The fifth season of AMC‘s “Mad Men” came to a close Sunday night, wrapping up what has been arguably among its strongest seasons yet. No small feat considering the show has taken home four consecutive Emmys for Best Drama and been proclaimed one of the best shows on TV by nearly every critic reviewing the medium. After a run of 13 almost uniformly excellent episodes, it becomes harder to remember that this season had gotten off to a rocky start. When the network decided to pull the show out of its summer slot to make room for the other best show on TV (“Breaking Bad“), fans had to endure a brutal 17-month wait. Contract negotiations between creator Matthew Weiner and the studio were made public and gave both the network and creator some negative buzz to overcome.
And when the show finally returned this spring, the two-hour premiere may have satiated viewers’ curiosity about what their favorite characters had been up to, but on the whole they weren’t sure if they were pleased with the answers. Picking up in June 1966 — 7 months after the previous season four finale — viewers were forced (as in previous season openers) to play catch up, filling in the gaps on what the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce gang were up to during the interim. As it turned out: they were up to a lot. Though mere months had passed in the show, the world had changed dramatically. And during the 10 months in which Season 5 takes place, our characters lives may have transformed even more. Join us as we dive into Season 5 of “Mad Men” and look towards the future of the series.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) began the season on “love leave” (as he was scolded by Bert Cooper at one point), so consumed with spending as much time as he could with his new wife Megan, he had totally checked out of work. Viewers got to see a side of Don they had never before witnessed: the faithful husband. Unfortunately, his happiness came at the expense of his company, which teetered on the edge of survival without its creative leader. As the season went along and Megan left to pursue her dreams of acting, Don realized his passivity at work was causing his company to be put in jeopardy and took a renewed interest in his career, winning the Jaguar account and making an aggressive play for bigger clients. Hamm spoke to AMC about his character’s reversal, saying, “By the end of Season 5, Don is completely reinvigorated about growing this company and taking some big risks and really moving forward.” While the future at SCDP looks brighter than ever (financially anyway, though at a high cost), his relationship with Megan is much more up in the air.
Though some saw the Don/Megan relationship as a far different beast than his marriage to ex-wife Betty, this writer takes the view that we just never got to see the beginning of that one. Judging from brief flashbacks, one can imagine that young Don once worshiped Betty the same way he did Megan, but as Dr. Faye has pointed out, he tends to “only like the beginnings of things.” And as the season wound down, it became clear that Don’s story was partially about the honeymoon phase of a relationship, which, judging from the final moments of the finale, are about to come to a close. When he’s approached in the bar by a young woman asking to pick him up for her friend, she asks “Are you alone?” Throughout the season his character had been unflappable, but now we’re not so sure. Weiner spoke about the final moments to the NYTimes, saying, “We don’t know how he’s going to answer but we know he’s in a different place. But you recognize that guy when he looks up. We haven’t seen him in a while.” Whether Don jumps into bed with both ladies or this is simply the first crack in his impenetrable armor isn’t as important as knowing that he’s turned a corner.
Roger Sterling (John Slattery) was probably not fans’ first guess on who would be the first to drop acid but in one of the series’ best scenes to date, that was exactly what he did. But his trip wasn’t just an opportunity for him to hallucinate to pop music, his mind-altering experience had major ramifications. Roger had a tough year at work after losing Lucky Strike, and failing to land another major account he struggled to prove his usefulness. Trying to keep up with Pete and Ken led him to barging in on Pete’s meetings and paying off both Peggy and Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) to do work for him to help bring in accounts. But he came out of his LSD trip suddenly enlightened, deciding to divorce his wife Jane (Peyton List) and try to live “closer to the truth.” Unfortunately, as the season came to a close, its effects began to wear off and he unsuccessfully tried to persuade former fling Mrs. Calvet (Julia Ormond) to drop acid with him but she waved him off, not wanting to be responsible for him. Roger’s final appearance sees the character standing stark naked in front of a window.
Slattery spoke to NYMag about his bare final scene, saying, “Roger standing there with no clothes on, arms wide open, staring out at the world is saying, ‘I’m ready, I’m vulnerable, I’m waiting for the next experience, come what may.’ It’s a pretty great place to be. It’s probably scary, which is why he asks Julia [Ormond]’s character to go with him. He says, ‘I need to do this again, and I don’t want to do it by myself, because I don’t know what’s out there.’ But when she says no, he strips down and does it by himself. It’s adventurous and courageous in a way; for someone that age, being brought up the way he was, at this place in his life to say, ‘I need something new and I don’t know what it’ll be.’ Who knows what will happen? I could jump in front of a bus and kill myself, I don’t know. I think it’s pretty astonishing, and I can’t wait to see where he goes.”
Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), like so many characters this season, had a big year as well. She had Roger’s baby, finally kicked her army surgeon husband Greg to the curb and accepted a controversial indecent proposal from a sleazy Jaguar client to become a partner at SCDP. Fans were split over the decision, with some feeling the incident was far fetched (Weiner insists it wasn’t) while others thought it was out of character for Joan. Hendricks was conflicted on the issue, asking, “The question is, what would you do to protect your family? Joan is raising her son all on her own. She has no help from anybody. So is it noble? Is it slutty? I don’t know.” Regardless of the answer, Joan finally finds herself with a seat at the table (one that had been, intentionally or otherwise, denied her for quite some time). Though she now feels the burden of being the pragmatic one in poor Lane’s absence, she’s picked a good time to go all in with the company doing better than ever.
Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) began the show as a mousy secretary but over 5 seasons became very much Don’s equal, gradually taking on his habits for better and worse. But after flirting with leaving Don’s side on several occasions, she finally took the leap and left SCDP for a new opportunity and larger paycheck from a rival firm. As much as it pained us to see her go, it was the right thing for her character to do, “I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to hire you” be damned. Viewers may have felt punched in the gut as Peggy quietly made her way toward the elevator but it was clear from her triumphant exit music that this was the best decision for her character. After the season finale gave us what could have essentially been the conclusion to Peggy’s story — featuring her and Don meeting for the first time as equals and her enjoying her first flight to exotic Richmond, VA — we feared we may have seen the last of Moss as a series regular.
So what does this mean for Moss who has essentially been the second lead on the show since it began? If this were any other series on the air right now, we have no doubt the writers would figure out a way after 6 or 8 episodes to work Peggy back into the SCDP offices next season, but “Mad Men” has never been that show. Recall when Joan left the company prematurely and was forced to get a job at a department store — the audience never saw Joan until Pete bumped into her there. We have a hard time imagining the show keeping up with two advertising firms but Weiner does reassure fans we haven’t seen the last of Peggy. Weiner told the NYTimes, “She’s still part of the show. So far. We want to know where she is in this world. I can’t tell you what’s planned for her, but there she was.”
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) began the show as an antagonist for Don, who during the first season would attempt unsuccessfully to blackmail him about his past in order to climb the corporate ladder. Over time we’ve seen that Pete can be as repulsive as he is tragic. This season had a healthy dose of both as Pete reluctantly settled into life in the suburbs — keep in mind this is a character who had said he’d rather die in Manhattan than flee for safer territories — and became restless even as he achieved great success in his career. He’s finally in a position to get almost everything he wants at work, outpacing Roger and Ken for accounts, but still finds himself unfulfilled. Ironically, this season Pete and Don seem to have switched places, with Pete looking to fill the void with extramarital affairs.
While Pete spilling his feelings to Beth may have been a little too on-the-nose dialogue-wise, Kartheiser was still strong. In fact, Pete was responsible for many highlights this season including several fistfights, his night with a prostitute and the Pete-centric “Signal 30,” which was an early season standout diving headfirst into his psyche (drip, drip). With all the death imagery hanging around this season, many had pegged Pete to finally put that office shotgun to use and off himself but he appears safe for now — that fate fell, unfortunately, to poor Lane.
Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) was a character that always seemed to get the shit end of the stick. One of his only moments of triumph came in the Season 3 finale when he told off his former employers with a jolly “Happy Christmas” before claiming his partnership at the newly formed company that bears his name. But barring that incident, he’s been beaten down (literally) by his father, disrespected at work (though he did claim a boxing victory over Pete) and hounded by the taxman. Had he not been quite so proud he might’ve approached his partners for a loan but as an upper crust British gentleman he made the mistake of “borrowing” some funds from the company early on in the season, which he never had a chance to repay. Many anticipated this development would pay off dramatically down the line but few probably expected it to resolve quite as darkly as it did. After Don approaches Lane for embezzling funds from the company and offers him the weekend to resign, covering off on all debts, Lane decides that rather than explain this to his family, he’ll take his own life.
After a failed attempt to commit the act in his new Jaguar, he stages a second try at work, and this time he doesn’t miss. The partners find Lane the following morning hanging in his office accompanied by a boiler-plate resignation letter. Though many viewers may have sided with Don for doing every decent thing to conceal Lane’s misdeeds and save him the humiliation (not to mention jail time), Lane obviously felt he had still been wronged and left his own body as a giant “fuck you” to Don. Harris agreed, telling Vulture, “It was a vindictive thing to do, to kill himself in the office, so without question he went back in there and wanted to be passive aggressive — the act of killing himself in the office is the aggressive part and the passive side of it is to leave a suicide note that explains nothing.”
Betty Francis (January Jones) once again received fairly minimal screentime this year, and though some may place the blame on Jones’ real life pregnancy, most viewers know that Betty hasn’t figured heavily into the show since she left Don in Season 3. She probably received about as much screentime this season as she did in Season 4. Though her weight gain proved an interesting development for her character, its execution was lacking, and the only real misstep of the season was the Betty-centric second episode “The Tea Leaves” (though it did spawn the brilliant parody “Fat Betty” for which we are all grateful). As the season wore on she did get some great notes to play. Betty catching the sight of young, thin Megan changing in her room was a crushing moment for her character. Throughout the season, fans experienced emotional whiplash feeling sympathy for her one moment and being reminded why she can be so unlikable the next. (And repeat.)
Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton), Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) all had some standout moments this season as well. Ken’s secret hobby as a sci-fi writer resulted in the beautiful closing monologue of “Signal 30,” Harry has now been a powerful TV exec for as long as he was a bow-tie-wearing square, and Sally, who made a great date for Roger at the Codfish Ball, is quietly becoming one of the series’ MVPs. We also got brief glimpses from old favorites including Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), Freddy Rumsen (Joel Murray) and Glen Bishop (Marten Holden Weiner).
But undoubtedly the most controversial character this season was Megan Draper (Jessica Paré), who had been the focus of much of the season. From her breakout musical number in the season premiere through her starring role in a commercial in the finale, Megan was at the center of Season 5. Though to the objection of fans who would’ve rather seen more of Joan, Peggy or any series favorites. Even Don’s motivations during the early part of the season were murkier simply because we were seeing him reflected through his new wife. And if Megan hadn’t turned into such a great character (her rejection of Don’s orange sherbert at HoJo’s truly gutted us; we’ve been in that fight before) we might’ve been miffed as well. But she proved to be a fascinating addition to the show.
In the finale, Megan reverses her previous stance of making a go of her acting career without Don’s help by asking him to consider her for a commercial he’s working on. Don tries to dissuade her, saying, “You want to be somebody’s discovery, not somebody’s wife” but she insists. On the one hand, that’s totally legitimate advice, but when we see Don watching Megan’s reel, we know that she deserves the part, too. And Don decides to give her what she wants because he wants to make her happy. Hamm said of his character’s decision, “Realizing that means that he has to let her go and let her find that way.” Weiner elaborated, “He knows that if he gives Megan what she wants that she could possibly leave him. And I think it’s almost a story of sacrifice that he sees her on that film, falls in love with her again and realizes he has to do this. And then he sees her on the set and you realize that she’s gone.”
And there’s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce itself. The company ends the season on a high note but at what cost? Weiner said, “To me, that’s been the story of the season: success. And what are the perils of success?” As Don said during the season, “Happiness is a moment before you need more happiness,” which is the upsetting truth. Happiness is fleeting, temporary, and the things we do to get it only put off the darkness for so long. How many other series are grappling with the nature of existence in such a poetic and beautiful way? None come to mind.
In such a strong season it’s hard to pick a favorite episode, though there are several standouts: “Far Away Places” and its triptych of short stories, “At The Codfish Ball,” which ended with Sally’s unforgettable final line “Dirty” (joining the pantheon of declarative 1 or 2 word endings with “Eyes Wide Shut” and “There Will Be Blood” among others) and the aforementioned Pete episode “Signal 30.” We were also treated to some incredible music cues including The Beach Boys‘ “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” The Kinks‘ “You Really Got Me,” Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” and The Beatles‘ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
If you haven’t already given them a look, we’d like to point you toward the stellar episode recaps from The AV Club, Vulture and Grantland, which offered fantastic and thorough weekly insight, as well as AMC’s own weekly behind-the-scenes video featuring Weiner and the cast discussing the themes behind each week’s episode. What will happen next for the characters? As Hendricks put it, “What could happen next? Anything could happen next.” Weiner says he typically exhausts all of his storytelling possibilities each year without planning for exactly how it’ll all work out in future episodes, so there’s really not much use predicting. One thing we are fairly certain of is that if the series can keep up this quality for the supposedly final two seasons, it will truly be something special. Not many shows, even great ones, make it to Season 5 without a dip in quality but this has always been a show that blazed its own trail. Wherever it goes from here, we can’t wait to follow.