Mad Men Season 5 Review
The end of the dream...
Despite the fact that it has won (and indeed continues to win) numerous awards for Best TV Drama throughout its (thus far) five year history Mad Men has always found it difficult to secure continuing seasons; it seems every year the creative team have an uphill battle to raise the finances and backing of the networks needed to make the next one. Indeed after the tumultuous events culminating at the end of season four a continuation was even less certain notwithstanding the awards and adulation that it had gained. Luckily sense prevailed and after a two year break, the longest in the series’ history, Don and the team of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are back for not one, but three more seasons as they try to stay afloat in the ever changing world around them what with race riots, the Vietnam War, Civil liberties issues and flower power being just some of the events happening in the backdrop to the advertising agency whose own internal politics are just as turbulent as those in the outside world. Part historical fact, part drama and always the most stylish show on TV, it uses its platform to discuss modern day events using the benefit of hindsight to shine a light on some of the more unsavoury elements – think of it as science fiction history, if you will. It is always compelling, thoroughly entertaining and effortlessly cool. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you tonight’s feature presentation: Mad Men Season Five.
Obviously no one is going to come to this season without watching the previous four – if by some miracle you are then I strongly recommend that you stop here and go back to where it all began to catch up although unlike previous seasons which demanded some foreknowledge of the characters, this particular season could be watched from fresh and still be absorbing, entertaining and make perfect sense. It’s not that the makers have gone back to basics and explained away past events, it’s just that previous characters, situations and storylines are woven so perfectly into each episode it’s like a little flashback in an encompassing tale; it all seems perfectly natural and thought-out. In fact each of the characters have undergone significant changes from previous years – for the seasoned viewer it’s re-inventing or re-discovering them, for the novice it’s like an introduction; it works incredibly well.
Don Draper is still the main focus of the show, now fully divorced and re-married, living in Manhattan in a typically swish new apartment, his destructive ways are now a thing of the past – newlywed he may be, but he now seems a new person whose driving force is for his new wife and not himself; there is no womanising and his moral compass is fully reset. He flatly refuses to join his fellow partners when they take a potential client to a whorehouse, comforts and consoles Joan, and indeed, protects her like he would a sibling when the demands of the firm lead to a very dirty and underhanded action on her part. This is a caring side that had previously been well disguised within his desire to achieve. Oh there are still the darker traits within him (indeed in one fever induced hallucination they come graphically to life), his wife certainly knows how to push the right buttons to elicit strong emotions – however when he thinks he’s lost her there is a genuine moment of truth for his feelings about her, far more than for any previous woman in his life save his first wife Anna (who is beautifully referenced when Sally is making a family tree). Jon Hamm is one again on excellent from as the titular character; he oozes style and panache, makes a trilby look cool and walks that fine line between sexy and strong. His character is no longer concerned with hiding his past life and that has given him a stronger sense of identity. As a partner in the company and working with his wife he commands his troops with undeniable authority from the knowledge that he knows best – never is he as cool as when he’s pitching an idea to a client, but in this season he takes a seat much further back, content to push his team to breaking point for the right idea and never afraid to make the tough choice. Such actions, this season, have lasting repercussions for his staff with revolt and abandonment in the ranks and which, for one particular member, offers a genuinely tearful parting. A new Don this may be, but old habits do die hard, and when his ruthlessness causes him to make a very tough decision, it’s consequences bring back some haunting memories, enough to potentially bring the character full circle. Hamm puts in a superb performance, every time, and the part this time around gives him further to go and he excels.
What makes the series as a whole so engrossing is the attention to detail. This is both in the set design, period dressing and clothing and story lines. Indeed it is the storylines that involve you the most as unlike most TV shows whose forty five minute run time dictates a rapid beginning, middle and end, Mad Men takes its time to explore multiple story arcs that run over the period of a single episode as well as over several episodes and sometimes over an entire season. This kind of respect for the intelligence for the audience to follow such layered and, at times, complex story threads raises the bar over most of its peers, with perhaps only HBO series’ (from which Mad Men owes much) such as Boardwalk Empire or Game of Thrones taking the time and effort to reward viewers with the same respect. What it means for the characters is that they can evolve over time – unlike cop shows where there is a single case to be solved every week (even CSI is guilty of this), Mad Men is slower-paced, adopting a more contemplative, methodical and overarching story line that takes the characters on their own individual mini-episodes within the whole; each one has a defined character arc and story within it and it makes for very compelling viewing as you become engrossed in their different plights – and everyone has time to shine in the series. I won’t go into detail on everyone, though some are worth looking at.
Megan, Don’s wife, is typical of character progression within the series – introduced only last season as a secretary she has moved on to become the main characters wife and is now an integral part of the copy-writing team, whose ideas help land one of the biggest accounts for the firm. She is played by the unconventionally pretty Jessica Paré who is undeniably sexy (especially when she is on all fours, in a bra and panties, cleaning the apartment floor) but a perfect match for the more stoic Don. Initially arm candy she has moved on to be a very important part of the creative team, but as the wife of one of the partners is constantly being lavished with attention and even pulled out of jobs on Don’s whim. As the season continues we see cracks in her work desires, never more so when her parents come to stay, and she makes moves to pursue an earlier career path that has the potential to cause great ramifications to her and Don’s relationship – a relationship that is shown to be both loving and volatile as only it can be when two headstrong partners live together; but what is so well seen is the clear affection and desire these two have for each other. Even the most heated row ends well and Don, whose soul was laid bare after one particular blazing row, supports her decisions to leave the frim and follow her dreams, despite his own reservations. The kind of real life reaction to supporting the one you love.
Things are pretty well all change for Peggy, the first secretary to make it to copywriter and a character that has been with the show from the beginning. Her and Don’s relationship has always been a tumultuous one, but there has always been a clear respect between the two and it was with her that we first saw into Don’s kind heart – it was he who looked after Peggy when she fell pregnant and had to leave the firm to have her baby a couple of seasons ago as well as actually championing her desires when she wanted to be a writer. During this season she makes bold choices with her boyfriend, much to the chagrin of her mother, as well as finding that she is increasingly underappreciated at work, despite being given more responsibility and bigger accounts to work with. Amazingly she even challenges clients when her sales pitch doesn’t go the way she planned. She has certainly come a long way and her future seems assured with the choices she is prepared to make. Elisabeth Moss puts in another solid performance as Peggy, showing both backbone and vulnerability (sometimes within the same scene) in a character that many can identify with as she fights, near constantly, to be recognised.
Another big change is in line for Joan Harris whose character has undergone significant challenges throughout her time with the firm. Since having her baby and with her husband off as a surgeon in the Vietnam war, Joan is living with her mother and becoming increasing frustrated that she is unable to get back to the office perceiving financial difficulties within the firm. When her husband comes back from the war only to tell her that it is brief R&R and not to stay their relationship nears breaking point. Greg Harris is a pretty loathsome man and pretty much the only one that can reduce Joan to nothing – in one particularly horrific scene in an earlier season he defines his dominance by raping her in one of the offices at her work. Despite this domestic abuse she continues to stand by him (a mark of the times) and it creates a delicious conflict of emotions between the normally headstrong and assured admin manager and the put upon wife; it is only in this latest season that she regains some of her spunk. Indeed one particularly degrading task is asked of her but she uses the situation to garner herself a much larger stake in the company and secure a brighter future for herself and her baby. The scenes she shares with Don regarding her impending papers and the later unsavoury task are wonderful pieces of film; the two share a wonderful chemistry and I for one would like to see many more between them.
The last character I’ll mention is Roger Sterling, who has gone through many changes in the show's history. It was his divorce and marriage to his secretary that inspired Don to do the same, but unlike Don, he’s also had two heart attacks and continues to drink, smoke and womanise despite it. Since the loss of the Lucky Strike cigarette account Roger has had little to do within the firm, even advising is a rare occurrence. What with Pete Campbell taking a firmer hold of the running of the accounts, Roger feels aggrieved and ousted, with only his natural swagger giving him any kind of sway as a partner. In one particular episode (unusually for the series playing as an almost out and out comedy) Roger takes LSD (extremely popular as a recreational drug in the mid-sixties) and goes on a trip (seriously laugh out loud moments ensue) but it affects him almost profoundly – seeing it as an almost religious experience; he again splits from his wife and uses it as the basis to try and boost his standing within the firm, getting new accounts, using the new copywriter’s ideas as his own so that he can do what he does best – charm his way through life. John Slattery puts in another excellent performance in the part, you can truly believe the antics of this man, though quite where he manages to obtain all his money is still a mystery.
The direction style of the show has always been to tell the story. Its overall attention to detail is second to none while the pennant for using flashbacks as part of the narrative and as a story telling device to further the narrative has long been established. This season is no exception, but it uses a number of other tricks that further it apart from the previous season, all in a good way. The above LSD episode is an extremely well put together piece of television; it uses three different stories that all run concurrently and all have common points of contact – you need to see all three threads to fully understand what is going on in each. Whilst this is fairly common way to overlap concurrent stories in film rarely has it ever been used in TV and Mad Men is just the place where such a narrative device can shine, and boy does it. Flashback are still used, of course, but this time in a far more meaningful way; for example when Don visits Joan at her home to express his distaste for what she is being asked to do for the firm – we see the same scene twice, before and after the event and it is only on the second viewing that we fully realise the gravity of the situation and the nuances expressed by the characters during it. It is a masterful story telling device. Indeed the whole series seems to have matured over and above its already excellent merits. The multi-layered story threads interweave between episodes to make a very cohesive whole. And, as I said at the beginning, you could come to this series without ever having seen any before it and still get huge enjoyment out of it as the characters, being established, just further their career and you roll right along with it. Of course it helps to have seen the previous seasons and I would strongly advocate seeing them before embarking on this latest trip. Not only does it make it all the more worthwhile, but somehow the series has grown further from its roots, not least because we are no longer concerned with Don’s previous identity, the show can focus on the ensemble, not the individual, which means when it comes time for Don to shine, he really shines - so when it comes to the close, and all that has happened in this season, you can read the emotions and also picture where he is heading; the darker traits of Don might just be coming to the surface once more …
Mad Men season five is a belter, continuing in the same form, but building upon its successes; the show is smart, compelling and sexy – effortlessly telling complex story threads that draw you in and captivate you for the full run time. Personally I think it is the best yet - long may it continue.aliquet.