[16 October 2012]
Less than a month ago Mad Men became the biggest loser in Emmy awards history, losing in each of the 17 categories where it had received mentions including four acting categories and Best Drama Series (which it had won for the past four years). While it’s true that awards mean nothing in terms of quality and merit, it was slightly disappointing to see the series fail to be rewarded for what was undoubtedly its greatest season yet.
Set between Memorial Day 1966 and the early spring of 1967, season five picks up shortly after Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has married his former secretary Megan (Jessica Paré). The two are shown living an idyllic romance as the high spirited young woman injects new life into Don’s ever-cynical demeanor. Of course, this show has never been known for its joyful moments and before soon we begin exploring the dark aspects of Don’s new life. On the first episode—deliciously entitled A Little Kiss—Megan throws a surprise party for Don in their new apartment; one of those ‘60s pads that scream James Bond and would look horribly dated nowadays.
The visibly embarrassed Don, who obviously hates surprises, is even more disgusted when his lovely wife performs a song for him. Megan’s choice of yé-yé classic “Zou Bisou Bisou” results delightful to guests and viewers, but also announces what will be the main arc for this season: Don’s inability to keep up with changing times.
From its very first episode Mad Men provided viewers with a window to the past, and unlike other period shows it never tried to use its characters or settings as a mirror of our times. Time and time again, people have suggested that the ‘60s are used as a pure stylistic device by the show’s creator Matthew Weiner. The best part about the show is that it doesn’t bother to refute this notion. We might never really know what inspired its creator to set his show during this era but the truth is that it makes for some superb television, because like the greatest art it transports us to a place far away from where we are.
The truth is that Don Draper could never inhabit our times, either; his views on sex, parenting and work ethics would deem him a misogynist or a complete lunatic and in this season, more than any of the previous ones, we wonder how—and if—this creature will make it past this decade. During the fifth season we see Don encounter problems that announce the unrelenting passing of time in ways he never saw coming. His new wife for example, not content with her promotion in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, decides she wants to fully pursue her acting career, something her husband doesn’t understand. During an episode entitled Dark Shadows a smog cloud takes over NYC while Megan contemplates her future. Who said this show was subtle in its metaphors?
Trapped in what seems to be an uprising of younger people, including his rebellious daughter Sally (the delightful Kiernan Shipka), Don is also threatened by the genius of new hire Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) who has no regards for the traditions Don tries to uphold, but has such undeniable talent that he becomes essential to the firm. This causes trouble with Don and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) who not only fear Ginsberg, but realize they won’t be able to coexist in a world where gender issues still prevent her from achieving a higher position in the hierarchy.
The troubled and troublesome dynamics of gender and power are never more obvious than in the landmark episode The Other Woman, in which the partners make Joan Harris (the endlessly brilliant Christina Hendricks) an offer she can’t refuse. This is one of the only episodes where the writers have tricked the audience by using time shifts, but this proves that unlike the characters it depicts the show is willing to bend the rules a little and embrace change. The episode might very well be one of the finest hours of television ever made and a powerful reminder of this show’s brilliance.
Mad Men Season Five looks absolutely astonishing in high definition, the Blu-ray boxset featuring widescreen presentations of each of the 13 episodes, as well as crystal clear audio (you’ll need it for the delicious dialogues highlighted in a featurette called Mad Men Say the Darndest Things). Bonus features include commentaries with Weiner and cast members, but the most fascinating extras are those that don’t concentrate on the show’s production. In The Party of the Century historians take you to Truman Capote’s infamous Black & White Masquerade Ball held on November 1966. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 is a detailed timeline exploring the history of how daylight savings time came to be. Since the show never really deals directly with historical events, these featurettes add endlessly rich layers that provide us with more context, which in a show as complex as this also work as subtext.
Mad Men continues breaking the rules of dramatic television and with delicious guest turns by Julia Ormond and January Jones (who should be featured more next season) we are left salivating for what’s in store for these characters.