Why, oh, why, did the team behind Mad Men decide to ruin the entire fifth season in its two final scenes? Hyperbole on my part, perhaps, but what exactly were we supposed to make of Don striding out into a cosmic void of a studio leaving his new wife Megan bedecked as a fairytale princess on the set of a commercial? You can only hope it wasn’t a Big Bad Wolf thing because in the next, and final, scene he’s being propositioned in a bar. Thus the cliffhanger is either Don will do what we’ve been waiting for him to do for 13 episodes, or he won’t. The whole thing was dispiriting, as if people can never change.
Megan (Jessica Paré) was the show’s breakout star this season and if most men were in Don Draper’s position they’d probably be unemployed due to a sudden inability to leave their apartments. But anyone who’s ever had an affair in Mad Men – and they all have – has had a knockout of a significant other, so perhaps people are all the same and, indeed, they really can’t change.
If this all sounds sour, it’s meant to, but only because it’s easy to forget that Mad Men – like it’s glittering monsters – has any flaws at all. But nearly every moment from the first episode onwards was a treat; Megan almost killing Don (Jon Hamm) and us with a heartfelt performance, her interplay with her francophone family, her having her spirits crushed by the cynicism of her colleagues, and later by her attempts to make it as an actress. Yes, I enjoyed every moment of Megan, but with a show like Mad Men characters are all we have. The near total lack of a plot, in the whodunnit? sense, or action is rendered insignificant by that rare phenomenon where script and actors converge to make speech or mannerism equally able to crush your soul in a moment.
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) did so for me this time. Most viewers have been waiting since the very first episode for uber-obnoxious Campbell to get what he deserved – something, anything – and in this season surely one-and-all reveled in him being punched out on two separate occasions (the former more satisfying than the latter). But then he found someone to care about other than himself and we found ourselves pitying him when he had that brutally taken away. Only his fellow-commuter’s wife, whom Pete fell madly for, wasn’t killed but had her memory of her newfound love electroshocked into oblivion. As he put it himself, with more eloquence than we knew the little putz had in him, “When it went away, he was heartbroken, and then he realised everything he already had was not right either, and that was why it had happened at all.”
The above quotation could be Mad Men’s tagline in a world where television executives didn’t care whether people watched their programmes or not but the sentiment rings true for nearly every character. Take Roger (John Slattery), for example, who has been continuing his struggle against youth (Pete) and tempering himself between levels of drunkenness, ridiculousness and drunken ridiculousness. His realisation came through an LSD trip with his young wife – now ex-wife due to that very experience. The scenes with Roger on LSD can’t be done justice to here but one would have to say they were the standout moments of the entire season, tantamount to a dream sequence in a show’s actual ‘reality’, which is a bold thing to do when everything else about Mad Men is so grounded in its own realism. Afterwards Roger, like his aforementioned nemesis, displayed a surprising tenderness of his own. Of course, he didn’t change either, or not for long, because he was soon seducing Megan’s mother and making the same mistakes.
Don was also put under pressure by young insurgents, most notably by the entertaining introduction of a new copywriter called Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) to Don’s creative team. This wisecracking upstart is perhaps the only person I can remember who has succeeded in making Don feel insecure at work. So much so that he made a seemingly bad business choice in order to ride his own idea roughshod over Ginsberg’s fresher talent. But the client liked Don’s idea too, so what’s the difference? The difference is that Don may have to rely more on Ginsberg’s ideas now that his protege, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), has left the firm. My concern is that if, as creator Michael Weiner has indicated, Mad Men is going to chart the entire life and career of Don Draper, and he’s this ruffled by competition now, how will he not drink himself to death by the beginning of the Eighties?
Peggy’s leaving the firm is just one example of those events in the show that seem at once inevitable and jarringly sudden. Megan leaving to pursue her acting was another, Lane’s sad fate also. And the whole thing with the Hare Krishna group was a subplot wrapped in an enigma tossed like a mob hit down a blind alley. Such cultural references like this cause some critics to complain that Mad Men is a little heavy-handed in creating its period milieu, but it can’t be helped if the Beatles were around during the Sixties, and a pregnant woman smoking a cigarette is surely as essential to the show as a bonnet is to some Austenesque BBC monstrosity.
If all of the other characters haven’t changed, if Pete changed a little but for the wrong reasons (or through the wrong methods – or did he just end up back where he started?), then one character who has certainly changed is Joan (Christina Hendricks). Oh, Joan – if Marilyn Monroe was Jell-O on springs, what is our Joan? Panna cotta on a trampoline? Anyway, not only has she changed from a kind of ice sculpture reflecting the light of a distant volcano into a warmer, humbler person – a few humiliations and a child can do that, I imagine – her entire psyche has probably split asunder by a moral choice that may have saved Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, but made a dirty business out of the firm, the repercussions of which are bound to be felt in the next season. But, for the time being, Joan is a partner, is rich and expanding upwards.
(Originally written for SKRBBLR.com, July 2012.)