kissed Peggy’s hand goodbye. It was a brief but powerful showcase of Hamm’s absurd range of emoting, as if another one was really needed.

Sorry, Megs. Eartha Kitt, you ain’t.

The other, more final exit from the show came in the next episode, “Commissions and Fees”, and left no opportunity for knightly virtue from Don or from anyone else. Lane Pryce, hounded by Britain’s legendarily stingy revenue authorities over back taxes owed on investment income he poured into SCDP’s coffers to keep it afloat in lean times, tried to embezzle the required amount from the company in the form of a presumptive Christmas bonus to himself. When the partners’ bonuses vanish in the face of more of the belt-tightening that necessitated his white-collar crime in the first place, Pryce’s forging of Draper’s authorizing signature becomes known to Don. While Don himself can take another man’s name for his own, he can’t allow anyone else to borrow it, and confronts Lane with his indiscretion, demanding his resignation.

Although Don thinks he’s being fairer to Lane than he could be, the course of action he forces on the proud, bent-up Brit is the worst of possible options. Despite the brief delight of England’s 1966 World Cup triumph and the winning of the Jaguar account that Lane first spotted as a potential target, there have also been larger setbacks for Pryce. He came to fisticuffs with Campbell in the office, calling the young account man “a grimy little pimp” before dropping him; a moment of wonderful wish fulfillment for the Mad Men audience, but no doubt humiliating for the proper English gentleman. He then followed this by kissing office ally and object of desire Joan, with no reciprocation, before watching her be sold off for a night of sex with a Jaguar executive in exchange for their business.

When Lane’s wife gifts him with a new Jaguar in naive enthusiasm for his success, the symbol of his failures finally pushes the man over the edge. When even his suicide attempt inside the vehicle is unsuccessful, he hangs himself against his office door, forcing Don, Roger, and Pete to cut his corpse down in a stomach-tightening sequence. Little wonder that Don begins to see apparitions of his younger brother Adam in the next episode; once again a human problem he tried to convince to disappear in a cloud of money takes him far more literally than he intended, and in a similar, noose-related way. If Lane’s death is not all on Don Draper, the red mark of the hanging rope on his ghost-brother’s throat made it clear that his guilt would not be abated.

So… Jagerbombs?

The finale also included strong hints that the glow had faded on the Draper marriage, as Don finagled his failed-actress wife into a commercial job with one of SCDP’s clients before literally walking away from a fairy-tale scene on the set of the ad. He began the season in a thrilled haze at his professional and personal lives being seemingly melded into one, but ended it in disappointment as what was a creative and romantic collaboration becomes unequal nepotism. This combination of work and sex is not what Don has imagined or idealized and perhaps reminds him too much of his previous marriage, and he slides back into the cigarette-smoke fog of a Manhattan singles bar. “Are you alone?” an attractive young girl asks him to end the season, and for Donald Draper, the answer is ultimately always “Yes.”

There’s much more to be said and noted about this fifth season than there is room to do here. There was Pete Campbell’s return to sliminess after a season or two of relative integrity, the continuing maturation of Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), the weight gain and bursts of nastiness experienced by her mother Betty (January Jones), and the return of old favourite Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) as a Hare Krishna convert, which saw him being simultaneously aided and betrayed by the increasingly insufferable Harry Crane (Rich Sommer). And there was Joan Harris, who thrilled feminist viewers by dropping her nightmare of a rapist husband and then frustrated them deeply by selling her body for a partnership in a plot twist that may prove to be the most divisive in Mad Men‘s run. That nearly two-thousand words is insufficient to adequately sum up the aesthetic and hermeneutic implications of a mere television drama is as good a proof as any of the depth, breadth, and stunning variety of experience that Mad Men provides. However much longer the control-freak Weiner decides his modern masterpiece need continue, our culture will be richer for having it among us.

Categories: Reviews, Television
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  1. July 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm
  2. February 9, 2014 at 8:12 am

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