The end of each season of “Mad Men” always brings more than a whiff of sadness—we know we’ll be missing the ladies and gentlemen of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce until Matthew Weiner, AMC and/or Lionsgate get their act together and the show returns. But Season Five, which ended last night, leaves us with a new, unsavory feeling. It was like sitting down to a multi-course meal of uncomfortable variety—the appetizer was somewhat routine, the salad was zesty (spiked with LSD), the entrée was spectacular (“The Other Woman” and “Commissions and Fees”), but boy, did the souffle fall flat (the season ender).
Let’s begin with the core of the show—Don Draper. Here’s a man who’s not in touch with the zeitgeist, but who’s in a profession where this is essential. Don still thinks like it’s 1960, in his marriage and his business, but the culture is exploding all around him. He knows the Beatles, but that’s it. No wonder he’s threatened by Ginsburg, leaving his better Sno Ball idea in the taxi on the way to the client presentation. Yes, he wowed Jaguar, but look whom he was addressing—a bunch of old fogies like himself. Don may be only 40, but in 1966, 40 was a lot older than it is today. It was the 1960’s that made that change, as “Mad Men” is beginning to illustrate in its usual deft fashion. We’ll see more of this next season, I’m sure, because last night ended at the outset of 1967. The Summer of Love is dead ahead.
Let’s talk about what “Mad Men” got right in Season Five—the portrayal of the various choices women of that era were forced to make (and still do). I can’t say enough about “The Other Women” and the juxtaposition of Joan, Peggy and Megan as they confronted major issues and responded in illuminating ways. Joan’s sleeping with a key Jaguar decision-maker to secure the account for SCDP tore the heart out of many viewers (myself included), but I can’t argue with the fact that for her it was a practical and sound financial decision. Peggy’s leaving SCDP for a better paying job at a rival agency was long overdue, particularly since we saw her treated so poorly all season long. No lobster for lunch was the least of it—watching Don throw money in her face was the ugliest act we’ve been forced to witness on the show. And aspiring actress Megan’s encountering the cheesecake, if not the casting couch, side of the business was the final punctuation to perhaps the best episode “Mad Men” has aired to date.
We learned more about the characters we thought we knew, not all of it neatly packaged or even nice. Bert Cooper’s non-objection to Joan’s involvement with Mr. Jaguar was a shock. Here’s the zen master himself, a co-founder of the firm, not staking out the high moral ground. Yes, he told Pete to make it clear to Joan that the option was hers, but this was not a reaction the audience expected. On a lighter note, we saw Roger find enlightenment (and end a bad marriage) through LSD in what was the funniest sequence of the entire season. His hallucinating Bert’s picture on the bill he handed the cab driver was priceless. It was fitting that in the closing montage of last night’s episode we saw Roger, buck naked, tripping while meeting the dawn. And though she had little screen time because of January Jones’s pregnancy, we saw Betty Francis acting as both Bad Mom (attempting to poison Sally’s view of her father by revealing his marriage to Anna Draper) and Great Mom (her reassuring and comforting Sally after she got her first period).
The acting on the show remained spectacular. In a season of wonderful performances from Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, Elizabeth Moss and Kiernan Shipka, Jared Harris cops top honors. His Lane Pryce was haunted all season by the low esteem in which he knew his partners held him, his unfulfilled dream of bedding either Joan or Delores (the woman in the photograph), his tax problems, and ultimately the repercussions of his forging a check on the company account. Harris’s performance in “Commissions and Fees” was nothing short of stellar. I predict that Don’s confrontation with Lane will make the Top 10 list of the show’s best scenes no matter how long it runs.
What I found most irritating about last night’s episode was our being forced to spend so much time with “Mad Men”‘s most annoying characters, namely Pete Campbell, Megan Draper and her mother. While it was not surprising to see Pete sink to even greater depths by setting up Joan and Mr. Jaguar through a series of half-truths, why did we have to endure not only his affair with a fellow commuter’s wife, but her return? And I’m really tired of Matthew Weiner’s crushes on January Jones and Jessica Pare. Neither they nor their characters are all that interesting, and it borders on criminal how much air time was wasted this season on Megan, whether at SCDP or acting class, whether with Don or one or more of her parents. The engine that makes “Mad Men” go is the ad biz, and we didn’t see enough of it this season.
The highlight of “The Phantom” was without a doubt the scene illustrated on the left. Peggy and Don, equals at last. I have no doubt whatsoever that we haven’t seen the last of Peggy Olson, because in “Mad Men” World her story is second only to Don’s. Given the setting of the show, it hasn’t even reached its peak. I anticipate that she and Don will be reunited, but she’ll be a full partner on her own terms. And since we enjoyed the welcome sight of Freddy Rumsen and Paul Kinsey once again, can’t Sal Romano return to this show for at least one episode next season? He would have been made for the ’60’s, and logically with Peggy now traveling in different professional circles, their paths should cross. While all of this is supposition, we can bank on at least one sure thing—Bert will finally get an office again.
I’m not looking forward to the “Mad Men”–less months ahead, even with the show’s cracks in the wall. It’s still by far the most engrossing hour on TV, and we’re so much the poorer without it.