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Mad Men Season Five Review

Despite the fact that it’s my job to do it, I will be the first person to admit that shows like Mad Men are horrible to write about. Well, I say “shows like Mad Men,” but there really aren’t any others like it. Yes, whilst Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones are absolutely fantastic and more than worthy of standing beside Mad Men in the “Best Drama” category of any given awards ceremony, there’s a reason that each and every season has taken home the Emmy (and three out of four Golden Globes doesn’t exactly hurt). Mad Men is a rare drama. It takes an extremely complicated period of American history—one that someone my age would have no trouble skipping over due to boredom in the face of a textbook—and makes it incredibly compelling. 

The fifth season was no different than any of its predecessors in that regard, though one might argue that the most recent 13 episodes did it better than any. However, for me and whom I would assume to be the majority of the shows followers, the handling of past events and the period as a whole comes secondary to the characters that we see experience it. In that respect, Mad Men had its best season to date (though admittedly, I haven’t run back through seasons 1-4 recently for a true comparison). The fifth season pushed several of our characters through bigger changes than we’ve seen before. It did it believably and intriguingly and the season set up a host of possibilities for the next. 

Now it’d be impossible to talk Mad Men without talking Don Draper and, fittingly, the leading man had quite the year. 2012 saw some of the more surreal moments that Mad Men will ever deliver to us and it’s because of him that we got them. Don has been a conflicted man since the moment he pondered how to sell death to people in the pilot, but this season we saw him take huge strides towards becoming someone who might just make it in the present day, let alone the ‘60s. As tough a fight as it, was Don spent 99.99% of the season leaving behind his philandering ways and put misogyny in the rearview mirror as well. Now firmly rid of Betty and in a relationship with some foundation of love, he went from strength to weakness to strength. In a good way. 

I have seen some criticism of the writing surrounding Megan Draper and her being just a little too perfect—even in her flaws—and whilst I can certainly see it, it works for me. Jessica Paré may well have done enough to get herself some Supporting Actress nods this year and the as-close-to-a-guaranteed nomination as you can get of Jon Hamm for Lead Actor will be in no small part down to her also. The two shared some incredible scenes this year, several that make Bryan Cranston’s continued besting of Jon Hamm all the more impressive. Whilst season five has certainly been a true ensemble effort, nobody could be blamed for watching the show just to see the two at work. Megan has come from the background to the spotlight and it’s to the betterment of us all. 

As I said before, Don was by no means the only character to see big alterations this year, as his protégé Peggy Olsen got her move on. Early in the season, we saw Peggy truly come into her own, finally confident enough in her abilities to go after what she wanted. The passage of time combined with a forward-thinking hiring policy at SCDP and the departure of Megan from the firm left her disillusioned about work and in search of something more. When Don was unable to give it to her, we were given the type of scene that Emmy awards were made for. I have been a huge fan of Peggy since day one and as sad as it was to see her part ways with the firm, I couldn’t help but be a little proud. Throw Elisabeth Moss’ acting talent on top of the story arc and you get something truly special.

Speaking of outrageously good, how about Christina Hendricks? Joan had one hell of a year. She had quite possibly the most interesting arc of any of the characters, and certainly a contender for the darkest (we’ll get to Lane). Her marriage was never really that strong and I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t want Greg to meet a grisly end in Vietnam, but watching it implode was phenomenal. Credit where credit is due, Sam Page is certainly a convincing wife-beater, but it was Joan’s strength and, more importantly, Christina Hendricks’ acting that sold me on the first half of the season for Mrs. Harris. Absent a husband, the second half is where things got truly interesting and “The Other Woman” was the final piece of the “Dear Lord, Joan is awesome!” puzzle.

I’m sure that there are prostitutes out there who do what/who they do for family, but none of them hold a candle to Joan. Never has being paid for sex been quite so tragically perfect. When the men of Madison Avenue come face-to-face with a hooker it isn’t usually someone that they work with. Better still was what Joan’s journey bought out of Don as he tried, to no avail, to convince her that dignity was priceless. Where things are going for Joan, I can’t say for sure—with Lane gone and a partnership in her hands, one could only imagine. Either way, if season six is anything like what we got this year, it will be unmissable. 

Continuing with the themes of both tremendous and tragic, we come to Lane Pryce. Always the odd-man-out, Lane has had an interesting ride since joining the show back in season three. Whilst it took time to warm to him, by the time the great exodus of Sterling Cooper came, it was near impossible not to be a fan. Season four was a so-so year for him, but season five was truly his standout (just as well because it’s his last). Whilst the suicide came pretty much out of nowhere in the grand scheme of things, everything that Jared Harris did throughout the year was pretty much perfect. A seemingly dull and reticent man was fleshed out across 12 episodes into a truly likable character. His flaws made him more interesting and ultimately his death was powerful because of it. In a cast as strong as this with writing as good as this, Lane Pryce will likely be forgotten in time, but for now, we should all appreciate what we’ve witnessed. 

On a slightly more upbeat note, Roger had himself a pretty great year! Whilst Pete’s rise to prominence pushed John Slattery into the background perhaps a little more so than usual this year, when he got screen time, he made it count. Whilst the arc of Mr. Sterling was just as depressing as everyone else’s, when you throw in some LSD, it’s kind of difficult to not see it as the happier one. The breakdown of yet another marriage ended up being far more compelling than I’d have assumed given how abrasive Jane has been and Roger’s struggle to recapture an unattainable high gave Matthew Weiner a reason to keep Julia Ormond around, which I am all for. I hope to see a slightly more focused and work-oriented Roger come season six, but amongst all the seriousness of chasing down some of season five’s accounts, it wasn’t half great to just watch someone do very, very little. 

Last, and but by no means least: Pete Campbell. I’ve spoken before about Pete’s journey this season and what it means for the character, but I never really stressed how much I enjoyed it. Try as I might to hate the man for cheating on Alison Brie, watching damaged Pete go from conflicted to downright depressed has been great. Vincent Kartheiser had, by far, his best year in front of the camera, due in no small part to the writing that he was provided with this season and it makes me genuinely excited to see him come season six. Knowing where season five ultimately led the character to, it’s much easier to appreciate some of the obnoxiousness that he’s spewed over time. In one season I’ve gone from indifferent to thoroughly interested in a character and it’s just one of the many reasons that season five was as good as it was. 

I won’t bother going into everything about the writing for the supporting cast that just compounded the brilliance at the forefront, neither will I speak about some exceptional directorial choices. Everything about Mad Men this year was, for me, near flawless. At their worst, episodes were on par with the best of their competition. Most importantly of all, if season five proved one thing, it’s that no one cares about Betty Francis. As Jessica Paré comes into prominence I can only hope that January Jones finds the door; whilst she is a fantastic actress, I just don’t care about the character anymore and her absence made for a better season. As long as Matthew Weiner continues to helm what is arguably the best show on television, bring on season six!

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