Mad Men: Season 5 (SPOILERS!!)

“Are You Alone?”

Isn’t that always the case with Don Draper?  Since the former Dick Whitman deserted the War and reinvented himself, has there been anyone more alone?  In Mad Men, Don Draper has managed to excise his past – and Matthew Weiner has somehow managed to make the stunning secret which was this show’s undertow for two or three seasons to frankly not matter anymore.  Don has a wife he loves – maybe – and a good business.  For all of the steps we have walked with him, he should be happy – but when we leave him at the bar when the damsel asks him the above, he seems every bit the island he ever was.

Of course, this dramatic finish was just the last of what was a season full of set pieces, guignol gestures and dream sequences – so many “big” moments for a series which had spent four seasons building a reputation for tiny moments and the slow burn.  Hell, this was a show which spent two entire seasons building up to the central reveal of the series, and yet here we were with a trippy musical montage, one of the partners hanging himself and the partnership structure changing in a seedy (maybe) manner.  Is this the best of the five seasons?  That is hard to say, but it is the “biggest”.

  1. Feminism has been one of the strongest threads throughout the series, and as the 1960s are veering towards increased liberation – the possibilities for women have opened up.  Obviously the glass ceiling was as thick as ever – but as we see Peggy and Joan deal with their lives, there is the chase of something better.  Peggy has continued to be the best creative, and we’ve seen her rise from secretary to Don Draper’s most trusted idea person – so when she wants the recognition and a level of respect commensurate with her performance, it is startling to see Don cut her down to size so cruelly.  So when she announces her departure from the firm – it is a lovely triumphant moment for her, even if her mentor will never fully appreciate it.
  2. Joan of course, has a much harder decision as the chance to close on Jaguar comes on her doorstep.  Life is complicated – with her husband divorcing and without a ton of prospects for being able to provide for her child, she needs more than possibilities.  She is an interesting contrast with Peggy – a woman who has a lot more experience in the “man’s world”, and while being regarded for her looks is not something she is happy with, at some level do what you gotta do.
  3. Betty Francis (not prominently featured this season with January Jones’ own pregnancy) of course remains a woman much more at home in the older paradigm who has sort of bought into sort of a pre-feminist version of things.  It makes for the same tension which has driven her for the entirety of the series – a woman who sees liberation but is trapped both by society’s expectation, but her own co-opting of those expectations into her worldview.  It manifests itself as jealousies and obsessions and trying to ruin Don’s relationship with his children.
  4. Indeed the tension between the old fuddy duddies and the hippie counterculture permeates throughout.  We have people like Peggy who are trying to see a new way forward (a way that her mother clearly is not on board with), but we also have the partners like Don and Roger who have been the big guns in the room for years – and is moving haphazardly into a world where there might not be so much control.  Sure the LSD and grass are cool, but it is fun to see Don not understand the Beatles.  But these are fairly shallow experience, and when we see the issues Don has with a much more liberated wife, as well as how quick he is to hold Peggy’s career back, we see how uncomfortable these white men are with things shifting, even a little.
  5. But at the end of the day, what we see is the fascinating dichotomy between what others see in Don’s life and Don’s own angle on his situation.  We see Pete Campbell, who wants what Don has and sees some sort of ideal life to aspire towards.  There is the house in Westchester, but the yearning to cheat (hello, Rory Gilmore!) and the itch to have a place in the city.  Pete surrounds himself with the spoils of a certain life, but in Vincent Kartheiser’s portrayal, you can see that Don’s life is still the ideal.  Peggy of course has been mentored by Don, and wants to take his mentoring and venture out on her own.  Everybody wants to be like Don – except for Don himself, who is adrift during most of this season.  He is less interested in work, more detached from his wife’s career as she turns down advertising for acting.  He is a man going through the motions – he doesn’t seem vested in his outcomes.  He doesn’t even seem to get energy from his children.

Overall this season was a treat – and the first season I saw in real time.  The show continues to develop the characters – and Matt Weiner has to be complimented for not leaning on Dick Whitman, and forcing Don Draper in a more interesting direction.  Don Draper has seemed  like some sort of male ideal in earlier seasons, but we see a character now that perhaps we are not supposed to actually be rooting for.  But we have seen his lot so clearly.  I keep thinking he has been lying to himself – those times in California seem like the only place where he has been truly at ease.  Has he phoned in the rest of his life?  How sad would that be.

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