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'Mad Men' Season 5 Thoughts: What Was Lacking (And What There Was Too Much Of)

Posted: 06/10/2012 11:00 am

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It began with "Zou Bisou Bisou," but the fifth season of "Mad Men" wasn't zou much fun after that.

There were interesting episodes, thoughtful ideas and great scenes scattered throughout the long-awaited fifth season, and of course the acting, directing and production values on the show are still top-notch. It's not that "'Mad Men' is no longer a worthy show, but it's hard to avoid the feeling that "Mad Men" didn't live up to its enormous potential this season. I still love these characters and this world, but, let's face it, this year, as least for a subset of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce fans, something was a little off. Or, at times, a lot off.

It wasn't just the self-absorbed, unpleasant behavior on display that was off-putting -- I certainly expect a generous amount of that on the show, which is, after all, about the sordid and sad realities behind the shiny facades created by the advertising world. But the sheer amount of selfishness, frustrated peevishness and ruthlessness in "Mad Men" Season 5, combined with the generally downbeat tone that pervaded every episode, made for a uniquely dour season, post-Megan's cabaret performance. Not even naked Roger on acid could really offset the general grimness.

On top of that, there were a lot of dropped storylines, missed opportunities and depressing developments this year. Aside from the smallish arc that depicted the depressing machinations that got the company the Jaguar account and Lane's rather contrived check-fraud scheme, there also wasn't much tension or forward momentum to help drive the season forward, and though it was a brave and understandable choice to not make Don Draper and his demons the center of a season-long arc, as I wrote here, the season of not wanting, not getting or being bored with what they had soon reached a point of diminishing returns. All things considered, a guy getting his foot mowed off would have added a welcome jolt of energy to the proceedings.

So, in my humble opinion, though it had a number of memorable moments (i.e. Joan telling off her creep rapist husband, Don kissing Peggy's hand, Roger and the singing vodka bottle, fisticuffs in the conference room), I have to admit that Season 5 is quite likely to fade quickly in my memory. I respect anyone who disagrees, but in my opinion, Season 5 wasn't nearly as good as Season 4 (my all-time favorite so far).

My in-depth review of the "Mad Men" Season 5 finale can be found here, but I thought it might be helpful to list separately some of the things I wished I'd seen in Season 5 -- and some of the things I wished I hadn't.

Things I hoped to see (or see more of) and didn't:

  1. More about Dawn and/or other people of color. Aside from a few brief scenes and that unpleasant moment in Peggy's apartment (where, for the most part, Dawn was merely a person for Peggy to talk to, not a person we got to know), Dawn was missing in action for much of the season. Is "Mad Men" going to go its whole run without taking on race in a meaningful way? Because that's starting to seem pretty unrealistic, and kind of a bait and switch, given that the season began with an ugly racial incident involving ad men. What's frankly shocking to me is that, according to this Los Angeles Times interview, creator Matthew Weiner apparently thinks that 1967 is still "early" in the civil rights movement and thus the show can continue to ignore the ways in which America was confronting its many race-related issues and challenges. Weiner is absolutely wrong about it being "early" in the civil rights movement: Rosa Parks' civil disobedience on a Montgomery bus occurred in 1955; Freedom Riders began crisscrossing the South in 1961; the Birmingham church bombing and the March on Washington happened in 1963; the "Freedom Summer" voter-registration drives took place in the South in 1964; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made Chicago the center of housing protests in 1966, and so on. "Mad Men" has chosen to ignore or only make glancing mentions of these important and widely covered events, and at this stage, the show's pointed avoidance of deeper explorations of matters involving race seems deliberate. Should Dawn and racial topics been the focus of the season? No. But there's no way these events weren't part of the national conversation that with-it ad people had to be part of, if only to remain relevant. Steven Boone wrote an excellent piece on "Mad Men" and race last week, and in it, he quoted the spot-on observations of another critic, Vadim Rizov, who pointed out that the show is very interested in gender dynamics but lapses into tokenism when it comes to matters of race. "[I]f this is the best the show can do [on race], it'd be better just to admit they don't care," Rizov said in Boone's piece.
  2. More about Michael Ginsberg, the agency's first Jewish hire. "Mad Men" went to a certain amount of trouble to draw attention to Michael's unusual personality and his awkward (or non-existent) people skills, but then the show more or less dropped him, aside from a few on-screen moments here or there. "Mad Men" even showed us Michael's dad for a few seconds, intimating that we might see more of the copywriter's home life, but we never did, despite the tantalizing clues about his parentage. If you're not going to give us anything substantial about Michael's life, why bother showing his dad? The show hinted at an incredibly strange, sad backstory for Ginsberg, but unfortunately, we didn't get to dig into that. Perhaps next season.
  3. Sal. Every season, I still hope to see Sal. Because I love him so.
  4. More about the youth culture. I'm not down with a lot of the Megan dislike out there, but I can see the frustration with her on one level: She does seem, at times, like a plot device meant to show us What the Younger Generation Is Like. But as the cosseted wife of a rich executive, she's hardly representative of the generation that came of age during the Vietnam War. She does represent change, in that she embodies Baby Boomers' belief that they should get to do what they want on their own terms; their entitled, paradigm-shifting mentality is a big contrast to Don's Depression-era history of economic and emotional poverty. But why is Megan the only young person we see on a regular basis (aside from Peggy and, once in a while, her boyfriend, Abe)? Apart from that time Don talked to a few teenagers at a Rolling Stone concert, a few quick scenes with Megan's actress pal and our encounter with Hare Krishna Paul Kinsey, "Mad Men" has more or less ignored the giant wave of young people and the movements they participated in, all of which were in the process of remaking the culture. I'm willing to concede that that may be deliberate and we may be watching Don Draper and his cronies fall behind the cultural curve, but, during the Sixties, to mostly spend time with well-to-do people over 30 (or well-to-do, sheltered young people like Beth and Megan) just seems weird at times.
  5. More moments like the bar scene between Joan and Don. Remember when this show was fun, whipsmart, atmospherically charged and funny all at once? Remember when it explored the blurred line between friendship and sexual chemistry frequently, not just every so often? Remember when there was more than just one funny moment (if that) per episode? Alas, the elements of the fizzy cocktail the show used to be iare often missing from the "Mad Men" drinks menu these days. And I know, shows evolve, but I can't deny that I miss these kinds of scenes, which (when they get them) the cast always knock out of the park.

Things I saw and either didn't want or care about:

  1. #FatBetty. Don't care. Just. Don't. Care.
  2. #CreepyGlen. I can see why the show wanted to depict young Sally trying to figure out the mysteries of boys and dating, but why resurrect this weird, not particularly compelling neighborhood creep? Especially when New York City is full of young men, and also, it's unfair to the young man playing Glen, who is just not a good actor.
  3. Most people stewing most of the time about not getting what they want. Disappointment, frustration, jealousy, petulance, fear and anger. It's not wrong for a top-tier show to explore the many permutations of those emotions; in fact, it's more or less required. But it becomes a bit of a chore when those emotions are suffocatingly pervasive, along with hazy feelings of disgust and a sense that life was better (and cleaner) in the past. Sure, Peggy got her moment of triumph at the elevator, and the firm won Jaguar, but the latter victory was a hollow one, and the former event broke up the best partnership on the show.
  4. Super-obvious symbols. A cloud of toxic smog over the city? An empty elevator shaft? An infected tooth? What could those things mean? (When in doubt, have Glen point it out!) You could argue, and I'll agree with you up to a point, that, with its unsubtle imagery and brightly outlined symbols, we saw "Mad Men" enter its baroque phase and reflect the in-your-face sensibilities and graphic boldness of the '60s. But after a while, it began to feel as though "Mad Men" didn't trust the audience to figure out meanings and connections on our own and threw glaringly unmissable symbols (and/or very literal lines of dialogue) at us in order to get us to understand themes that were already well-established.
  5. Terrible things being done to people -- sometimes people we know and like. Peggy didn't get a proposal from her boyfriend (and settled, like so many other characters, for less than what she wanted). We saw how easily Sally could turn into a cutting mean girl (like mother, like daughter), and we saw Sally walk in on her own grandmother cheating on her grandfather with a family friend. We saw Don strangle a woman (only in a dream, but still). Tales of mass murder and serial killers were never far from people's minds. We saw Lane die (thanks to a bad check that I still can't quite believe he forged). And most dispiriting of all, Joan was pimped out in order to land an account. Now, all those things could have been part of the best "Mad Men" season ever if they'd been leavened by other kinds of stories, tones, ideas and moods, and if the developments felt organic to the characters' growth and personalities. But the developments were too often forced in negative directions (sometimes in contrived, hurried ways) and the atmosphere remained stubbornly pessimistic, for the most part. These developments were part of what felt like an almost endless parade of negativity that infected almost every hour of the season, and to what end? "Mad Men" became kind of predictable for much of this season, unfortunately; we might not know exactly how the characters would be disappointed and dismayed, but it became apparent that that was almost always going to be the outcome.

Despite all that, I hold out great hope that "Mad Men" will regain some of its spark and its ability to surprise me when the show's sixth season begins. Let me be clear: Weiner is entitled to make the show he wants to make, and I respect that completely. I just wish Season 5 had been more able to surprise me, move me and emotionally engage me. The problem is, I ended the season feeling the malaise that the characters did, and not much more.

Still, "Mad Men" has given me a lot of pleasure and food for thought over the years, and even if Season 5 had more than its share of missteps, I'm always interested in where Don and his colleagues will go next. The characters may have lost a lot of whatever optimism they once may have had, but I haven't.

What did you think of Season 5? What did you want more of? Less of? Or do you think the season that ended Sunday was just right?

Don't forget to check out my previous weekly reviews here and my in-depth finale review here, and all our other "Mad Men" coverage and interviews are here. Also, Ryan McGee and I will talk about the "Mad Men" finale in a Talking TV podcast that will be posted late Tuesday.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the March on Washington happened in 1964.

Find out what fans thought of the "Mad Men" Season 5 finale on Twitter in the slideshow below:

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