In Defense of the First 11 Episodes of Season Five of 'Mad Men'
With Mad Men's season finalé set for Sunday, we look back at how polarizing the show's return to television has been.
Mad MenAirtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery
Subtitle: Season 5
"Dreams, dreams and more dreams. That's what we got from last week's episode, an episode that might just be the beginning of the end for me. I've said it 5,083 times before, and I'll say it again: I WANT TO SEE DON SELL ADS. Note the capital letters."
-- Quoting myself.
The drama is beginning to seem forced. Last week's episode proved the following: Matthew Weiner makes a list of the things he thinks viewers think will happen. He then looks at that list and explicitly goes in the opposite direction, at this point, seemingly out of spite. We bring back Greg (who we all thought would come back in a body bag, anyways) just to get rid of him through a manufactured divorce? Just kill him off, Matt. Stop insisting you are bigger than the show, Mr. Weiner. You would be nothing if that cast wasn't as brilliant as it is.
As for the rest of it, Peggy seems destined to "question herself" before ultimately coming out on top, proving to herself and the world that strong women can indeed succeed in the professional world. Great. I've hated Don's dream sequences since season one and it actually led me to initially walk away from the show for a year. Roger looks more pathetic. And Sally is just as insufferable as Betty now. As in, "I can't watch this girl act anymore" insufferable. Ugh.
I want to watch Roger and Don wow possible clients and mistresses with their witty banter and bitter undertones instead of ultimately seeing them fail at growing old. I want to see Peggy struggle to find herself in an impossible work environment that she overcomes through her own personal growth instead of being able to haggle Roger out of a few hundred bucks only to turn around and prove she's just as existential and insufferably quixotic when it comes to her own life choices. I want to see Joan walk around the office knowing she's smarter than everyone around, torturing men with her sex appeal and women with her confidence. Ugh, again. I give it two weeks to turn the ship around, or else. Oh, or else". ("The Mad Men Project: Week 3"The Frederick News-Post, 13 April 2012)
Like the fool I so often prove to be, those were the words I wrote on 13 April after the fourth episode of the fifth season of AMC's Mad Men aired for the first time the previous Sunday. As part of a blog I run aimed at television and technology, I had this idea to select six people to follow six different Mad Men characters during the current season, ask them to write about nothing but said character's story line each week and post them all on Fridays under the assumption that we all took as much time as we might have needed to gather our thoughts. For the most part, the six individuals didn't know each other and because I wanted to remove myself from the equation (because my God -- I think we all know how great it is for me to just shut up) I wrote the couple-paragraph walk-up to each episode's essays.
The words you see at the top of this article were the words that made up the beginning of week three, episode four of what has been deemed "The Mad Men Project". It's clear I was fed up with the way the season was going. It's clear I had no hope for where creator Weiner was taking the stories. It's clear that after four seasons and three episodes of Madison Avenue advertising executives, I was ready to call it a day and turn away from the sex, alcohol and drama for good. It's clear this was all knee-jerk.
And most of all, it's clear that I was completely wrong.
The 11th episode of the fifth season of Mad Men, "The Other Woman", not only completed the turnaround from such a frustrating start to the show's return to television after more than a year away from the small screen, but it also proved that this season -- even in a worst-case scenario -- will ultimately be deemed on par with its contemporaries. To say it simply "made up" for the struggles of the season's earlier episodes would be silly, irresponsible and unintelligent. Instead, what that episode did was serve as a reminder of why critics, bloggers, writers and watchers alike should reserve judgment on one complete body of work until it is... well... completed.
"This fifth season of Mad Men is all about game changing", Assignment X's Sean Elliott wrote while recapping the episode in question. "This can happen in subtle ways, or it can be something that strikes the audience over the head. 'The Other Woman' is one of the best episodes this season. The degradation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Campbell has been inching its way this season, and it’s not necessarily about the loss or gaining of accounts, to me it's more about the way the characters are changing (some of them on fundamental levels)". ("Mad Men - Season 5 - The Other Woman", by Sean Elliott , Assignment X, 31 May 2012)
Such has been the obvious case of each previous season. The show has never truly been about the addition or subtraction of advertising accounts (though that is still an element I believe is at the crux of some of the show's best moments). In fact, the program's success isn't even contingent upon how cool skinny ties can look or how flamboyant a woman's dress and/or hair style proves to be. Instead, the appeal of Mad Men has always been -- and always will be -- centered around the notion that things are never as they seem and the consequences that such an idiom brings can be both astonishing and crippling in nature.
From the Don Draper/Dick Whitman dilemma, to the constant romantic affairs between husbands and their wives and mistresses, and all the way back to the entire premise of the show broken down to its simplest level, which is, in essence, advertising sales, this is a television show that prides itself on profiling how subliminally depressing everyday lives can be. Remember -- this is a group of people who make a living off talking rich people into buying a product that, in turn, is aimed at talking not-so-rich people into buying into the idea of a product. Before Don Draper ever even unhooked his first bra strap, this was a show about manipulation in the grandest of incarnations. Nothing is simple, everything is bad, and no one is telling the truth.
Actually, maybe such a notion could be the reason why season five once looked so disappointing. Seeing Don shacking up with Megan and promising seven times over while closing his eyes and clicking his heels that he wanted to be an honest man from this point on initially led to a series of episodes during which he insisted on playing the role of "good husband" in a "normal life". The intent contradicted what makes the show so great. We don't want to see Don normal and happy all the time.
Sure, sitting down for dinner with Betty and the kids during the first two seasons were scenes that were imperative for the show to gain credibility toward its objective, but the complications those scenes suggested when considered with his other, more colorful and dishonest hobbies illustrated what made the series as good as it is. No matter how happy the writers may have suggested Don would have been had he gone on holiday with the rest of his family at the end of season one, the reality was that the scenario wouldn't have been enough to make him change his ways once and for all, which is typically how real life plays out, anyways. People can blur their edges, but people can't change. And that's why things didn't -- and still don't -- seem right when we see Don sitting down for dinner in his new apartment with his new wife and his new life. It's just not real. It's just not believable.
But what Weiner has done since initially establishing that norm has been nothing short of brilliant. It wasn't until episode six that I began to believe in the possibility that the first half of season five was strictly aimed at showcasing how out-of-sync the world can be when the people who love to be bad, pretend to be good. Bert Cooper, the long-goateed old, wise man of the bunch, scolded Don for being bitten by "the love bug" at the episode's conclusion and suggested that everyone involved with the show was fully aware of the precedent they began to establish with the first handful of episodes. From that point on, each week has proved memorable for various reasons.
"At The Codfish Ball" offered some of the greatest Roger Sterling moments Mad Men has ever seen as his playfulness with Sally was both captivating and endearing. Episode eight saw Megan quit the agency and draw a line between her and Don that clearly won't go away any time soon. "Dark Shadows" had one of the five greatest 15-second spots in the show's history as resident new guy, Michael Ginsberg, proclaimed how bad he feels for Don in an elevator only to hear his boss snap back "I don't think about you at all". "Christmas Waltz" finally got the show back to the workplace and even provided an inspirational stand from Don for the first time this season as he expressed a desire to get some work done. And then, of course, "The Other Woman" happened.
"One reason Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner is so maniacal about keeping plot points about his show secret until they air is that -- well, as this week’s episode, 'The Other Woman', proved, he reserves the right to explode every expectation you could bring to Mad Men, and then sets off a few extra firecrackers for the meticulously determined hell of it", storied television critic Ken Tucker wrote in response to episode 11 on Entertainment Weekly's website. "Mad Men does this a lot -- parallel plotting, one scene echoing another, weaving a theme through various subplots so that we Get The Message. Indeed, I’d say it’s usually the habit, the stylistic tic, that is most irritating about the series, and sometimes leaves you wondering just how stupid Matthew Weiner thinks his audience is. Me, I think the answer to that question is, 'Very'. It’s the contempt of a smart college boy who wants to make sure you know he knows his subject more thoroughly than you do, which in turn prompts fans and recappers to race to Wikipedia to prove they, too, get all the references.
"That’s what prevents Mad Men from being as generous and open-hearted as, say, The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad", Tucker continued. "But Weiner is brilliant at other things, among them casting (as Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm proved this night as superb actors, and as Christina Hendricks and Jessica Pare and January Jones have proven as, at various times, superb objects of desire) and Weiner is brilliant at plotting, at deconstructing the conventions of the hour-long drama. That’s why the Joan and Peggy moves this week were so effective: They worked as surprises, but they will also probably work, going forward, as storytelling master-strokes. Because I doubt there wasn’t one viewer of Mad Men this week who would not admit to Weiner -- to echo The Kinks’ closing sentiment -- 'You Really Got Me'". ("'Mad Men' review: 'Some very dirty business' with women we love", by Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly, 28 May 2012)
Tucker is right. There are subtle differences between this show and the other type of similar dark, introspective programs that have graced television screens in recent years, and those are the differences that separate Mad Men from being a truly great show and just a really good one, which it is right now. But with the fifth season ready to come to a close this weekend, and as we are poised to maybe have some of our questions about where the story is heading answered while being quite aware that many more unknowns will be left to ponder during the off-season, it's now safe to say that Mad Men's return to television after such a long hiatus more than likely won't be ultimately dismissed as a disappointment. Six weeks ago, that statement would have been so much harder to type.
If there's anything we can learn from the first 11 episodes of season five -- and how polarizing and critical they have been to the series as a whole -- it's that stories can take a long time to tell. Even more so, good stories can take an even longer time to construct. Remember: Nothing is ever the way it seems. And if such is indeed one of the sentiments behind this particular television series, you'd be hard pressed to find a better example of that argument than this particular string of episodes.
Besides, it's the journey through being incomplete that makes completeness so appealing, anyways. It makes the answers more satisfying and the frustrations more poignant. Such is essential to personal fulfillment and as Mad Men proves time and time again, such continues to be essential to real life.