If you were to watch an episode from Mad Men’s first season immediately before an episode from this past one, you would hardly think you were watching the same show. What began life as a more or less satirical throwback to those old Doris Day/Rock Hudson vehicles has evolved into something sleeker, darker, and far more cynical about human potential. Though prior seasons have certainly had their moments, season five is by far the darkest yet, all but sealing off hope of redemption or escape for Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and company. It’s also probably the best, as it finally buckles down and recognizes what the show has never been exceptionally good at and emphasizing what it does better than anybody else.
When we last saw Don, he performed one of television’s most frustrating turn-abouts in recent years: abandoning the woman who, by all means, was the best chance at a stable relationship we had yet seen him have for one many years his junior, Megan (Jessica Pare). Though few were certain this would be the case, Megan’s still around, and she’s a more dynamic force in his life than Betty (January Jones) ever was. Betty’s still around, wading through her marriage with Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley). ‘Wading’ might actually serve as the season’s operative verb, implying neither active pursuit nor resignation. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), professional weasel, is wading through the morass of being an average man standing next to Don Draper, as well as the utter hell of being married to Alison Brie and courting Alexis Bledel. Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) wade through the lives that they have made for themselves, both impossibly charmed and incredibly fragile at the same time. Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) are wading through the gap between the men in their life and the men at the office, and finding the barriers that exist in both cases. In each case, they’re ultimately forced to decide whether to wade any longer, or to leave Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
The first three seasons of Mad Men climaxed with a major historical event (the 1960 elections, the Cuban Missile crisis, and the JFK assassination respectively). They were devices to be sure, but they provided a sense of order to a series that often vacillated between filling the need for story arcs and portraying characters doomed to repeat their mistakes. Without any further events to incorporate without sending the series into Forrest Gump territory, the series has instead ventured inward. The more spectacular set pieces have been downgraded in favor of smaller, more focused confrontations, bound more by a proverbial Big Theme than a linear narrative. By doing so, it hits a number of series highs that might have been unimaginable even last season.
Where season four struggled to find unity with its disparate storylines, season five takes a cold, harsh look at both the world inside and outside of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. To leave is to risk failure and humiliation, but to stay is to be confined until you are ultimately swallowed whole by the institution, and unable to live outside of it. Without giving away any major events (and there are certainly major events), both staying and leaving represent terrible personal compromises. The episodes building up to the series finale, “The Other Woman” and “Commissions and Fees”, are two of the strongest episodes that the series has ever produced, not to mention more formally daring than the show has ever been. Had Mad Men been more tied to ongoing narrative, it’s unlikely that the season’s structure could have allowed them. The show worked as a serial narrative, but it excels as a collection of New Yorker-ready short stories.
A number of issues that haunted prior seasons remain, however, not the least of which being problems of minority representation. The mere act of setting the show in this particular time and place opens up potential problems, but the show has always tread a fine line between critiquing the recent past and glamorizing it. Until now, it was possible to argue that the very insulated nature of Mad Men’s cast was historically accurate, but its politics become a little harder to square with the addition of its first regular black character, Dawn (Teyonah Parris). Though there’s a nice storyline with her in “Mystery Date”, the season’s fourth episode, most of the time she exists as little more than a receptacle for the racist concerns and abuse of the rest of the office. It’s not the first time that the show has missed an opportunity to enrich its world, or to provide insight into the casually retrograde attitudes, but it’s certainly one of the more egregious, and makes it possible to characterize the show’s intentions as less than noble.
As with any series, the final verdict will have to wait until the curtains close, but there can be little doubt but that we are nearer the end than the beginning. In my review of the fourth season last year, I wrote that the show finally displayed the potential to “break glass”; this season is certainly the fulfillment of that promise. If we can hope for anything in Mad Men’s future, it’s that it will transition its leads out of their cocktail bars and into the Brave New World in terms as stark as these, without devolving into condescending hysteria. It’ll be a fine balancing act, and like most things in this show, it will probably yield mixed results, but this season has given us more than enough reason to hope for success.
Over the three discs, this set contains: "Mad Men Say The Darndest Things", a collection of favorite quotes for the series, "What Shall I Love If Not The Enigma?", a look at the work of Giorgio di Chirico, who inspired the season's promotional art work, "The Party of the Century", about Truman Capote's black and white ball, "Scoring Mad Men", a session with composer David Carbonara, "The Uniform Time Act of 1966", a timeline of daylight savings time in America, and a gallery of Newsweek covers. There are also commentaries on a number of key episodes.
"Mad Men: Season 5" is on sale October 16, 2012 and is not rated. Drama. Directed by Christopher Manley, Jennifer Getzinger, John Slattery, Jon Hamm, Matt Shakman, Matthew Weiner, Michael Uppendahl, Phil Abraham, Scott Hornbacher. Written by Matthew Weiner, Erin Levy, Victor Levin, Frank Pierson, Semi Chellas, Jonathan Igla, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton. Starring Aaron Staton, Alexis Bledel, Christina Hendricks, Christopher Stanley, Elisabeth Moss, January Jones, Jared Harris, Jay R Ferguson, Jessica Pare, John Slattery, Jon Hamm, Julia Ormond, Larisa Oleynik, Rich Sommer, Vincent Kartheiser.