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