My Mad Men series recap: Adultery, sexual harassment and suicide are wages of success in this world
After bludgeoning us with a workplace suicide, the world's worst case of sexual harassment and a level of marital infidelity worthy of the sexual revolution a decade later, '60s-set drama Mad Men ended its fifth season Sunday not with a bang, but with the whimper of an unanswered question nagging since the series started.
Can Don Draper stay faithful?
It was an unexpectedly quiet end to a season which seemed bent on rocking viewers from the very first moment, returning to new episodes after a 16-month hiatus determined to recapture the zeitgeist with daring plot points and unexpected moves.
This year's collection of Mad Men episodes seemed particularly dark -- even for a series centered on a philandering, egocentric impostor who stole the identity of a fellow soldier to flee a desperate life.
Fans had buzzed for weeks about hints placed prominently in each episode foreshadowing a suicide; by the time hapless financial officer Lane Pryce did the deed in the season's penultimate episode, the move felt a bit like a relief -- finally we knew which character was going to succumb to the pressure and dissatisfaction which seemed woven into the DNA of current storylines.
Critics who complained about the show's sometimes ham-handed approach to its messages got more evidence Sunday, as pain from a toothache led Don to see his dead brother in various places; a pretty on-the-nose reminder that his brother killed himself after Draper rejected him (toothache=conscience).
So of course, visions of his dead brother led Don to reconsider helping wife Megan get an acting job in a commercial he was developing; the scenes helped remind viewers why Draper had a particularly intense reaction to Lane's suicide, while explaining why he might help his wife in such an uncharacteristic way. Hit on by two beautiful women as he left the rehearsal for Megan's commercial, Draper turns to react but his answer is never shown, recalling the non-ending of another great TV series, The Sopranos. (the music playing, the theme to the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, only fed my fantasies of star Jon Hamm someday playing an americanized Bond on film)
As usual, creator/executive producer (and former Sopranos writer) Matt Weiner worked hard to subvert expectations. So even as America was discovering the power of youth culture, fumbling to deal with the demands of the civil rights movement and entering war in Vietnam, Mad Men's characters were focused on feeling old and out-of touch at the tender age of 40 -- epitomized by Draper's cluelessness about The Beatles and desperate attempts to stay connected to pop culture through his young wife Megan.
We learned via the ill-considered birthday party Megan held for Don at their swanky Manhattan apartment that the work "family" at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are not friends -- more like competitors with a common goals, not to be trusted with personal failings or troubles.
Sunday's episode seemed a quiet meditation on the different motivations for infidelity, as wormy executive Pete Campbell saw his affair consummated one last time before his married mistress got electric shock therapy - which might explain why she slept with him in the first place (viewers also got the thrill of seeing Pete get beat up twice in one episode) and Megan's mom hooked up once again with a lonely Roger Sterling.
I also thought it was interesting that AMC aired a warning about explicit content when we saw Pete's mistress nude from the side -- played by amazingly in-shape Gilmore Girls alum Alexis Bledel -- but no such warning when Lane's hanged body or Sally discovery of her own menstruation was shown.
Much as some fans might tout the show's low key season finale, it felt like running in place to this Mad Men enthusiast. The season's real finale came the week before, when Lane's suicide revealed the ugly toll their high-pressure lives could take, while finally paying off all the gloomy foreshadowing about death. The actual season finale was a wrap of a few dangling storylines punctuated with crowd pleasing moments.
It's easy to sound like a broken record, lamenting how much Weiner refuses to connect Mad Men to the big moments of the time, especially and most prominently the civil rights movement. Giving Draper's black secretary Dawn a few scenes with copywriters Peggy Olson this year felt like little more than a nod to complaints about how little Mad Men talks about the racial turmoil of the time. Their brevity only highlighted how little the show bothers to explore this stuff at all -- hiding behind the segregation of the times to avoid exploring the most transformative moments of the country's recent history.
It's also obvious Weiner doesn't want to excavate those subjects much. He's much more focused on how women fare during this time, telling different shades of their stories in succesful copywriter Peggy, sexy, compromised office manager Joan Harris, rejected wife Betty, younger wife Megan and even maturing daughter Sally.
Frustrating as it may be, Mad Men will always be a story about the moneyed white men of the time and the ladies who must deal with them. Everyone else -- gay characters, Jewish people and black folks especially -- can expect to take a back seat, no matter how compelling some may find their stories.
With this year's big theme seemingly centered on the dissatisfaction which can come with success, the whole season seemed a parable for the dark side of achievement -- perhaps a way for Weiner to work out the pressures which came from Mad Men's towering triumphs, and the added expectations for this year's season.
If so, Weiner can breathe easy. He commanded the attention of longtime fans, kept us chattering about new storylines and even gave us a new character in Megan that we were forced to care about, despite not knowing a whole lot about her at the season's outset.
It may not have been much fun, but it was often compelling, always unpredictable and usually thought-provoking.
The question left for fans: When it comes to Mad Men's elevated standards, is that enough?