Mad Men Opening Credits (for atmosphere open in new tab)
The great American writer John Updike had a saying that has stuck with me for some time and could be considered a tagline for the entire series:
“America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy”
An abstractly optimistic statement to be sure, to which most Americans would probably shrug-off, but ultimately adhere to and live-by in their daily lives. Mad Men; however, is about the architects of that so-called “Conspiracy”. They popularized materialism and consumerism in those catchy tag-lines, full-page ads and commercial jingles. They, more than anyone else, know what the “Pursuit of Happiness” entails. As Don Draper stated all the way back in Season One, advertising is in a one word about ‘happiness’. Though ‘happiness’ might as well be on the moon for the executives of SCDP.
Reviewing an entire season of Mad Men is like trying to review vast volumes of existentialist literature. Where to begin? The only real way is to begin is the set-up in the previous year, Season Four. Don (Another strong season for Jon Hamm) begins Season Five dutifully bound to his new copy-writer, former secretary, wife Megan (A very good Jessica Pare). He married her seemingly out of the blue, while vacationing with his kids in California. He has his reasons, boiling down to he wanted something new. He was vastly depressed in the past year, spiraling and falling deeper into darkness, nearly mimicking the opening title sequence. He tried to form a romance with a consultant, Dr. Miller, working with the agency. Sparks fly and Don is seemingly back to being Don Draper, until his daughter goes to his office, unannounced. Dr. Miller admits she isn’t good with kids and it shows with Sally. Megan steps in and instantly shows motherly instincts. So in sort, Dr. Miller out Aspiring Actress secretary in. Don wants, or more to the point thinks he wants, a certain stability in his growing middle-age.
He makes leaps and bounds to understand this new relationship to make it work. She reciprocates at times showing a great admiration to him. He seemingly has turned a corner in his attitude toward matrimony, until (there’s always an ‘until’ in the world of Mad Men) Megan turns her back on the world of advertising. Her Marxist leaning father disapproves her line of work; not that she is supporting consumerism, though that is a part of it, but that she gave up on her dreams of acting. She settled for playing it safe, marrying rich and getting everything handed to her with an engagement ring, at least in his eyes. So, she promptly quits her copy-write job and begins the arduous task of catching her “big break”. As she leaves the office for the last time an ominous dream-like image appears before Don, that of an empty elevator shaft, a bottomless shaft leading to nowhere. Don wants her there in the office, she’s was like a less aggressive Peggy, it’s like she understood this world, it’s needs and desires. Yet she does something he never really could do, admit out loud that she wants more to life than doing jiggles for baked beans.
Speaking of admitting wanting more, there is Peggy Olson (An always great Elizabeth Moss). The character with the grandest character arc in the show, beginning as a lowly secretary of Draper and starting this season as the go-to copy write wonder-kin. She is who is because of Don, her professional fatherly figure. He’s even allowed her glimpses of the real “Don Draper” in the past. Although she doesn’t know the name Dick Whitman, Peggy knows Don better than anyone else in his life. Both she and him understand the persona of want and desires, built on false dreams and promises, it’s what makes her so good at writing ads and him so good at being the creative director. She’s practically his daughter, in more ways than Sally, but like every young person (especially in the 60’s) she craves to be her own person. After the latest Draper fit at her (“You want to go to Paris, Peggy, here go to Paris!”) she finally admits she has had enough. She takes the head Copy-writer job at the rival firm. As she tells Don her two weeks notice, the man begs her to stay offering more money, but there is not enough money; there will never be enough money. She leaves with tears in her eyes, but with a renewed optimism. He is brought nearly to tears kissing her hand, again offering a glimpse at this unflappably enigmatic man brought back down to earth by one woman he cares deeply for.
Then there’s the youngest partner at the firm, Pete Campbell (A sure to be nominated Vincent Kartheiser), always all flash and no substance. Time and again has proven that Pete is clearly not Don Draper, nor Roger Sterling nor Bert Cooper. He might be able to wear the suits, land the accounts and talk to clients like his superiors, but he has none of the other skills that make and have built those other men up. Smarminess personified to be sure; however, he is also one of the more enduring characters on the show for reason. We all know a Pete Campbell or were/are ourselves a Pete Campbell (some gradually realize it over the course of a lifetime). At one point or another we all believe that the world was made to service us, it is our inalienable right to have everything at our beckon call, dammit! However, Pete keeps on finding out a name and a executive position will only get you so far. As much enjoyment we get as he is emasculated this season (highlighted by getting knocked to the ground in the office by Lane Pryce) we do feel somewhat sorry for the guy. He is just so pathetic, a child inhabiting and imitating the world of adults. He even has an extramarital affair with Beth, the wife of a ‘friend’ from the train he takes everyday. In the beginning, it’s new and exciting but by season’s end he’s left with only a transparent shadow of the girl he pined for. His grim realization is in the moment he loses Beth to her ‘Therapy’ is that his job, wife and home are just a “patch for a permanent wound.” As he rides the elevator down with Don after going to blows with Pryce and losing what little dignity he had, he states weakly ” Friends don’t fight in an office, we’re supposed to be friends…”, Don can’t even give him an encouraging word or look at him squarely. Echoing Don’s advice from Season one, “People still have to like you… or you’ll wind up isolated alone dying in a corner office” we sympathize with Pete, or at least we do try. It’s just a very complex sympathy, just like with some real people we deal with everyday.
Roger Sterling (Another strong performance turned in by John Slattery) has never been able to face reality head-on, he couldn’t tell the rest of the firm that Lucky Strike, a vast Majority of the company’s revenue, was leaving last season. Through the ‘magic’ of taking LSD he looks firmly into the mirror and doesn’t like what he sees. He promptly asks for a divorce from his former secretary wife, after they both come to the conclusion that it is a loveless marriage. Though after a business diner which he brings Jane along to help reel the client in, he takes her to a new apartment both intoxicated, at her request because the one she shared with him has ‘too many memories’, and sleeps with her. He wakes the next morning not understanding why Jane is upset. He wants ‘clarity’ again, the last we see of him is looking at his reflection ‘fully revealed’. Does he like what he sees?
Meanwhile, Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) and her Husband come to the same realization as Roger and Jane, more abrasively due to his newfound devotion to service in the army. Leaving her a single mother with little hope for upward movement. Until (See?) SCDP tries to land the American Outlet for Jaguar, the head of the dealership department asks for a night with her or he will not give his vote to their agency. The partner’s (Roger with his ‘enlightenment’ wearing off seemingly just doesn’t care), sans Don, ask for her to consider it with a 5% partnership and a $50,000 bonus up-front. To Don’s great dismay she accepts, and the account is won. As Don points out to Joan, unknowingly after the deed had been done, they really don’t need Jaguar, the agency would be fine without it, but how much business is enough? There will never be enough money.
I said earlier that reviewing a season of this show is liken to reviewing existentialist literature. To be more specific, the works of the “Lost Generation” of the 1920’s. Fitzgerald and Hemingway were the progenitor Mad Men, they understood how much ‘depth’ and shallowness there was to the American Dream. They also enjoyed the excesses of a similarly roaring lifestyle, due impart to the mindset of a tomorrow free of it. SCDP is run by people caught up in the “Lost Generation” of the 60’s. A group of people disenfranchised with the society they’re a part of and that they helped create, not due to the ‘Great War’ as with the 20’s, but due to the era of ‘want’ in the case of Mad Men. All the excess (Booze, smoking, women), dealings (Out-in-the-open and back-room alike) and ‘classiness’ try to fill a bottomless shaft. Such is the fate for conspirators, all the lies consume you. As Megan desperate for anything that will get her noticed, persuades and begs Don to have her cast in a commercial by one of the firm’s clients. She has turned into the child he left in Betty, craving attention generated by what she wants to do to the point of narcissism, she snubs her friend’s request in favor of her own. So, as Gatsby walks away from the lighted set into the darkness of a bar a woman approaches there asks him “My friend wants to know, are you alone?” He gives that look that hasn’t been seen for quite some time. Ladies and gents we’re back to square one, fade to black.
Best Episodes: A Little Kiss (Zou bisou Zou bisou), Signal 30 (Down goes Campbell!), At the Codfish Bar(They couldn’t lock the damn door?), Lady Lazarus (Beatles!), The Other Woman(You were always too good for him Peggy)
Best Line: “You mean Bazooka Joe?”-Roger
Best Exchange: At the dinner table with Heinz, Don glaring back at Ken, continues to pitch with Megan. Cynthia tries to butt in as Ken Shhh’s his own wife. Or Harry and Pete’s exchange at the phone booth “What do you want?” “You opened the door…”
Unexpected: “Tomorrow Never Knows” plays off the end of the episode. A pretty penny to the tune of a quarter of a million grand was paid to have that spot. It’s why ‘The Beatles’ rarely get any T.V air time.
Overall: Not as good as the previous season, but given that is one of the best ever put on T.V that’s not that much of a slight. The themes of time getting away from the characters and the growing generational gaps are reinforced throughout, leading to interestingly dreamy sequences, a la ‘Far Away Places’. Continues to be the most ‘Cinematic’ of any T.V serial active. Nicely sets the table for what might be the series final season next year, here’s to finishing off the 60’s strong.