Review Of Mad Men’s 5th Season
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/23/13
Just a week or two before AMC’s hit 1960s era soap opera, Mad Men, started its 6th season, its 5th season was finally released to stream on Netflix. While still a good show, in comparison to most of the dreck that fills the several hundred channels of relentless ‘content’ driven cable television, the 5th season was a definite drop in quality from the first four seasons. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the season’s first four anomic episodes. Literally, in these episodes, the characters just stand around and act like the caricatures they verge on becoming. The series drives on through the 1960s, but nothing really changes. Ad man Don Draper (really Dick Whitman- Jon Hamm) is still a selfish scumbag, his new wife Megan (Jessica Paré)is a artsy sort with no direction. His ex-wife, Betty Francis (January Jones)is still a fringing psychotic, who ignores her new and improved second husband, Henry (Christopher Stanley), a political operative for New York City Mayor John Lindsay. His two youngest children are ciphers, and his oldest daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka) is a spoiled brat.
Work life is little better, as his partners are as bad as they ever were. Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) is increasingly uninvolved in the business, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is a narcissist into LSD trips, Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) embezzles from the company and is forced into suicide by the hypocritical Don, whose fraudelent crimes dwarf Lane’s, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) becomes the evil weenie from hell, and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) prostitutes herself into a 5% junior partnership at the behest of the other partners, save Don.
The 1st and 2nd episodes were considered a two part season opener, and NOTHING happens, save a dull birthday party for Don. Literally, that’s it. All we see are the main characters doing what they’ve done the past 4 seasons. Episode 3 sees Betty Francis having gained weight due to a possible tumor. The bulk of the episode has the ditzy ex-wife of Don fret over her mortality, but in a way that is not deep nor meaningful. The company hires its first Jew- a copywriter named Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), who works under Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). Episode 4 has the potential for more, as it deals with the Richard Speck mass murder spree, and the return of Joan’s Vietnam doctor husband, Greg (Samuel Page), who has reupped without asking Joan first, but another snooze. In these first four episodes, Don and the company tweak a rival ad agency and hire their first black employee because of it- Don’s secretary, Dawn (Teyonah Parris).
Episode 5 is the real season opener, in a sense, as the Charles Whitman UT shooting takes precedence, Don and Megan visit Pete and wife Trudy’s abode. Pete tries his hand at pedophilia by flirting with a high school girl at a driver’s school. Lane Price gets a lead on the company’s first automobile account, Jaguar Cars, and he and Pete have a fistfight. Episode 5 is the best thus far, as Roger Sterling takes LSD and splits from his trophy wife, Jane (Peyton List). Megan and Don drive to Plattsburgh, New York, to take advantage of a deal from prospective client, Howard Johnson’s. They argue, Don leaves Megan behind in the parking lot, then panics when she vanishes. The episode follows Roger, Don, and Peggy’s days after a certain point in each of their days that overlaps with the others’ stories. Episode 7 introduces Megan’s battling Quebecois parents, and her mother, Marie (Julia Ormond) has a sexual encounter with Roger.
Episode 8 finds Megan wanting to leave advertising for acting, and Pete again cheating on his wife Trudy (Alison Brie) by bedding the wife of an acquaintance, Howard Dawes (Jeff Clarke), from the commuter train. Episode 9 find Michael Ginsberg getting raves for his work, while Roger has to hustle Jane to help him land a Jewish client. Episode 9 is a standout, as Lane Pryce receives word that he owes the U.K. $8000 in back taxes or face jailing. He forges Don’s signature to a check, and then begins to suffer a nervous breakdown. Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) meets with ex-series regular, Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis), who has joined the Hare Krishna cult, and written a bad Star Trek script. To get him away from the cult, he has sex with the woman who tantalizes Paul, then pays for his passage to LA, to pursue a screenwriting career. Joan’s divorce comes due.
Episode 11 finds the partners asking Joan to sleep with a client to land Jaguar for good, and they offer her a 5% partnership, over Don’s objections. Peggy also accepts a job offer at a rival firm. Episode 12 sees Sally Draper also has a date with her former neighbor, Glen Bishop (Marten Weiner), Don find out of Lane’s embezzlement, and forced him to resign, citing his forging of Don’s signature, even though Don has been forging the ‘real’ Don Draper’s signature for 15 years. This sleazy move causes Lane to suicide via hanging in his office, and Don to see nightmare visions of his own suicidally hanged brother, Adam Whitman (Jay Paulson)- replete with rope burns about his neck, which carries over into the season finale, episode 13, wherein Roger and Megan’s mother continue their affair, Pete finds out his lover, Beth Dawes (Alexis Bledel) has had shock therapy and no longer recognizes him. The firm expands after Lane’s death, and gets a second floor. Don ponders a return to his philandering ways.
All in all, this was easily the weakest of the five seasons in this Matthew Weiner created melodrama, and, like the five better, earlier seasons, the show’s interior ‘feel,’ how the characters think and act, is clearly 21st Century- and nowhere is this better shown in showing how the characters deal with black people in this season. In other words, while the sets and costumes capture the era, the very way people talked and related does not. A final point, and I jump on it only because it is the biggest plot point of the season, and gets to the root of one of the show’s main flaws- being a melodrama while claiming to be a drama.
In the storyline that sees Lane Pryce putatively ‘embezzle’ from the company, the reality is that this was not, indeed, his crime. He had, as the show and Lane state, invested over $50k in the company, so his taking $8000 of it out should have, in reality, been no problem. In a real drama, he would have simply made this request at a meeting, and been granted it, as he had been the financial savior of the company, and was owed this and other courtesies. Instead, the show followed the Dumbest Possible Action trope of a melodrama. Lane is a partner- a junior partner, at this stage of the show, and along with Pete Campbell, controls 12.5% of the company, with Don, Roger, and Bert controlling 25% each. As a partner, Don simply cannot fire Lane. He can, of course, report the crime of Lane’s forging his signature on the check, but to do so would risk Don open to his own fraudulent life, for, despite Lane’s not knowing that Don Draper is really Dick Whitman, the reality is that he is NOT Don Draper, and any investigation into Lane’s forgery of Don’s signature would involve not only local authorities but the FBI and the SEC. They would doubtlessly uncover Don’s secret real life. Also, even before this, Don would not risk an external investigation, for it would utterly destroy his company’s reputation- a fact he even admits to Lane as a reason he wants to fire him, for if it got out that the company had been embezzled from, it would sink their credibility. Well, it would only get worse with federal investigators confirming this. All the partners would be effectively ruined in their careers, and Lane, as a seasoned businessman should be savvy enough to know this, as well as the fact that he cannot be fired by one other partner, only by a majority vote of all the partners. In short, he’d have the other partners by the short hairs. They would either forgive him and survive, or sink with him. Add to that Don’s fraudulent life, and the whole plot point becomes a melodramatic way to write out a character that had long term potential, and in a way that could have been far more effectively dealt with by having him ask to be bought out so he could return, with his homesick wife, to England.
Therein the rub, Mad Men is a melodrama, a soap opera, and Season 5 shows that its inevitable decline begins, and will likely end, with this fact. Go ahead, and sigh.
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