Mad Men - Season Five
It’s been 18 long, agonizing months since Season 4 of AMC’s Mad Men left us dangling on the cliffhanger of whether or not maverick Don Draper (Jon Hamm) had finally found a relationship that he could be content with. Eighteen months since we last glided through the hallowed, smoky halls that are the offices of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price, home to such a compelling set of impeccably dressed, perfectly miserable souls fretting over their throbbing insecurities, rotating indiscretions and rank hypocrisy.
How that time seemed to stretch out like an eternity! For a while there it looked like the network might slit its own throat over the series – initially demanding that showrunner Matthew Weiner axe several peripheral characters to save cost and acquiesce to more aggressive product placement. Weiner countered by threatening to take the show to another network, but in the end both parties saw sense: a fifth season was commissioned with the option of a further two, and all was right with the world.
In retrospect, the time away might have been the best thing the show could have done. The transparent sleaze of The Playboy Club and the shoddy soap opera that was Pan Am both attempted to fill the void, but only succeeded in demonstrating what genuine substance and quality sets Mad Men apart, and what shortsighted lunacy it would have been had the series been hamstrung by behind-the-scenes politicking.
So while some — including this writer —speculated that Season 5 might open à la Revolutionary Road, with Don and wife Megan (Jessica Pare) screaming at each other on the side of the road, as lost and clueless as to how they come to find themselves there as we the viewer, the season opened with a slow burn. Of course Mad Men would never be so obvious. Shame on those of us who thought confidence might sow seeds of complacency!
With Don now playing the role of weekend dad we glimpse the tiny traumas we inflict on children of divorce as Don accepts an early birthday gift from Sally and her brothers (because they won’t see him on his actual birthday, those aren’t the terms he and Betty agreed upon) before sending them off with a final backhanded remark about their mother. With that question duly answered, along with others such as whether or not Joan (Christina Hendricks) carried Roger’s (John Slattery) baby to term, much of the two-hour premiere dealt with the planning, precarious execution, and disastrous fallout from Don’s surprise 40th birthday party.
Of course, Dick Whitman’s 40th has come and gone, and when Megan puts Don — and by extension his sham of a stolen life — on display for all his friends and colleagues to patronize, capping it off with the most uncomfortable serenade you’ll ever witness, Don’s contempt for her (really himself) manifests in a venomously unkind rejection of her best intentions. Only later, when Megan, sulking in her underwear, clears the debris from the irrevocably stained white carpet (how perfect a metaphor) does Don become enticed. Only when she has sufficiently depersonalized herself (“You don’t get to have this, you don’t like nice things”) and has made herself just another abstract object for him to romanticize does he become aroused and the two of them fall into a desperate, pitiful coupling on the floor.
Back in the office, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) continues to struggle to assert herself, both as a creative force (Heinz don’t understand the complex subtlety of her baked bean pitch and reject it) and as Megan’s superior. It’s in the few, brief scenes where we see the two of them together that Moss’ quirky nuance as Peggy really captivates, the character caught between her solidarity for another woman trying to emulate her and her insecurity at seeing someone apparently managing both a marriage and a career after she herself conceded one for the other.
Best of the lot remains Vincent Kartheiser, who lends such understated air of sardonic humiliation to everything Pete Campbell does. Perennially under the thumb of his wife and continually unrecognized as the most junior of the company partners, his unending, thinly veiled tantrums offer a diamond-like clarity into the inner-workings of self-absorbed white, male privilege that have become the series hallmark. In a masterstroke of cultural context the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement is treated as an entirely ironic framing device for Pete and Roger's petty power play over who gets the bigger office.
Entombed on all sides by perfect décor, Roger feels the advertising game getting away from him. Lane Price (Jared Harris) is lonely. Joan feels forgotten. Pete Campbell and Peggy are insecure. Don Draper is still wracked by the vacant, empty shell that greets him in the mirror each morning as he shaves in preparation for drinking himself through one more day in the life of a confused serial adulterer. And what are the struggles of an entire people fighting for justice and equality when placed next to that?
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