In the latter half of the 1960s, America and the world were changing rapidly. Not that you’d know that watching this last season of Mad Men. Season five’s opening episode, “A Little Kiss”, which dealt so directly, if heavy-handedly, with the emerging issue of civil rights in America gave me some false hope that our “heroes” may be given more to interact with than their own internal office drama. With “The Phantom”, the fifth season finale, I’ve officially grown worried that Mad Men has fallen too in love with its characters to give us any kind of genuine story.
Rather than jump head-long into the simmering issues that the first episode raised, we barely got a couple of nods to the larger world. Peggy sort of befriended the one black secretary, but still worried that she would steal from her purse when Peggy wasn’t looking. Paul Kinsey resurfaced as a Hare Krishna and Roger Sterling took acid, presumably as a way of reminding the viewers that there was, in fact, a counter-culture developing while men in white shirts decided what slogan a bean company needed on its product. But still, the majority of time was spent on Lane’s money woes, Joan’s hideous mistreatment by the men around her and, of course, Megan, Megan and a bit more Megan for good measure.
Believe it or not, there used to be other women on this show.
I’ve harshed on this show before, mostly because it never met a theme that it didn’t love to beat you about the head with for 60 solid minutes at a time, 13 weeks out of the year. It’s engrained in the show’s DNA to telegraph the big messages, almost like it doesn’t trust the viewers to arrive at those revelations on their own. The thing is, up until this season I pretty much still trusted the show to deal with the realities of its own set-up for each of its characters. Now, I’m not so sure.
It’s always amazing to me when I hear people, women in particular, talk lovingly about Don Draper. In a conversation with a co-worker about this season, she was distressed by the implication in the final moments of this season that Don is soon to be returning to his lying, philandering way after a season of bliss with his new wife. The thing is, when he does cheat again (because you know he’s going to; first of all, that’s how a show creates drama and second of all, Don’s a cad and always will be) I’m convinced that the writers won’t actually make him pay for it. Rather than lose the illusion of his life that is so important to him, which would constitute actual tragedy in the Arthur Miller sense, I get the sense that Don’s happiness has become too important for the writers themselves. He’s their baby and like any good parent, they simply don’t want him to get hurt.
Before I get accused of being too unduly bitter, there were aspects of the season that I thought were well done. As is typical, most of that credit goes to Peggy and Joan and both the actresses playing them and the writing given to them. In particular, “The Other Woman”, episode 11, was possibly the best hour of the show I’ve ever seen. (And, not coincidentally, the first one where I felt like the writers let the audience naturally figure out the point instead of hanging a few neon signs out for us to see.) While playing with the notion of a trendy sports car as the metaphorical woman that all men want but can’t really afford to have, the fact that Don is in that situation almost completely passes him by. Though in his case, the unattainable other woman isn’t the next sexual conquest but is Peggy, something he doesn’t realize it until it’s far too late. At the same time, Joan is presented with an actual indecent proposal from the slime balls that are her co-workers, literally prostituting her out as the same unattainable paragon for a client. Joan is made a full partner for her efforts, but not without a cost.
Don't know what you've got til it's gone. Or whore-d out for a client. Didn't Joni Mitchell write something about this?
All of the strum und drang that is so strong in “The Other Woman” just goes to illustrate how frustrating it can be to watch this show. Mad Men clearly understands the concept of ownership and the myriad ways in which society in the 1960s encouraged it, whether that be owning better luxury items and goods to get ahead of your neighbors or literally owning other people. Rather than wrestle with those issues and how they got played out in the broader picture of 1960s America, we get the sniping and bickering of the Draper family and an entire season about Megan’s desire to be an actress. The promises of the series back in the first season, that we would watch history happen around these characters, have taken a back seat to all the inter-personal stuff.
Season five left me feeling less like I was watching a thoughtful meditation on history, or identity politics, or changing roles in society, and more like I was watching a middle school play, albeit a well-produced one, attended by doting parents.