06/13/2012 04:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Looking Forward From Mad Men 's Meandering Season 5: You Only Live Twice (One Can Only Hope)

Ida Sessions: "Are you alone?"

Jake Gittes: "Isn't everyone?"

from Chinatown

And all the disparate threads of Mad Men's Season 5 came together to send us into a long off-season ... Well, no. A season full of rather disconnected showpieces, or stunts, depending on how cheery one wants to be about the show's abandonment of its very coherent narrative structure, ended with several largely disconnected happenings, culminating in a closing scene that came within the perilous vicinity of The Sopranos' notorious ending. More about that later.

Actually, what did jell in the uneven finale to this most uneven of Mad Men seasons is the pervasively dour attitude that permeates the show even as it moves into one of the most colorful and dynamic periods in American history. But that had already jelled this season. Or, put another way, congealed.

Of course, I see another possibility, suggested by the choice of the great Bond theme song "You Only Live Twice" as the extro music for the season. That we have just been through two seasons of taking down Don Draper, in Season 4, then giving him what he thinks is "happiness," in Season 5, only to have the essential man that so intrigued from the beginning return for the rest of the series. In which case, Don's silent look at the end of the episode is the equivalent of Schwarzenegger saying: "I'll be back."

Is it possible that the last three minutes of the episode redeemed the entire season? I'll return to that rather happy thought after slogging through this season finale.

You Only Live Twice, music by John Barry and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, sung by Nancy Sinatra over the the opening credits of the last original sequential film in the James Bond film franchise.

As always, there be some spoilers ahead. Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, going back to 2009, here in The Mad Men File.

It's April 1967, some time after Lane Pryce's suicide of the previous episode. Sterling Cooper Draper sans Pryce is booming, so much so that it's expanding its office space to the fabled upstairs. But does that make these folks happy happy happy? Need you ask?

Don Draper is doing just fine, especially in his work, which is flourishing. Well, he's doing fine except for the overly portentous imagery surrounding him ... Spectral visitations from the brother he inadvertently forced into suicide in Season 1 (much guilt over Lane, perhaps?) and a bad tooth he tries to ignore but which, but of course, signifies a deeper rot. Having noted those anvils, I think I'll ignore them.

But Megan, who rejected advertising, at which she is a natural, in favor of acting, one of the ultimate crap shoot fields, is struggling. She's going out on auditions, but she's not getting cast. She feels like a failure. So, in something of a state, she pushes Don to have her cast in a national TV ad. Which he finally does, though he has mixed feelings about it. That gets us to our season-ending scene, which I'll return to in several moments.

Pete Campbell, who, sorry, is never going to kill himself, gets beat up not once but twice in this episode. First by his skeezy Connecticut commuter "friend" whose very troubled wife Pete has boffed, and dreamed about to excess, then by the train conductor. But his disheveled appearance when he finally gets home gets him what he wants from Trudy. She relents, and he can have his apartment in Manhattan after all.

Pete's big "existential crisis" is really nothing of the sort, though it is a big problem. The reality is that Pete's work is going very well. He's kinda sleazy, but let's not be naive about his business. And he did well with Trudy when it was the two of them in the city. But her picture of happiness, or what she thinks is her picture -- family in the country-ish 'burbs -- is very different from his. We'll see if her picture of happiness is really her picture of happiness. She strikes me more as a Manhattan person, too. Remember all her kicky outfits and clever patter from the first few seasons before the story made her into a much duller premature matron type?

Getting to where he wanted to be was not exactly a straight line for Pete, who had developed a silly pseudo-relationship with a strange woman who can't hold a candle to Trudy and who goes in for convulsive electro-shock treatments to clear out her very depressed mind. In the aftermath, she literally doesn't remember him. Which leads to Pete's outburst to her husband on the train and then his back-to-back ass-kickings.

Roger Sterling hooks up again with Megan's mom, played by '90s movie star Julia Ormond. It looks like they are going to become an item. She's glamorous but more age appropriate for Roger than, er, some of his past choices. But she won't take LSD with him, leaving him questing for another dose of technologized enlightenment on his own. And she has waspish words for Don about her daughter's career choice, saying that Megan has an artistic temperament without actually being an artist.

Our glimpses of Joan in this episode are largely positive. She is thriving at the agency, her authority as a partner unquestioned. She doesn't seem to be suffering from guilt over how she finally got her richly deserved partnership. Nor should she be. But she is sad about Lane's death, wondering if she should have hooked up with him after all.

Lane Pryce's widow, in contrast, is not at all happy. Incidentally, by setting this episode well after Lane's suicide, the show skips over the reaction of all but a few of the SCDP crew to his death.

The show did the exact same thing with Peggy Olson's surprise departure from the agency, showing no reaction whatsoever to her resignation.

Yep, this was a season that bounced around narratively.

Rebecca Pryce is bitter when Don presents her with a $50,000 check, from the life insurance pay-out, to replace the funds that Lane put into SCDP when the agency had difficulties. Quite amazingly, no one on our crew of jaded sophisticates went through Lane's wallet to check for anything embarrassing. So his widow was left to discover the picture of the "gangster moll" that he lifted from the wallet he returned early in the season in a subplot that went nowhere. Now it's gone somewhere. Lane's widow thinks he cheated on her with the woman in the photo, which he did not. Isn't that, like, hella ironic?

We finally see the departed Peggy Olson when she runs into Don at the movies. She's picked up his old habit of playing matinee hookie to clear the creative channels. The two have turned up at a showing of Casino Royale, the 1967 spoof version of Ian Fleming's very good first James Bond novel. The spoof, which is decidedly not to be confused with the excellent 2006 movie which successfully rebooted the now 50-year old film franchise, is terrible unless you're stoned.

Peggy is working on a pitch for a cigarette aimed at women, a project which takes her to Virginia. Hmm, could this be, perhaps, Virginia Slims?

In 1968, Virginia Slims will start down the path to lasting advertising fame for the slogan: "You've come a long way, baby."

In the real world, it was a man who came up with that slogan, which cleverly mimics the emerging sense of female empowerment and feminism to, well, sell cigarettes. It's really quite cynical, a way to hook young women on a decidedly unhealthy, frequently deadly product in the guise of pseudo-liberation. With the tobacco industry under attack from scientists and public health advocates, it had to find new ways to develop new markets to keep profits up. Aspirational young women were a key niche in this strategy, which was very successful.

Will the show have Peggy come up with this slick propaganda? (Don's "It's toasted" solution for Lucky Strike cigarettes in the series pilot was developed by a real ad guy.) And if it does, will some find this cynical con job on women to be somehow feminist and progressive?

Which brings us back to our anti-hero protagonist and the end of this episode.

After acting to cast his wife in the ad, having watched her lovely and touching but rather desperate reel in fabulous black and white, Don is feeling both love and distance. Which takes him first to his lovely young wife, who does have magic on camera, but ultimately on a journey away from her to a bar, and the conclusion of Season 5.

As Megan basks in the splashy light and color of prep for her shoot, Don walks away in darkness, on his lonely path away from the artificial light (and artificial happiness?) of the set.

Nancy Sinatra's rendition of John Barry's great theme for the non-spoof Bond film of 1967, You Only Live Twice, plays as a very attractive woman approaches Don with a question.

"Are you alone?," she asks.

Don turns slowly and gives her a silent look, which seems about to resolve into that killer grin we've barely seen for so long, and the season ends with the question unanswered. Hey, at least I didn't wonder for a moment if the television had blinked out, as I did with the Sopranos series finale a second before I began swearing at David Chase.

As I've mentioned previously, I'm writing about this year's 50th anniversary of the Bond film franchise, with all but the first piece -- "Impossible Missions and 50 Years of Bond" -- held off for the past few months as Mad Men took up the entertainment/culture portion of my writing.

The film You Only Live Twice was released in June 1967, and the soundtrack in July, which may make the playing of the song in this episode an anachronism. (Not that we're entirely sure when the end of the episode takes place.) But the song, composed by John Barry with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, is a great fit, so I don't much care.

Here are the lyrics:

You Only Live Twice or so it seems,
One life for yourself and one for your dreams.
You drift through the years and life seems tame,
Till one dream appears and love is its name.

And love is a stranger who'll beckon you on,
Don't think of the danger or the stranger is gone.

This dream is for you, so pay the price.
Make one dream come true, you only live twice.

And love is a stranger who'll beckon you on,
Don't think of the danger or the stranger is gone.

The song was unusually dreamy and moody for a Bond picture, and came as the narrative flow of the Bond film franchise was being interrupted. With the films having turned into global sensations, with all the negatives as well as positives that life in the white hot center of superstardom entails, You Only Live Twice was Sean Connery's avowed last outing as Bond. And it was the first film to jettison most of Fleming's story in favor of a new plot, while retaining the evocative title and exotic-for-the-time Japanese setting.

Connery, of course, returned not once but twice more as Bond. First in 1971, following George Lazenby's one-off in the formidable On Her Majesty's Secret Service, in the increasingly jokey but quite entertaining Diamonds Are Forever. Then in 1983's Never Say Never Again, itself something of a one-off produced outside the normal channels.

You see how the song works for Don Draper. The Don Draper we first met, that is, who has been excoriated throughout Season 4 and missing in action for most of Season 5.

That Don Draper.

The Don Draper.

I've been saying for the past few years that Mad Men is a long novel for television, making a critique of any given episode more than somewhat problematic. We'll know far better what works and, if anything, what doesn't, when the novel is complete. A 50-page chunk of novel, taken out of context, can seem great, awful, irrelevant, boring, etc.

That said, we're awfully far down range now at the of Season 5. And, while a novel for television, Mad Men is also a TV series, a series with seasons, a series which has taken on some characteristics I don't like nearly as much.

Of the five seasons, this is my least favorite. The first three, for me, worked like a charm. Nothing felt forced. Everything fit.

It was also the period of the '60s -- 1960 to 1963 -- which is least exposed and cliched in our media culture. Which made the look and feel and writing of the show a revelation for so many. Matt Weiner's conception of it was quite brilliant, and HBO should forever be ashamed for passing on it in favor of whatever those shows were they favored in its stead.

Although Mad Men wasn't about big historical events, those events were effectively worked into the fabric of the show, even though the Sterling Coo crew was a pretty insular bunch, making it a master class in American studies.

Ironically, as the pace of change is accelerating as the '60s roll on, the show has actually become more insular, perhaps because Weiner is worried about how to integrate the increasingly kaleidoscopic nature of the country into Mad Men without it becoming cliched.

And the downbeat feel of the show has increased, as has its soap opera nature. Which brings its own kind of cliche.

Meanwhile, we are missing some very important things:

Race, for one. Dawn-not-Don, Don's (groan) black secretary, hired after the opening act of the Season 5 opener in which frat boy ad guys at another agency drop water balloons on equal opportunity protesters and SCDP opportunistically advertised itself as an equal opportunity agency, went precisely nowhere as a character. Aside from drawing out Peggy's sub-conscious racism, which was hardly uncommon for that time, and perhaps even much more recently than that as we've seen with the rise of the Tea Party in Obama Era America.

By this point in Mad Men time, Malcolm X has been dead for two years and Martin Luther King will die in less than a year. This is getting very late in the day to be ignoring race in America.

Then there is Vietnam. Following the bogus Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, Lyndon Johnson dramatically escalated American involvement there far beyond the advisory and special ops programs approved by John F. Kennedy, who was considering cutting the US commitment at the time of his assassination.

By this point in Mad Men time, there are a half million American troops in Vietnam, more than 30 times as many as at the time of the JFK assassination. The Tet Offensive is less than nine months off. And yet we hear practically nothing about it on the show, aside from the personal dynamics in Joan's life, and precious little there aside from her ending her marriage.

Youth and counter-culture. A dramatic and dynamic youthquake is underway. We get that on the show through the importance of music in ads and some new hires. And there are the great fashions from Janie Bryant, who has shown us some terrific Mod outfits, though Mod is actually becoming rather passe by this point in the '60s, much as I like it and great as it looks on Megan.

But the show has relied very heavily on Megan as the stand-in for all the cultural changes, workaholic Peggy having proved fairly impervious over the years despite plenty of exposure to the emerging counter-culture. Remember, she regretted not having the opportunity to work on Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign. She's a proto-feminist because she is ambitious for herself.

It seems that a lot of fans hate Megan. It's true that a lot is placed on Jessica Pare's shoulders by the show. But she's good. And short of sending a time machine back to 1967 to get Julie Christie for the part as the representative type, I don't know that anyone would do all that much better.

The deeper issue is one of insularity.

Mad Men has always been pretty insular, not necessarily a bad thing because you certainly don't want to have these folks popping up in the middle of everything like Forest Gump or the young Indiana Jones.

But too much insularity enables the soap opera-ization of the show, which reached new, er, heights this season.

I wondered at the beginning of the season if the show's return had been worth the wait. It seemed a bit off from the start, and got more so as the season progressed. Amusingly, TV critics continued to write uncritical encomiums of praise for the show and creator Matthew Weiner till finally catching on that the clockwork subtlety and sophistication of seasons past had been replaced by Twitter-bait set pieces and narrative incoherence and clutter.

Is Mad Men suffering from a fifth season curse? Perhaps. It's already outside its unique early '60s wheelhouse.

I did a little bit of consulting at the tail end of The West Wing, when the show was ending and clearly past its heyday, the heyday in which it won a record four Emmys in a row for each of its first four seasons (something only Hill Street Blues had done before, back in the early '80s), a feat Mad Men matched after its fourth season. And I was a very close watcher of the show before that. I have some sense of what a great show is like when it isn't great.

The show, which was in the tail end of Martin Sheen's Jed Bartlet presidency, was still good as it presented a presidential race between Jimmy Smits's Latino Obama before Obama ran for president and Alan Alda's Emmy-winning turn as a moderate Republican senator from California. (While this was happening, in real life Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the midst of his landslide re-election as California's governor. Alda was Arnold-like in politics and inclinations, not persona. Now, of course, that time might as well be back with the liberal New York Republicans referenced on Mad Men.) But it was clearly not what it had been.

I watched most of the first four seasons of West Wing again over the past year, along with much of the first four seasons of Mad Men, which were more clear in my mind since they're more recent. Just as West Wing struggled for that fourth Best Dramatic Series Emmy, so too did Mad Men, as I discussed last year in "Mad About Mad Men: Will It Equal West Wing's Mark? here on the Huffington Post.

Looking back at West Wing, it's easy to see now that the show peaked in its third season. Season 4 suffers from cast changes -- the show didn't quite recover after Rob Lowe's idealistic Sam Seaborn left, though he was ably replaced by Josh Malina's more sardonic Will Bailey -- and of course the departure of creator/showrunner/head writer Aaron Sorkin and producing partner/director Tommy Schlamme.

And the show gets into some serious over-reaction to 9/11, with the late John Spencer's ideal White House chief of staff Leo McGarry turning into a sometimes embarrassingly reflexive hawk. The season ends with Zoey Bartlet, the president's daughter -- memorably played by one Elisabeth Moss, now our Ms. Olson -- kidnaped by jihadists, leading to Barlet temporarily turning over the presidency to the Republican House speaker. Can you say "melodrama?"

But West Wing was at true heights in Season 3. Like Mad Men. It would be very hard to top the final three episodes of that season, in which we see Betty confront Don about just who the hell he really is, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the end of the Draper marriage, the end of Sterling Cooper, and the birth of SCDP.

Will Mad Men win a record-breaking fifth straight Best Drama Emmy?

On what we've seen, I would be surprised. I offer one caveat, of course. I don't watch that much TV. I'm not a TV critic. Most of the TV I watch is on international news channels. I don't even watch US cable news, which has devolved into cable noise.

But I have seen a fair amount of Mad Men's competition.

There is Homeland, Breaking Bad, perhaps even Game of Thrones, though fantasy shows not called Lord of the Rings don't fare well for big awards.

Both Homeland and Breaking Bad come from former writer/producers on The X-Files, one of my all-time favorite shows. (Which was not as good as the best of Mad Men, though Dana Scully and Fox Mulder are better company and generally richer characters.) After moving on from Chris Carter's classic, Vince Gilligan has done an amazing job with Breaking Bad, which I've seen but don't watch regularly as I find the milieu too downbeat. Howard Gordon, who very ably took over 24 when Jon Cassar's right-wing politics became too much, and Alex Gansa developed a stunning show in Homeland, a series which I adore, featuring a wonderful cast led by the estimable Claire Danes as a brilliant and troubled CIA officer and Band of Brothers star Damian Lewis as a Marine sergeant returned after years of jihadist captivity who has, let's say, a secret or four up his sleeve. Danes is an actress who can more than hold her own in a big action movie, as she did opposite Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3, a romance, or a chamber drama.

So I suspect that Mad Men and West Wing and Hill Street Blues will be forever linked as the only shows to win four in a row. (LA Law also won four, but not in a row.)

Ah, but next season. The final few minutes of this meandering finale to this meandering season give me hope for a return to great form.

Could Mad Men come back for a fifth best drama victory down the line? It could. After all, if you only live twice, Mad Men has a fresh life coming up.

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