Neither money nor women nor a house in the suburbs nor a seemingly endless supply of hard liquor can bring you happiness. That’s been the emotional refrain of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner’s stylishly colorized period shrink session since the first time we saw Don Draper (Jon Hamm) take a drag off of a Lucky Strike on this AMC, show, which just concluded its fifth season. Yep, die-hard fans (and pretty much all MM fans are; there’s very few lukewarm watchers out there) had to wait a punishingly long year-and-a-half to see where the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would end up following last year’s perfection-flirting season. And were they satisfied?
This one was, but only to a point. Season 5 had its work cut out for itself after a finale that saw an impulsive marriage proposal from Don to secretary Megan (Jessica Paré, enjoying a major and deliciously well-acted career break) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) keep Roger’s (John Slattery) baby after an affair while her husband was in Vietnam. And yet despite plenty of forward movement, much of this season felt like a benchwarmer. We met a mysterious new copywriter, Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), but have yet to learn more about him. We still no precious little about Stan Rizzo (Jay Ferguson). We learned of Ken Cosgrove’s (a nicely understated Aaron Staton) sprouting career as a fiction writer, but are left to wonder if his conflict with Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) will continue to grow after the latter passive-aggressively tried to put the kibosh on Ken’s creative outlet. If seeds were planted, many will have to sprout in another season, not this one.
Major plots included emotional revelations for both Pete, who stayed with Trudy but stepped out with the wife of his commuting buddy, and Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who left his wife after finding LSD. These guys are sad sacks, and both actors dig deep into their emotional recesses – when they have the material. For a season that only includes thirteen episodes, I wish each chapter within had provided a glimpse of their ongoing ennui. Weiner and his staff instead threw these characters maybe three to four episodes each of specific focus, which is an episodic disservice to organic character development. For a show that raises the bar in terms of attention to detail, the overall story threads felt looser this season than they have in the past.
As ever, performances were on a par with few others this season. And there were some definite water cooler moments this season – Megan singing “Zou Bisou Bisou,” Joan’s personal sacrifice to become an SCDP partner, Peggy’s (Elisabeth Moss) simultaneous exit from the firm, and Lane Pryce’s (Jared Harris) suicide – some of which worked better than others. For instance, I’ll never forget the look on Peggy’s face as she stepped on the elevator, we hope to greener pastures (she’s the new Tess McGill, a surrogate for all those hard workers angling for an opportunity to advance). But Lane’s heavily telegraphed death never rose above the “well-meaning man caught in a financial tide pool” trope. His death may haunt Don, but it hasn’t resonated with me the way it should.
Which brings me to that most unhappy man of all, Don (no one does hypocritical indignance nor hangdog perturbation better than the inestimable Hamm). Some have criticized the amount of story time devoted to Megan, but I think it was all merited. She’s the most interesting aspect of Don’s current life, and she’s a fantastic character. Megan is a good actress but not an inspired one or an innately raw talent, and Paré delineates that line exquisitely well. Also, I particularly love how Peggy respected her every time we expected her to resent the new bride, a sly way of delineating her own continuingly growing confidence.
But I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of Don’s marriage by the end of the season finale. After giving her a career boost, does he watch her infatuation? Disappointment? Estrangement? Love? Does he actually have plans to move beyond her? The season’s final question, to quote the King of Siam, ‘tis a bit of a puzzlement: “Are you alone?” The answer will always be yes, regardless of how many others are in the room with Don. He’s a solitary man at heart, but that doesn’t mean his marriage to Megan should end. If I tune in next season to find that Megan is on the way out, you can add this writer to the list of unhappy men.
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