"And so it goes... [Mo Ryan], different strokes for different folks."
I have been a fan of HuffPost television critic Mo Ryan for some time now. I have particularly enjoyed, and often agreed with, her Mad Men reviews. But this season, and more to the point, this week, our views have cycled apart. When it comes to her assessment of "The Other Woman" episode, Ms. Ryan and I (suddenly, I feel uncomfortable calling her "Mo"), find ourselves in separate corners.
While Ms. Ryan states she'll "be fine" when season five finally ends, I anticipate suffering from severe withdrawal pains. Still, I am not completely oblivious to her "issues." When she describes this season as being "grim and pervasively bleak," on a certain level, I understand what she is grousing about. (Or, to stick to my period lyrics, "I can dig it.")
But I also know from my days as an advertising CEO and as the author of The Minefields (my first-person novel about the Ad Biz during the rise of the boomer generation) that Mad Men season five accurately portrays the ad world. I believe Advertising's inherent volatility, melodrama and need to accurately reflect the social zeitgeist may be what initially attracted Matthew Weiner to this business discipline and convinced him to set his tale in the socially convulsive 1960s. He understood an explosive combination when he saw it. When this show is really ticking, as it was in episode eleven, it represents enthralling television at its best.
Mad Men season five continues to burn brightly for me. It continues to demonstrate great grit and provide huge payoffs. "The Other Woman" has become my favorite episode thus far. The acting, the plot, the tension and the direction were spot-on. When the episode ended, all I could say was, "Thank-goodness there are still two more left!"
Three words describe advertising's unique character, particularly as exhibited between the mid-sixties and well into the onset of the boomer years: "one challenging business." To me, "challenging" has little in common with a term like "grim." "Challenging" describes the nature of a thing, "grim" its atmospherics. The sixties were extremely challenging times, filled with rancor and change and disturbing events that occasionally had the potential to cycle toward "grim."
But I have also found that the darkness Ms. Ryan speaks of so compellingly contains a certain degree of light. In the case of Mad Men season five, that light shines through the trials and tribulations of characters who are, at last, beginning to understand each other. Season five hints that, for many characters, a healthy dose of self-awareness lies just around the next corner. Where Ms. Ryan sees something "pervasively bleak" at work in season five, I see action that appears far more "herky-jerky" or "topsy-turvy."
Mad Men season five honestly captures the highs, lows and horrific volatility that are ever-present for those who play at the high-stakes tables in the ad business. It's understandable how someone less familiar with the intensity of the industry might misconstrue its true-to-life portrayal as just so much melodrama. But I'd say unequivocally that Weiner is actually exposing us to the true nature of the beast.
The methodical delineation of character differences, which Weiner's team has gone to such great lengths to restate so deliberately in show after show this season (Ms. Ryan calls this "repetitive") provided an essential lead-up to episode eleven. In fact, it is precisely what made "The Other Woman" so successful. Weiner has "set the table." We now know these characters extremely well... allowing the final two episodes of Mad Men to cover substantial dramatic ground in real time.
For years, we have watched Peggy Olson grow on the job, ever since Don first recognized the writer lurking inside her and gave her a big break. We saw her grow, incrementally, into an ever-stronger conceptual thinker, even as she continued to work too much in Don's shadow. So, when Peggy finds herself a new, better paying job, one that will allow her to leave her considerable SCDP baggage behind, we feel neither surprised nor disappointed. Yet her departure delivers intent, heartfelt emotion.
After Weiner groomed Peter Campbell as the ad agency's schmuck in residence, we expect no one but Campbell to weasel his way into Joan's office to deliver the news that the head of the Jaguar Dealer's Association has made his vote contingent on sleeping with her. But, by now, we know that Joan has the requisite smarts and maturity to reason it all out. We've seen her depth all season long. Meanwhile, we see Don, the agency's chief creative loafer, step back into the ring ready to fight again. He swings away at the pitch and, no surprise, lands the knockout punch.
While I was taking it all in, it hit me: this was Mad Men's Mt. Everest moment. The quality of the acting and writing, the show's deep substance and themes and the unparalleled directing savvy pushed the ensemble to a new high. I thought of The Verdict, the 1982 baby boomer classic film directed by Sidney Lumet. This episode reminded me of Lumet directing the likes of Paul Newman, James Mason, Jack Warden, Charlotte Rampling and Lindsay Crouse.
But in reality, it was Phil Abraham who cannily drew out the best from the Mad Men cast. Go get 'em Phil!