It’s been a busy season at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (R.I.P.), full of new arrivals, rites of passage, abrupt departures (professional and corporeal), divorces, fistfights, acid trips and assignations. And the tumultuous events taking place on the surface have been mirrored by changes beneath it — although in contrast to the elegant character profiles traced by Matthew Weiner and his writing staff, the show’s stylistic calculations sometimes come across as ad hoc, tailored to the needs of a given moment or a specific episode rather than fitting into an overarching plan.
Especially in the opening stretch of this fifth go-round, the six weeks leading up to midpoint episode “At the Codfish Ball” — a highlight of both the season and the series — the show made several uncharacteristic departures from the naturalistic master style laid out in the pilot episode, from the temporal loops of “Far Away Places” to the Gothic overtones of “Mystery Date.” “Mad Men” has certainly played with form before, perhaps most dramatically during the in-camera flashback’s to Don Draper’s childhood. But it has never before done so with such consistency, or in such an offhand manner.
The repeated scenes in “Far Away Places,” where we see Don’s (Jon Hamm) agitated call to Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) before we see the fight that sends his wife, Megan (Jessica Paré), off into the night, underline the extent to which Don’s absences from the office — physical, in this instance, and more frequently as a byproduct of his mental “love leave” — have put distance between him and his co-workers. But it’s a minor revelation compared to the dramatic circumstances that have compelled such departures from straight-ahead narrative in the past. Although the season settled down somewhat in its second half, the reassuring comfort of a dominant, self-effacing visual style had been deliberately — and, I think, permanently — undermined. That goes not just for the audience but the characters as well, who find their lives progressing in ways they’re unequipped to understand, let alone direct.
In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air broadcast the day after this year’s two-part premiere “A Little Kiss,” Weiner pegged the party scene at the episode’s center as a key to the arc of the season, albeit in ways that would only later become clear. “You know already,” he said. “You’ve been told, but it’s not what you think.” At the time, it seemed that the crux of the conflict between Don and his Megan, who treated him to a sultry serenade in front of his envious fellow ad execs, had to do with age, his desire to gloss over his 40th birthday — or rather his alter ego Don Draper’s, since Dick Whitman was already six months past his 40th — versus Megan’s inclination to celebrate it in public.
But as Megan traded her burgeoning career inventing ad campaigns for a much shakier try at becoming an actress, it became obvious that the dispute between husband and wife had less to with age than it did with performance. Don, of course, lives his part. Although Megan shares his secret, when he’s outside their bedroom he’s always on stage, playing the man he has effectively become — a performance that is successful only to the extent it is unseen. Megan, by contrast, wants to be seen as an actress, to be recognized for her performance rather than disappearing into it.
The world outside the walls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is in upheaval, and the culture has begun to reflect it, but inside their conference room, the clocks are running slow. The civil rights movement has barely made an impression, and the sexual revolution is only a drumbeat on the horizon. By the time the season is over, it’s 1967, the year of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” — a movie that could easily have starred SCDP’s new hire Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) — but even the agency’s hip young creatives are pitching ads inspired by “A Hard Day’s Night,” a three-year-old movie that might as well have been made in a previous century. (Megan’s hip enough to listen to “Revolver,” but Don can’t even get through one song without lifting the needle.) Peggy’s boyfriend, Abe (Charlie Hofheimer), an underground journalist who seems genuinely plugged into the rising counterculture, suggests they see Cornel Wilde’s “The Naked Prey,” in which he “wrestles a boa constrictor naked,” but Peggy goes instead to the much tamer “Born Free,” which not even the joint proffered by a stranger can make psychedelic.
Life can be viewed as a succession of roles, first performed and then inhabited. You play the part of, say, a sexually maturing 12-year-old or an advertising executive confidently weighing offers from prospective new employers, until you find someone you can convince that’s who you are — and then, all of a sudden, that is who you are. But in the fifth season of “Mad Men,” the script keeps changing, and the characters no longer know what part they’re reading for.
Megan can play the sexpot, which is good for stoking her husband’s passions, but she’s hardly ready for the poisoned surrealism of Jules Feiffer’s “Little Murders,” the play for which she unsuccessfully auditions. She’s coyly beautiful in the screen test Don watches in the season finale, but the staging suggests something out of “Persona” or “Repulsion,” movies laced with existential dread and perverse sexuality. It’s a far cry from the role she finally does land, as a day-glo princess in a shoe manufacturer’s take on “Beauty and the Beast.”
Although Don and his erstwhile protégée have a chance meeting in a movie theater, it’s been a long time since we saw him sneaking off to an art film in the middle of the day, and their conversation is drowned out by the opening theme from “Casino Royale,” which is hardly “Masculin Féminin.” The episode’s most striking image is of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s five surviving partners spreading out across the floor of the empty office they’ve acquired with the proceeds from Lane Pryce’s (Jared Harris) death benefit — blood money — a tableau that suggests a bare stage waiting to be set for the next production. But none of them knows, as yet, what play they’re in.