Season Five of “Mad Men,” What Just Happened?

The fifth season of “Mad Men” made it clear the turbulence of the ’60s would affect the characters. More people than ever are waiting to see what happens.

Don Draper in the dentist’s chair

It’s going to be a long weekend. As if the season finale of Game of Thrones two weeks ago wasn’t enough, now viewers of “serious” TV (i.e. the perpetually lazy) will go through their first weekend without Mad Men and Veep. After the season finale of HBO’s Girls tomorrow, our once stacked-Sunday nights will have been totally dismantled within a three week span. Now that summer’s here I might have to actually put on some pants and see if this “sun” thing is real. It sounds gross.

Game of Thrones was a tough loss, but losing Mad Men might be too much too soon. Season five confirmed that what was once just a show has turned into a cultural phenomenon. Despite the fact that the Nielson ratings determined only 2.7 million people watched the finale last weekend, the term “Don Draper” seems to have universal recognition in our society.

It’s not easy to see why the show is more popular than ever. The fact that almost one million less people tuned in to watch the finale than the season premiere is proof enough of that. Between Netflix and DVDs there are more than enough ways for viewers to catch up but the show the rest of us just finished watching is not the same one that debuted on AMC in 2007.

Remember when Mad Men was in the news because of the smoking and sexism at Sterling Cooper? What was once a show about a man reinventing his persona and the essence of the American dream has gotten really dark, really fast. It’s now a heavy, sad melodrama. There’s less banter over “something brown” and more camera shots of the characters we thought we knew looking down elevator chutes or dogs having sex.

Pete Campbell summed it all up in his speech to his newly lobotomized mistress during last week’s finale. He said he delved into the affair because, despite having a beautiful family and new promotion, he felt empty inside. The short affair didn’t do anything to erase that hole that exists in not only Campbell, but seemingly every other character on the show right down to Sally and Glen too. Everyone wants something more.

If you take a quick look around the Internet, each Mad Men recap explains the show with a different theory. Roger took LSD because of this or Ginsberg is the next Don because of that. Viewers of the show have even more diverse and varied ideas about the show. I for one can’t believe Glen hasn’t killed anyone yet. My guess would be Trudy. No one can be 100% sure what it’s all about, there’s just too much projection both on the part of the show’s creators and audience to get a firm grasp on what each character is really thinking.

Female characters are now driving the show. In the pilot episode it seemed like Joan and Peggy would exist on the perimeter of characters like Don and Roger and for four seasons, they did. While Christina Hendricks, Elizabeth Moss, and newcomer ­­­Jessica Paré didn’t get as much screen time as John Hamm’s jaw line (but more than John Slattery’s ass), the decisions their characters made were essential to the plot of almost every episode.

Mad Men’s partners staring out the window

All three showed how Don Draper was slowly losing control. Don and Megan’s marriage looked strong through the first few episodes. By the time she began losing interest in advertising, though, Don started to look just plain old. Then there was the scene when Don showed up drunk to find Megan furious enough to throw a dish across the room. Even though he reverted back to the Don Draper-as-husband mode audiences were used to early on, it was clear this wasn’t going to be Don and Betty redux. When Don said to Peggy “You help someone and they move on,” he could’ve just as easily been talking about Megan. As we found out a few scenes later, he ended up helping her acting career get started.

The already famous shot of Don walking away from Megan

At work Peggy realized she was never going to be the boss, or even appreciated by the boss. It seemed like Draper throwing money in her face was the last straw. Peggy’s exit might’ve been the tensest scene of the season, with Don coming completely unglued and spouted, “Let’s pretend I’m not responsible for every good thing that’s happened to you.” It just wasn’t about the money, which brings us to Joanie.

Poor Joanie. There was probably one loud cry of “YES!” ringing across America when she dismissed her rapist husband with “You know what I’m talking about” but by the end of the season it looked even bleaker for her. Moments like Jaguar’s (and SCDP’s) indecent proposal are ones that remind us that the Mad Men zeitgeist is similar to how it was when The Sopranos dominated water cooler conversations. It’s fun to catch up with shows via DVD but nothing replicates the feeling of knowing you’re on the edge of your seat at the same time as 3 million other people. The philosophy of how Joan was treated was the same one that made Peggy want to look for something more.  To Pete, Lane, Bert, and even Roger Joan was just a tool in their plan to snag Jaguar. When the partners continued their prostitution discussion after Don stormed out, we saw that he has less influence than in the past.

Mad Men has become a show about bad people. Don stole a man’s identity, was a serial cheater, and might be partly responsible for his brother’s suicide. Roger knocked up a married woman at his office, Pete is psychopathic, and Betty doesn’t seem to realize there’s a world that doesn’t include her. For God’s sake, the show killed off one of the firm’s partners. After the latest incident with Joan, there’s no turning back.

Megan was the brightest light at the beginning of season five. In one sentence she poked fun at all the anxiety the show had built up in the past. By the end of the season the same woman who said, “Nobody loves Dick Whitman, but I love you” was drinking alone. When Megan was preparing the film the commercial on Sunday night, “Zou Bisou Bisou” seemed far in the past.

The problem is that all this foreshadowing is probably going somewhere. When Don and Roger pitched to Ken’s father-in-law we saw how off his game Don really is. As the ‘60s come closer to an end were going to see more of Vietnam, has anyone else noticed Glen Bishop is going through his teens right as the draft approaches? It’s hard to see any happiness these characters have actually increasing. Joanie has already been affected by Vietnam and precious little Sally is about to get a lot more confused.

Luckily for Sunday night viewers, Breaking Bad starts up again soon so we won’t have to go long without watching a coldly depressing show with undertones of death. Enjoy the sun, I guess.

Related:

On Mad Men & Serial Killers

The New York Times is Reporting Mad Men paid $250 thou to play the Beatles last night

Where’s Betty?

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