The Audacity of Smoke: Mad Men’s Daring Fifth Season

* I think this may be my worst post title ever. I’m pretty confident. If you have any alternate suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

David Simon Cowell has written about the Curse of Season Four, which Mad Men survived with aplomb last year (or whenever the hell season four actually aired). However, what Mad Men is achieving this season is essentially unprecedented in television history. For those great dramas that have survived the fourth-year curse, season five has proven to be even more problematic.

The number of truly great television dramas that have even lasted into a fifth season is depressingly short:

  • The Wire (five total seasons)
  • The Sopranos (six-ish)
  • Lost (six)
  • Breaking Bad (headed into its fifth)

I’m sure others would definite “great” more generously, and include shows like NYPD Blue, Homicide, West Wing, The Shield, and Battlestar Galactica. But those series don’t reach the rarefied heights of the five shows listed above. By their fifth season, most shows — even really, really good shows — have run out of ideas and are either repeating themselves or abandoning the essence of the series to avoid doing so.

The jury’s still out on Breaking Bad, obviously. Lost had a great fifth season, but was extremely inconsistent through the series’ run (season two and three were notoriously weak). The Wire and The Sopranos are the best comparisons here.

The Wire is still unquestionably the best drama ever, but its fifth season was very shaky, trading off memorable moments (McNulty’s wake, Snoop’s death) with strange choices (the serial killer arc, that fucking montage). And while Cowell correctly noted that season four marked the beginning of the end for The Sopranos, season five was where it all fell apart with the Tony Blundetto story and an expanded role for A.J. (worst child actor of our time). The two greatest completed dramas ever — by consensus — couldn’t even come close to skating through fifth seasons without major story problems.

And that makes what Mad Men is currently doing all the more remarkable.

Mad Men is not only executing a fantastic fifth season — it’s doing so with a string of episodes that are as creative, satisfying and fearless as any run in the show’s history. With five episodes remaining, season five even has a chance to be Mad Men’s best yet.

Let’s review what Matthew Weiner et al. have already accomplished this season, after a couple good-not-great, tone-setting episodes to start the season:

  • Signal 30 gave us the episode-long deconstruction of Pete Campbell, culminating in him getting his ass kicked by Lane Pryce. In addition, the dinner party at the Campbells’ Connecticut home and the Sterling Cooper gang unleashed in a high-end brothel proved memorable. Signal 30 was the first truly great episode of the season, and proved the show can still make “classic” Mad Men episodes with aplomb.
  • Far Away Places followed up the easy-going-down Signal 30 with another, much more ambitious tour de force. The episode told three distinct stories, complete with Tarantino time lapses, leaving the audience to deduce the thematic ties between Peggy, Don, and Roger’s trials. AND ROGER FUCKING STERLING TOOK ACID. The season could have ended right there and been a huge success.
  • At the Codfish Ball was a symphony of dissatisfaction, masterfully showing us the tiny heartbreaks that are slowly breaking Don, Roger, Megan, Peggy, and even Sally, before leaving us with that crushing shot of all of them sitting around the ballroom table.
  • Lady Lazarus managed to take what should have been  simple, predictable stories — Megan quitting her job, Pete having an affair — and turn into a tale of existential horror. Also, Rory Gilmore fits in perfectly with the period setting.

In addition to this incredible hot streak of individual episodes, Mad Men has built more compelling season-long arcs and stories, and then embellished them with dark imagery and references (Richard Speck, constant allusions to characters’ potential demises). The series has seamlessly integrated new characters — Megan most notably, but also Ginsberg, addressing one of DSC’s biggest complaints from last season. And unlike Tim Goodman, I’m perfectly fine with the amount of screen time Betty has gotten so far, and perfectly thrilled that said screen time was spent eating Bugles and sundaes. Watching Mad Men this year feels like watching Sandy Koufax in 1964.

For much of its run, Mad Men has surrounded its truly stunning episodes (The Suitcase, Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency) with more rudimentary, piece-moving episodes. That’s what makes the above streak so stunning and impressive. It’s just been one haymaker after another, each seemingly more confident and adventurous than the last. This season, the series has experimented with structure, tone and style, while always remaining recognizable, undeniably Mad Men.

It’s not unusual for a series to begin experimenting late in its run, any more than it is for a band to start trying out new sounds on its fifth or sixth album, but it is very rare (in both cases) for those experiments to prove successful.

As with all television seasons, Mad Men’s fifth hasn’t been perfect. The show’s been a bit too on the nose with some dialogue and with some unsubtle hints that the times they are a-changin’ in 1966. Both of those issues combined in Don’s conversation with a teenage Rolling Stones fan backstage, when the girl told Don, “None of you want any of us to have a good time just because you never did.” Don replied, “No, we’re worried about you.” Yeah, OK, we get it. For a show that continually credits its audience with being smart enough to figure some things out on its own, Mad Men needs to ease up on the reins a bit with some of the “Don’s getting old and doesn’t get these crazy ’60s kids” business.

But that’s a mere quibble. The very notion that an already-great series is extending and enhancing its legacy at this stage is more than enough to make up for any hiccups or minor complaints. Maybe we’ve already seen the best of season five, and the remaining five episodes will retreat to mediocrity; but given what we’ve seen these last few weeks, I find that hard to believe.

Also: Mr. Belding.


1 Comment

Filed under Television Has AIDS, The Dilemma

One response to “The Audacity of Smoke: Mad Men’s Daring Fifth Season

  1. Pingback: 2 Idiots Debate: Mad Men Season Five | Pop Culture Has AIDS

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