Until this past Sunday’s episode, Mad Men Season 5 had failed to hook my interest. Despite finally shedding a substantial spotlight on Pete Campbell (easily my most adored character) the season felt unfocused and stagnant. Don’s marriage to Megan essentially neutered the character’s complexity—rather than continue with the Dick Whitman alter-ego, Don immediately revealed his past to Megan, and worse, legitimately fell in love with her, meaning no more Casanova nights in Manhattan. Betty’s essentially an absentee character due to her actress’s pregnancy, and the single episode she appears in portrays her as a hysteric, sedentary housewife, forever teetering on the verge of tears; granted, she wasn’t particularly outgoing before, but the childish rage which drove her through the previous seasons has surprisingly gone missing, replaced by the whimpering fits of an over-sized cow. The rivalry between Pete and Sterling has developed nicely, but seems little more than an Abbott and Costello routine with teeth; strangely, as Sterling’s character has gravitated more towards exclusive comic relief, Pete has adopted an almost existential personality, consistently longing for that which he cannot attain—which is, apparently, every attractive woman alive. Even the racial narrative with Dawn and the Civil Rights marches felt fragmented and half-cooked—outside the first two episodes and Peggy’s taking in the aforementioned secretary for a single night, the story lacks influence—feels tossed in because it fit with the times. The only slightly compelling thread was Joan’s struggles with her husband and child—Joan isn’t naturally suited to motherhood, but she does a great job playing one anyway.
But during last Sunday’s episode, it hit me; the main difference between Season 5 and all preceding seasons wasn’t a lack of quality—I was still continually gripped by each episode from beginning to end. It was merely jarring to see the writers focus on building the side characters’ narratives with equal importance. Until the end of Season 4, Mad Men is essentially the story of Don Draper; you witness his fall and phoenix-like ascent from the ashes of a personality almost literally tossed aside. But with the beginning of Season 5, it appears a separate trend has taken over. Each episode serves up piecemeal developments for each of the characters—Roger’s desperation, Don’s comfort-inspired sedition, Megan’s workplace discontent, Peggy’s feelings of under-appreciation, Lane’s split between being a family man and bachelor, and, of course, Pete Campbell’s continuing failure at being a nice guy, largely fueled by feelings of under-appreciation (not unlike Peggy). I don’t know that the series is necessarily building to anything, or if a central focus akin to Don’s identity crisis will again arise over the course of the remaining two and a half seasons.
Having said that, I’m reminded of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris—both 70’s space opera epics with no “declared” plot. Both operate as rides the viewer must either surrender unto or abandon entirely, and both likewise alienate a large part of the popular movie-going populace. As with these films, I’ve found opinions garnered on Mad Men Season 5 from others ranging from “Meh” to disappointment. After four seasons of Don Crises, the masses expected more of the same; this jarring, fragmented kaleidoscope season is simply too different for many people to swallow.
The secret of 2001 and Solaris, known only to those who have weathered the 2.5-3 hour running time of both, however, is they’re probably the best films from that era—and possibly ever made. The free-flowing, “ride-like” structure fosters inquiries into theme and intent, and serves for more than simple “Did you like the cinematography” fodder afterwards.
Episode 8 of Mad Men, Season 5 opens with a shot of Pete Campbell riding the train to work, reflecting the exact setup of the season opener. Pete is sitting in the same seat and is soon joined by the same unnamed acquaintance. Their discussion of marital infidelity, though relevant to later events in the episode, plays second fiddle to the feeling of déjà vu this setup plays upon—the notion of repetition and workday minutiae immediately strikes the viewer, who’s just witnessed the mirroring scene in the lead-in to that night’s episode. The train-ride is a microcosmic construction of the “day-in, day-out” lifestyle Pete feels trapped within—is the white-collar cage which he seeks release from by cheating on his wife and “competing” with co-workers to the point of office fist-fights and claiming success for others’ accomplishments. Though his seeming inconsistent character veers towards wormy stalker territory more often than not, the repetition conveyed in this scene proposes an explanation as to why; it’s not that Pete is particularly malicious or actively self-entitled—until the recent establishment of Sterling Cooper Draper Price, he, like many young professionals, felt under-accomplished. The value he places on his work is reflected in his inner-office behavior this season which, in contrast against the canvas of Roger’s hijinks, has been the very model of professionalism. Now that he’s cemented himself as a “name” in the advertising world and has less to struggle for, he feels mired down by the mundanity of the suburban commuter, and thus lashes out in unpredictable, often slimy ways.
The meat and bones of this season has been the relationship between Megan and Don, with an inordinate amount of attention being paid to Megan’s role as both a distraction and example of workplace discontent; at the end of episode 5, we see Bert take Don aside and tell him to focus—that he’s been on “Honeymoon Leave” for too long. It’s true that Don’s critical, often abrasive eye has been neutered by his recent marriage—something that Peggy vocalizes after every pitch she proposes for Heinz Baked Beans. With Megan’s “catch” of Heinz in episode 7, this didn’t seem entirely problematic—the forceful sway Don once brought to the table appeared replaced by charm and wit. Yet with Megan’s resignation this past episode, one has to wonder if we’ll see the return of angsty, identity-crisis-laden Don, and if we don’t, what hope the SCDP Creative team has for survival; the transition from Don’s smile in the kitchen after telling Megan he loves her to his frazzled, almost trembling countenance in the Creative Kitchen with Peggy suggests difficulties ahead, both at work and home.
One scene in particular brought a quizzical smile to my face this episode—Don’s “scene” with Megan acting out the Cool Whip skit. What’s easy to overlook here is the witnessing of two master actors—Megan’s practiced artform and Don’s years of experience living in the shadow of an alter-ego—in an almost Shakespearian play-within-a-play format. There’s a power dichotomy in the skit that reflects Don’s own marriage—the wife asks her husband to taste the Cool Whip, but he refuses, instead proposing several inquiries about its creation. The wife ignores her husband’s continued questioning, instead insisting that he just “taste it”, until finally, she shoves the spoon down his throat. Don and Megan’s interactions have been strangely sado-masochistic this season, with one character establishing dominance over the other, whether with Don’s hair-pulling initiation of coitus after Megan flees the office earlier in the season, or Megan’s emotional dominance in disappearing at the HoJo just a few episodes later; the Cool Whip skit, which we’re told the clients appreciated largely for Don and Megan’s performance rather than actual content, recreates this relationship on a simplified, microcosmic scale, and is actually a stage for them to acknowledge the inner-workings of their marriage.
Megan’s been living her personal life as an actress, attempting to impress a sense of satisfaction with work upon Don and others in the office, but by the end of the episode, it’s Don who must now put on a façade of satisfaction with Megan’s decision. This season is the first time we’ve seen legitimate happiness in Don—and it turns him into a sort of mindless fool; now that he’s forced to put upon an affectation over Megan’s acting aspirations, he reverts back to the embittered ad executive we’re used to from seasons 1-4. When forced to perform the aforementioned skit with Peggy subbing for Megan, the magic quickly falls apart. Peggy isn’t an actress—using the phrase Megan’s father describes Don with from episode 7, she isn’t a purveyor of “studied actions”; Peggy simply says what’s on her mind, living as an individual in the moment—and likewise doesn’t think ahead to study her lines. After the clients from Creative Kitchen walk away, as if to clarify the source of Don’s frustrations and failures, Peggy, rather shockingly, tells him to shut up—that she isn’t the person he’s mad at.
Almost a physical echo of Don’s discontent over his wife’s choices, Pete bemoans his recent mistress’s refusal to revisit their affair, asking “Why do they get to make all the decisions? Why do they decide what happens?” His target for this isn’t only his mistress—it’s all women. Pete Campbell consistently pins the root of his troubles on other people, refusing that he may suffer personal failings in response to his need for recognition and outside approval. His wife, Trudy, likewise becomes the focus of his disgust; already claiming that she’s grown sedentary and droll, he begins seeking affairs, whining that he “has nothing” to those who question his actions. He lusts for women half his age and betrays a friend—the aforementioned man he sees every day—in some misguided conquest to regain a sense of self-worth and vitality in his mundane workday world.
During the course of this conquest, the then-new space-shot images of Earth are brought up. Pete’s mistress views them as a void—a paradoxically physical representation of the vast nothingness surrounding them. Lost in a daytime reverie over his affair, Pete becomes obsessed with this image, asking Harry what he thinks of it. Pete, who opens the episode discussing the bulletpoints of his life insurance policy, which “covers suicide after 2 years”, appears lost in an existential quagmire, his mind plunged deep into the vast reaches of outer space by his unrequited love for a woman already wedded to a friend and feelings of entrapment by his current marriage. Don has a similar moment when, after Megan leaves the office for the last time, he mashes the elevator call button to follow behind. When the door opens, Don approaches it slowly, the camera pulled out to give a profile view of his hesitation. A rush of fear sweeps over the viewer as they wonder what could cause Don to question himself after so forcefully mashing the call button; when the camera finally sweeps over his shoulder the discovery is more horrifying than any monster we could imagine—it’s a shot down the long, storeys-high drop of an empty elevator shaft. There’s nothing. Aside from possibly foreshadowing a tragedy to come later in the season, this “nothingness”, this “failure to operate as expected” is reflective Don’s own feelings of loss, and the vacancy Megan has left him within the office. It also contributes to a collection of bleak imagery this season has piled together, whether it be nurse murderers or mass sniper homicides.
The episode ends with Don listening to the new Beatles album Megan bought him, in reaction to his saying he’d like to “catch up”, after feeling out of touch with the current generation’s musical obsession. The song played—“Tomorrow Never Knows”—is the final track on Revolver, the band’s follow-up to what many consider The Beatles’ landmark album, Rubber Soul, and the second album that really marked their transition from a pre-assembled pop-rock ensemble to a legitimate, industry-changing legacy-group. Don’s earlier agreement to use the 30 year old song played in his office exposed an inability to relate to the current generation’s tastes and a lack of knowledge of the popular landscape, as represented by the trippy, nontraditional rhythm of the Beatles’ then-current tune. After only 30 seconds—just long enough to provide a background for a sweeping montage of all the characters and their places—Don lifts the needle from the album and goes to bed, apparently exhausted by what he’s heard. More than anything this season, Don is becoming irrelevant—an aging dinosaur unable to relate to his target audience, utterly distracted by his personal life, mistrusted and despised by many clients for his open letter to “Big Tabacco”, and unable to conjure the charisma or forceful ingenuity he was once famed for without Megan by his side; the true intent of the ad campaign that ran earlier this year, with the silhouette of a man in freefall, already interpreted by many as an indication of one characters’ eventual suicide, is becoming ever more prevalent: Don has fallen from his seat of importance in the world of advertising, with little hope of re-attaining it.