I have friends who’ve proclaimed the fifth season of Mad Men to be the show’s best yet. I have colleagues (both at EW and elsewhere) who’ve felt the season started with some of the show’s strongest episodes ever (“Signal 30,” “Far Away Places”), only to drift into grey angst, needless tragedy, and too-obvious thematic unity in its final episodes. And I’ve read many comments on our recap message boards that have expressed in quite colorful terms that this entire season has been ruined by the singular presence of Don Draper’s new wife, the well-adjusted, self-assured (or gap-toothed and petulant, depending on your point of view) Megan. (As you may have surmised, this post will be looking back on the entire season thus far, so consider this a SPOILER ALERT for all those who have yet to catch up.)
Me? I’m reserving judgment until after tonight’s finale.
If Mad Men has taught me anything this season, it’s that a single episode can force me to re-think every episode that has come before it – and then the subsequent episode will send me down that rabbit hole all over again. So while I’m still reeling from Lane’s suicide, Peggy’s exit, Joan’s professional harlotry, and Don’s complicated relationship with each of these pivotal events, I await tonight’s season finale with a feverish foreboding, wondering how it will recalibrate my thinking once again.
With all that nonsense bouncing around my head, I thought it would be good to assess the journeys of Mad Men’s key characters this season, and share my hopes and fears as to what is in store for them tonight. Here are my thoughts:
He started the season on “love leave,” so focused on his own happiness with Megan – on not being “that guy” anymore, literally choking off his urges to stray – that he failed to look after his job and, in turn, his wife’s happiness with her job. But once Megan left SDCP, without her constant presence warding off Don’s demons, he began realizing just how old he’d suddenly become. The world was rapidly changing, what was cool and hip no longer made sense, and his once magic ability to conjure cutting-edge campaigns had dulled from underuse. After a night of flirtation with Joan – flirtation with her, and with his darker instincts – Don redoubled his efforts on the job, fighting for and winning a coveted campaign for Jaguar cars. But that wasn’t enough. The struggle had meant Joan had to compromise herself, and Don’s neglect had pushed Peggy away – all that loss, and the reward was a car that never worked?
So Don went after Dow, a behemoth of American industry, and his pitch said as much about himself as the company he was trying to win over: “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness. I won’t settle for 50 percent of anything. I want 100 percent. You’re happy with your agency? You’re not happy with anything. You don’t want most of it. You want all of it.” The pitch was a grand slam – and then Don came back to the office to learn that Lane had hung himself in the office just days after Don had demanded his resignation for embezzling funds from the company.
Hope for tonight’s season finale: Don hadn’t told a soul about Lane’s misdeeds, though Bert Cooper was at least wise to a check Lane cashed for $7,500. I hope he comes clean, and begins to find a balance between major achievement and lasting personal happiness.
Fear for tonight’s season finale: Don has never been one for self-disclosure nor lasting happiness. But I’m more concerned that with all this loss, he’s going to cling that much more tightly to Megan – and, in doing so, drive her away. And as we saw from season 4, Don does not do being alone all that well.
While on a personal level, Peggy took the very big (and very modern) step of having her boyfriend Abe move in with her, she spent all of season 5 in a frustrating state of professional limbo. Her pitches to Heinz Baked Beans flopped so badly with the clients that she was taken off the account. Her latest hire, possible Martian and definite oddball Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), eclipsed her output of top-notch campaigns. Don barely paid any attention to her all season, and when he did, it wasn’t exactly supportive: After she noted she should be able to see through her Parisian pitch for Chevalier Blanc cologne, Don literally threw a wad of cash in her face. So Peggy quit, joining SDCP arch rival Cutler Gleason and Chaough.
Hope for tonight: Not a word about Peggy was mentioned in last week’s episode, but I hope at the very least Peggy will show up for Lane’s funeral (if we see it).
Fear for tonight: Peggy doesn’t show up at all once again, and we’re left to wonder whether she has any kind of lasting future on Mad Men.
With his wife forcing him to move out to the Connecticut suburbs for the good of their child, Pete fell into to a selfishness that was breathtaking even for him: He kneecapped Roger with the Mohawk Airlines account; he flirted with an affair with a teenage driving classmate; he slept with a prostitute, then with the unhappy wife of the horndog commuting “buddy”; and he engineered Joan’s evening with the Jaguar executive. Like Don, Pete was not satisfied with all the great things he had in front of him; unlike Don, he had no moral compunctions about seeking out more satisfaction no matter who else would get hurt in the process. At least we got the satisfaction of seeing Lane knock Pete flat on his fanny.
Hope for tonight: Pete attempts a power play after Lane’s departure, and Roger knocks him flat on his fanny.
Fear for tonight: Pete attempts a power play after Lane’s departure, and succeeds.