After the long wait for its return, the new season of Mad Men is in the books. We laughed, we cried, we were simultaneously embarrassed and turned-on by Megan’s singing. Mostly, we disagreed.
Let’s grab a martini and hash it out.
There are very few things I can truly count on in this world: baseball writers overrating Jack Morris, Americans acting like developmentally disabled sheep in an election year, and David Simon Cowell’s dissatisfaction with aging television shows and bands.
At issue today is Mad Men’s Season Five, which I’m on record as thinking is an astonishing achievement — not just for a show’s fifth season, but for any season. I sense that a lot of what I loved about the season is exactly what gives you pause: the boldness, the lack of subtlety, and the rush of plot events in the season’s second half. (No Mad Men season has ever seen as many things actually happen as in just the last few episodes of Season Five.)
This entire season was, if not Matthew Weiner’s piece de resistance, then certainly a strong argument for Mad Men’s elevation to the tier of the absolute greatest television shows ever made. But since I’ve already written some about what I’ve loved about this season, I’d like to hear about what didn’t work for you.
David Simon Cowell
Much like I am willing to pull the plug at the first sign of the sniffles, you’ll keep them on life support until the body is riddled with maggots. Neither of us should be named in anybody’s living will.
Let me start by saying that, while I certainly had serious problems with this season, I like Mad Men, it’s well worth watching, and it’s still one of the best shows on TV. I don’t want to stake any inane Internet ground a la “Game Of Thrones isn’t among television’s elite dramas.”
Up until the point that you wrote your mid-season assessment, I was pretty much with you. I thought the show was hitting most of the right notes, making Megan an interesting foil, introducing the promising Ginsburg, reinvigorating Roger with LSD, not shying away from Don’s decline, and creating those indelible moments (Zou Bisou Bisou, Lane watching the World Cup, etc.) that make the show so much fun.
But, the second half of the season (after the banquet show) didn’t work at all for me.
Most of my problems boil down to believability… I just didn’t think most of the major plot turns were earned or consistent with the characters. It felt to me that Matthew Weiner made some decisions about how he wanted things to stand at the end of the season (No Lane, Joan a partner, Don and Peggy break up, etc.) and cared more about where he ended up than about how he was getting there. Plus, both of the new additions, Megan and Ginsburg, went from interesting to shrill, to the point that the best moment of the finale was when The Art Guy (after two seasons, I still don’t know that boring fuck’s name) complained “I’m so sick of this dynamic.” Amen, whoever you are.
While I certainly agree about Megan’s shrillness, I don’t agree about Ginsburg — I think they introduced him just enough this year that they can go in any number of different directions with him next season. I find him compelling as both a younger version of Don and a more talented version of Peggy, and as someone who brings something new to the table.
Megan is a more complicated issue. While I personally loathe her, I think she’s an interesting character, and it’s been fun watching her fall off her pedestal in Don’s eyes. The show hasn’t vilified her in the way that they did Betty in seasons Three and Four (yet), and I think they’ve struck the right balance between keeping her three dimensional and showcasing her flaws. If they hadn’t made us dislike her, it wouldn’t have been nearly so satisfying when Don flashed that look in the season’s final scene.
Plausibility matters less to me than to you when evaluating television. I’m willing to suspend disbelief more readily if it means I can enjoy Mad Men’s superb acting, dialogue, and production. I’m OK if we can see the strings on the marionettes a little more than usual if it means the payoff is as fantastic as Don’s Jaguar pitch intercut with Joan succumbing to her fat John. Or the montage that closed out the final episode, with Don walking away from Megan on the soundstage, naked high Roger surveying the city, and everything else. (And I usually hate montages.)
For the most part, I think the characters behaved reasonably given what we know about them. I wish the show had better established Lane’s financial woes earlier, and better explained why Roger was so willing to pimp Joan out — but those are quibbles. If I was putting together a 13-episode best of DVD of Mad Men’s run so far, I think 5 episodes would come from this season.
Part of the problem with the season stemmed from something that I actually admire… the dedication to Don’s decline. It seemed inevitable that as the 60s wore on, his effortless cool would eventually become ineffective or dated. People obviously age away from hipness (not us, thank god, but other people). At the same time, while not shying away from the decay was a good move, the way it was handled was repetitive and a bit dull. People certainly have careers in advertising past the age of 40, and Don’s always been nothing if not a striver. Obviously, the point was that success has dulled his edge, but Mad Men kept making it over and over and over. It’s hard not to see it as a lament about Weiner’s own life… having Don be so directly a case study in how hard it is to be rich and successful got tedious.
After the choice of Megan over Faye (which I saw as a choice of comfort over challenge), I was pleasantly surprised that Megan was a complex character, not just a bland trophy like Roger’s secretary wife. She was someone I could believe Don was happy with while at the same time not being a pushover. But, once she left Draper Pryce, she turned into a one-note whiny child.
I loved the way Don’s decline, for lack of a better term, was handled this year. Last season, we watched him bottom out with alcohol, loneliness and depression. His marriage to Megan was his way of stopping his downward spiral — and this season showed that it didn’t work. He spend the first part of the season on “love leave,” happy at home but ineffective and barely present at work. Then, the back half of the season showed the cracks in the facade of his marriage — and those cracks widened until they burst apart in the finale. Don Draper is doomed by his personality and his choices to have unhappy marriages and an unhappy life. This season showed the inevitability of his fate, and the pointlessness of his attempts to change his path.
Even though it coincided with his marriage, I don’t see his lack of creativity at work to be 100% tied to his happiness and success. I think that’s part of it, but a bigger part if that he’s just getting old and the world is leaving him behind. He’s turning into Roger Sterling prematurely. We saw that in the last few episodes when Don got his hunger back (with Jaguar and with Leland Palmer), but he still couldn’t come up with the perfect tagline. He still needs Ginsburg to do the heavy creative lifting. There’s no turning back for him now.
And I don’t agree that Megan became one-note — she’s shrill at times, and selfish, but she’s also shown that she genuinely cares about Don and Sally (she probably disregards Bobby entirely, as we all do). She’s struggling with Don being different than what she expected the same way Don’s struggling with the reality of Megan. And she’s also coming to grips with her relative lack of talent and with the compromises she’ll make to succeed. As I said, I can’t stand her, but not in a way that makes me think she’s poorly written.
I certainly think that’s the perspective that Mad Men is taking toward Don, and I guess that I find it a bit simplistic. He passed 40 and got rich, so therefore his next 25 years are just treading water? Sure, that’s possible, but there are plenty of examples of the opposite as well. Especially for somebody like Don, who has scrambled his whole life, throwing away everything in his path, even his name and family. Plus, it’s not like Don just got rich and successful, so the only real change is hitting 40, which is pretty lazy and cliched. And if that’s just going to be his life from now on, why the hell am I watching for a couple more seasons?
The only thing I really disagree with from your take, and it’s something that I’ve read elsewhere, is that Don is just entering his Roger Sterling phase. While their relationship and banter are a highlight of the show, they are completely different people. Roger is a rich kid who has always been secure in his position in the world… Don is the bastard son of a whore who had to erase himself in order to succeed. Nothing that happens in adulthood can change who they are to the extent that they’d converge. Obviously, Mad Men (successfully) played with the dynamic this season, with Roger feeling insecure for the first time, and Don feeling more secure than he ever has. But Don is always going to feel like Roger knows things he doesn’t, and Roger’s always going to agree.
Speaking of Roger, one of my major problems during the season was his reaction to Joan’s whoring in the name of the firm. Like most of the big moments late in the season, compelling visuals sold what was a tenuous turn of events at best. One could argue that Joan might go along with it for security (maybe… although it would mean a very canny office politician overlooking that she’d always be looked at as a whore), but I just can’t buy that post-LSD Roger would just shrug his shoulders. Whatever his faults, he’s always truly loved Joan… he’s writing checks to everybody in the office except his baby mama?
While I also had trouble with Roger’s motivation with the Joan whoring-out, I don’t think it’s true that he’s always loved Joan. I think she’s always been his back-up plan and his #1 mistress. He feels a connection to her, and he’s more attracted to her than anyone else, but I think “love” might be overstating things. Roger takes Joan for granted. While LSD seemed to offer him temporary clarity, it wasn’t all-inclusive and it didn’t compel him to change his behavior in any real or lasting ways. Like so much of Roger Sterling’s life, the enlightenment was all surface — and a convenient excuse to get out of his latest boring marriage.
I don’t think Roger and Don are clones, but in terms of their professional life, Roger is both Don’s future and one of his greatest fears (Don has a lot of fears). Roger’s a dinosaur, increasingly incapable of relevance and usefulness to his company. He’s in a position of power because of his money and his resume. And regardless of how Don got his money, he’s got plenty of it now, and is headed for the same destination. The ultimate argument of Mad Men is: you will never be happy and whatever moments of joy you experience will not and cannot last. So no matter how different Don’s circumstances have been from Roger’s, he can’t escape the realities of a limited creative lifespan and the harsh truth of constant change.
We’ve discussed Joan and Don’s situations a fair bit, but I’m curious what you thought of Lane’s (final) arc this season.
With one exception, which I’m sure we’ll get to, I thought Lane’s demise was Weiner’s laziest moment of the season.
Part of it is just the off-the-hook quality of using suicide to get rid of characters you don’t want. Any argument against them as fitting can be trumped by “suicides are ultimately unexplainable and inexplicable”, which has the added benefit of being true. But I mean… Lane all of a sudden has massive financial problems, steals from the company and offs himself? Come on. Just get rid of him during the break between seasons if you’re going to be that lame.
Having Lane commit suicide takes him at his surface persona, and completely disregards the nuances that were built into him over time. While he initially seemed like a fey Englishman, he had a notable feisty streak, punching Pete, firing the partners, etc. And, his number one asset was financial acumen… all of a sudden, he forgets to pay his taxes? I know, the idea was that he was living beyond his means, but the way it was handled made it simply a canard to get him dead as quickly as possible. If Lane was going to get into that big a financial hole, there would have had to be a reason that would make him act illogically… say, if he was supporting a second household for his black girlfriend from last season because he loved her but couldn’t leave his wife. But there was no indication of anything like that, just that Manhattan is expensive. Ugh.
It’s not fair to hold Mad Men accountable for the mistakes of lazy dramatists everywhere. Just because a dramatic device is a trope or a crutch doesn’t mean it can’t be used effectively — virtually every plot point in every show ever is a cliche, and holding dramas to the strictest standards or reality doesn’t make a lot of sense either (save for shows like The Wire that claim to deal exclusively in our reality). A lot of Mad Men (and most other shows) is melodrama, and suicides (and murders, and affairs, and double lives) are part and parcel of the genre.
Lane’s suicide made sense within the world that Weiner established. We know he had money problems (though, again, more groundwork could have been laid there). We know he was a man unhappy in his own skin. We know he felt unloved and unappreciated. My initial reaction was that Lane offing himself was too obvious a choice — that the show was so blatantly using dark foreshadowing and bad omens to tell us a death was coming and that it was probably Lane’s — and this is a show that hasn’t made the obvious plot choice very many times in past seasons. But we don’t always need to be surprised. Sometimes the event that’s easy to see coming should and does actually happen, both in melodrama and in life.
As to what you consider Weiner’s laziest moment of the season: I’m guessing it was Don’s rotten tooth, and his dead brother’s hallucinatory appearance to tell him, “IT’S NOT JUST YOUR TOOTH THAT’S ROTTEN, DICK.” Which I have no defense for.
While that certainly was in the running, I was actually referring to another moment from the mediocre finale: Don and Peggy running into each other in a movie theatre for a bit of hackneyed closure that would have been embarrassing in a network show.
Most of my problems with the second half of the season come down to the three major plot “twists” that came in rapid succession in the three weeks preceding the finale (where nothing happened except an excruciating montage… Megan’s the Beauty and Don’s the Beast… “Are you alone?”… infinite fucking ughs). I didn’t really buy any of them, but Joan, Lane, fine… I don’t have to like everything about a show. But the Peggy-Don relationship has been the crux of Mad Men from the beginning, and was (is?) the heart of the show. Given that in many ways it’s a father/daughter dynamic, I don’t have any problem with Peggy breaking away to assert her independence. But the way it was handled was so hamhanded as to be Killingesque (OK, there’s a bit of Internet hyperbole for ya).
Obviously, Peggy has struggled to get the proper attention/respect from the get-go. But for most of the season, it seemed that she had solidified a place as Don’s second-in-command… while Jaguar was obviously a sexy account, being put in charge of everything else was actually a fairly big vote of confidence. But then Weiner decided he wanted Don to be bereft of all connections, so he had to get rid of Peggy quickly. Peggy sadly looking at the lobster through the window was bad enough, but then Don throwing money at her… come on. Then Peggy goes off to join his biggest rival. Of course, it was saved (obscured) in the end by the lovely moment where she tells Don, which was one of the highlights of the season. Then… she’s gone. Nobody remarks on it, she doesn’t keep the pact with Cosgrove that she was so concerned he was breaking a few episodes earlier (because she snapped at him, I guess), Don doesn’t even realize that the reason the firm is struggling with female product work is that he has to hire another female.
Once again, and in the most important example, it wasn’t so much what Weiner did, but how he did it. Mad Men isn’t a groundbreaking show like The Sopranos or The Wire… its strengths have always been character and style. And time after time this season, it undercut its characters in order to rush to some plot point it could have reached anyway with more finesse.
It’s hard for me not to see this season as Weiner’s lament about how tough it is to be successful and stay happy and hungry. And I think his lack of motivation is showing as much as Don’s. Although if I had Glen for a son, I’d start Happy Hour early too.
This is your criticism that most surprises me. The Joan and Lane plot twists, which resulted in superb episodes, were maybe not perfectly handled. But I thought Peggy’s departure was perfectly handled, and the scene with her and Don in the movie theater was lovely (even if I did keep waiting for her to give him a hand job).
I think every beat of Peggy’s story in the episode in which she left was exactly on point, and the final scene in which she got on the elevator as the Kinks’ song played is one of the best moments this or any other show has ever given us. I don’t think that this was even remotely a case of Weiner deciding where he wanted to end up and then ret-conning the plot to get there (whereas I think you could make a reasonable case that that’s exactly what happened with Joan). This felt like a perfectly natural development for Peggy’s character, and a believable way for her to leave the firm.
I don’t know how this will play out next year — I think that, like with the final scene in this past season of Boardwalk Empire, something that was wonderful in the present may harm the show in the future. If Peggy is marginalized like Betty, the show will suffer. But I also don’t see a logical way to keep her as a full-time cast member and keep the story flow believable. But that’s for our argument at the end of Season Six. For Season Five, Peggy’s departure was one of the absolute highlights for me, and the place where I can least understand your discontentment.