I can’t remember the last time I was this disappointed in a TV show.
Do you recall Benjamin Franklin’s astute observation? “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.” Something similar can be said for TV shows that go beyond the five season mark. Unlike network shows which can run forever, or as long as sponsors can be found, cable TV drama usually does best with a limited shelf life. It was five seasons and out for “Six Feet Under” and “The Wire”; “The Sopranos,” which got up to Seasons 6A and 6B, only felt attenuated because of the lengthy gap between seasons.
Until this go-round, “Mad Men” always seemed to have an unusual capacity to surprise us, to exceed our expectations. The principals of Sterling Cooper engineering their own firing to form a new agency, Joan’s sleeping with the Jaguar dealer to secure the account as well as her own future, Layne’s suicide after Don’s discovery of his embezzlement, Peggy’s leaving the firm—the unexpected was always a possibility. In contrast, was anyone really surprised to see the firm force a leave of absence on Don in this season’s finale? The guy’s been a drag, sinking deeper and deeper into a morass. I’m not the only viewer with a newsflash for Matthew Weiner: given what we’ve seen of Don in the last five years, this is neither interesting nor entertaining. I’m tired of the whorehouse flashbacks, Don’s rotten childhood and his self-destructiveness. Put all this to bed or reconcile it without further ado—it’s no longer making for good drama.
Adding to the problem was the show’s incorporation of so many of the events of 1968 into the narrative flow. I was a high school senior then, and believe me, living through that horror show once was enough for me. In any event, “Mad Men” seems to do best when it’s only lightly peppered by real events. Inescapably we’ve had Election Night, 1960, because of Sterling Cooper’s work for the Nixon Campaign, and of course, the Kennedy Assassination, the watershed event of a generation (In my Top 10 of “Mad Men” scenes: Roger calling Joan after his daughter’s disastrous wedding reception, held on November 23rd, and greeting her with “So what’s new?”). Going any deeper by focusing on Vietnam, the Chicago riots and the King and Kennedy assassinations to the extent “Mad Men” did only added to the prevailing gloom.
But as always, Peggy came through and provided some of “Mad Men”‘s best scenes this year. Unlike most of the other characters, she’s still on the ascent; her energy and drive are key elements to the show. I love her scenes with Stan, whom I think is her real soul mate, not Ted Chaough. And her complex relationship with Joan was deftly written and played, especially when these two confronted their misconceptions about each other. Peggy’s bailing her out as Pete was about to lower the boom over the Avon prospect was sheer genius, and the follow-up (“You better hope that he calls”) sealed the fact that she’s got Joan’s back. Too bad Don still doesn’t get her, though. I really hated his lie to the St. Joseph’s people that it was the late Frank Gleason, not Peggy, who had come up with the “Rosemary’s Baby” concept for the commercial. While it may have been Don’s attempt to save Ted and obtain more money from the client, that move basically castrated Peggy by depriving her of some well-deserved credit. And as a long-term veteran of that particular war, I can relate. Totally.
Even though Bob Benson is an irritating boil, it was interesting how Pete handled his sexual orientation in contrast to Don’s dealings with Sal several seasons ago. Pete just wants to win. As long as Bob keeps his hands to himself, Pete’s OK because he knows Bob will deliver. On the other hand, I suspect Don would have eventually found a pretext to fire Sal even if he hadn’t rebuffed Lee Garner, Jr. And speaking of Pete, I think his drunken conversation with Peggy during their Ocean Spray trip with Ted was a terrific scene—what a welcome relief from all the doom and gloom.
On the fashion front, I’ve got to say that Harry Hamlin, as Jim Cutler, rocks those horn rims (in addition to being a great dirty voyeur). And Harry Crane! Look at you with sideburns, mod hair and style!
With Season Six ending in November, 1968, the Apollo moon landing, Woodstock, Stonewall and Charles Manson are looming in the year ahead. Will Don return to Sterling Cooper & Partners sporting a mustache, long hair and love beads? Will Sally become a Stones groupie? Will Pete ever lose that baby-face along with the rest of his hair? Will Peggy, Joan and Stan split off to form their own agency? One can only hope.