What This Season of 'Mad Men' Got Right and Wrong

Long ago, back in March, we did a little wondering about what season five of Mad Men might look like. Well now it's June and the season has come to a close, so let's take a look back at the season that was about the isolation of ambition, and the not always immediately apparent side-effects of success.

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Long ago, back in March, we did a little wondering about what season five of Mad Men might look like. Well now it's June and the season has come to a close, so let's take a look back. Probably the most telling hint about the season, the one that turned out to be the most true, was that there would be an overarching "every man for himself" professional and personal dynamic in play. Indeed, it was a season about the isolation of ambition, and the not always immediately apparent side-effects of success.

Our hero Don went through what was probably the most stable and maybe even contented period of his life that we've seen so far, living with new wife Megan in, if not wedded bliss exactly, certainly a kind of romantic and sexual satisfaction we've not seen before. At the beginning of the season, things were well enough at work, and Don and Megan had the tony, stylish Upper East Side apartment to serve as emblem of that comfort. They were maybe a bit flashy with their success, many a comment was made about the screamingly well-appointed apartment throughout the season, but there was a genuine fulfillment, a kind of easy deserved luxury, at the core of the couple's existence that cast Don in a strangely soft light. He's usually our gruff, frustrating lead explorer through this mid-century malaise, but this season he hung back, observed the scenery more. And then, of course, as a penalty for all this success — that is, contentment as success — he started to get bored and itchy, lashing out at work and beginning to question the worth of all he'd obtained.

Megan too eventually fell into the traps surrounding her, using Don to get an acting job, worse still to snatch the dream out of her friend's hands. Their relationship had been built on a kind of mutual respect, a warm but crisp professionalism, but in the end, Megan played her sneaky, inside angle and Don played his and the season ended with Don quite literally walking away from the fairy tale (which, of course, was fake anyway). Ultimately they were out for themselves, though they hadn't really noticed it through all the classy haze of their supposed success.

Betty of course still spends most of her time wishing for whatever it is she can't immediately have, and this year filled that void with food. Yes "Fat Betty" felt like kind of a cruel joke most of the time, but there was also something in that plotline about indulgence, about self-satisfaction coming at a price. Betty was the most literally gluttonous perhaps, but what she had in furtive whipped cream shots, Don had in fancy apartment things, and Pete had in sexual fantasies. It's tricky to tell if Matthew Weiner is trying to tell us that all personal pursuits are inherently selfish, or if there's a lesson to be learned about blind pursuit only within reason. Maybe without blindness at all, really. Peggy, for example, went after what she wanted in an arguably more sane and level-headed way, and seemed to suffer less for it at the end. Sure she didn't seem thrilled with the new job, but it's a job, how often is a job actually thrilling?

The ennui of days bleeding into one another, all the same, making a featureless and unending string, was a major thematic force this season, one that certainly affected everyone, but probably none more so than Pete Campbell, the ultimate ambitious kid who has now found himself feeling old and bored and so far into this particular life that he's completely lost his way. Pete's in the woods, brought there by his own blinkered march toward success. His moments of despair — the brilliant short story episode, the lovely scene last night with Rory Gilmore in the hospital — were the most heartbreaking of the season, a soft existential keening that felt both intimate and huge in scale.

All told, this was, to my mind at least, a resoundingly successful season of Mad Men, one full of Big Events (Goodbye, Peggy! Goodbye forever, Lane) but also many of the hushed, odd, almost mundanely magical scenes that are this show's hallmark. (I'd argue that mundane magic-wise, they went a bit overboard with the two dogs that Peggy saw humping in Virginia, but otherwise they did a good job of imbuing moments and objects with the show's brand of hushed holiness, muted magic.) So what were the best things about the season?

1. We never really thought they'd do this, Weiner and company are too smart, but it was such a relief that Don and Megan's marriage wasn't some bickering, we-got-married-too-soon kind of thing full of acrimony and affairs and all that. It was nice to see Don get a chance at true happiness, or again at least contentedness, even though it looked as though he might have been back to his old sullen smolder stuff by the last scene.

2. In giving Joan lots to do this season, the show ably showed off what an appealing talent Christina Hendricks is and what a smart, complicated character has been created for her. Though it's great to see Joan a partner, in the meetings, in The Room, we still sigh dejectedly thinking about how she got there. Joan had no perfect, saintly, you go girl upward trajectory, nothing came easy, but her ambition won out in the end. She's the season's most tragic success story, or maybe its most successful tragedy. Hard to tell on this show.

3. The scenes between Sally Draper and Henry's mother, discussing those murders and other dark topics, were such strange bits of ominous beauty that we've been unable to shake them since. It's not immediately clear what was so effective about those scenes (and that entire episode, really) — maybe the cross-generational quality, or the sense of historical pinpointing, or watching jadedness and innocence clash like that — but we're glad they wrote them and glad that those two actresses were so masterfully up to the task. More of that dynamic next season, please!

And, of course, there were a few things wrong with this season. Those were:

1. Lovely and talented as she is, Alexis Bledel (the aforementioned Rory Gilmore) was not well cast. She seemed too young and somehow too modern for the role of a mentally addled 1960s housewife. Maybe that's our fault, we're just too used to seeing her in snappy modern day settings, but whatever the reason, it was jarring. This season did a lot of bigger star casting — Julia Ormond, Embeth Davidtz, Larisa Oleynik (OK, maybe not that one) — that were a distraction. This show has been great about hiring relative no-names with blazing talent. (And, uh, January Jones.) Putting bigger stars on the show, again as talented as they may be, removes us from the world.

2. Those dogs humping. Why those dogs? Come on with the dogs. And come on, maybe in general, with the meanness toward the women characters. Yes, blah blah it's the times they lived in, but Betty was so punished this season and then only given a little bit of vindication when Sally ran straight to her after getting her period, that it felt a bit lopsided. Nobody gets away without a scratch on this show, but the women seemed especially bumped and bruised this season.

3. The whole Hare Krishna storyline with Paul Kinsey was bizarre and atonal, and not in a good way. Whatever they were going for with that plot, it wasn't a thematic or stylistic fit with the rest of the show. It's a small gripe, it was only one episode, but time counts on this stuffed, short-run series and it could have been better spent elsewhere. Sorry, Kinsey.

And that's the season! We'll have to wait, oh, probably another million years for the next round of episodes, so let's all start the pondering now and by the time the new episodes start airing, we'll have figured it all out and forgotten it all over again. Happy thinking!

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.