Thursday, June 14, 2012

MAD MEN season 5 review

Okay, I gave you a few days to catch up on the MAD MEN finale. If you still haven’t seen it, then SPOILER ALERT. But if you have, or don’t care then read on.

I’m very curious as to your opinion of this season. A number of critics I admire and who analyze the shit out of the show every week took issue with the fact that this year they (and by they I mean Matt Weiner of course) spelled things out more than ever before. In the final episode Pete tells the new love of his life (who has no idea who he is after her recent shock treatment – there’s always some little complication between young lovers) everything that’s wrong with his life. And Don reveals to Peggy his fear that important people in his life always leave him. There are four or five other examples along the way. 

The critics contend that these admissions are quite bald and very uncharacteristic of MAD MEN. The show (and by the show I mean Matt Weiner of course) always prided itself on its subtlety. The writing staff (and by writing staff I mean Matt Weiner, of course) seemed to give the audience more credit in the past – that they could figure out these attitudes and emotions themselves. They didn’t them to be spelled out.

And that’s true. MAD MEN at its best uses behavior, originality, and surprising story turns to convey the most complex emotions and ideas. No explanations are needed. How the characters react to situations informs us of who they are and what they want. No one does that better than Matt Weiner (and by Matt Weiner I mean Matt Weiner of course).

But that subtlety comes with a price. The audience has to WANT TO put in the time and effort to gleam the themes and decipher the intended messages. When they do it’s great! You have real watercooler television. People taking the time to debate your show. It doesn’t get any better than that (except for awards and money and fame). But if the audience isn’t as invested or loses interest and doesn't want to play then there’s the danger of losing them completely.

For that reason I didn’t really mind the more overt explanations. I worry that the show may have a bigger problem. I wonder if fans are starting to get tired of these characters’ dilemmas. To me the common theme was that nobody was happy even though everybody should have been happy. Whatever they had wasn’t enough. After awhile you start feeling you’re watching THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF MADISON AVENUE.   As a writer, this has always been my test:  If the audience might say, "I wish I had that problem" then construct a different problem. 

If I could respectfully make one suggestion for next season it would be to make the characters’ plight more relatable and sympathetic.   I think back to the first season.   I even loved Betty.

That said, I thought there were some brilliant episodes and moments in this year’s shows. The Richard Speck installment was riveting. I love Ginsburg. Can’t get enough Sally. Roger on LSD should be his permanent state. Joan can do no wrong even when she does. You can’t punch Pete enough. And Peggy going all “Lou Pinella” on Don after the botched presentation was maybe the best scene of the year.

But the competition is getting tougher, it’s harder and harder to top yourself, and Matt Weiner has his work cut out for him (and by Matt Weiner I mean Don Draper, of course).


normadesmond said...

the pimping of joan episode
hasn't left me since i watched it.

Unknown said...

The downside to the way character development works in this show is that a new viewer would have to watch all the seasons to have even the slightest bit of interest in what is happening. I think it would be too slow (hence, the subtelty you speak of). But the ending.....Wow. At first I thought...really, this is how you end it. But then it hit me over the head....I call it a passive agressive cliffhanger! Kudos to Matt Weiner!

cpreynolds said...

Good one.

HCarvalho said...

Mad Men is a great show, but I think it has to much acclaim for its worth. Breaking Bad is a far superior series, the best in AMC's short history and it receives only half the acclaim that Mad Men receives. POint in case, I've never seen a post about it outside your emmy reviews.

chris said...

I think Weiner has said that the plot underpinnings getting more obvious mimicked the decade of the 60's that started off valuing subtlety and wit and ended in in-you-face and crudity.

The chipmunks all dressed and acted the same. Now nobody dresses or acts like Ginsburg.

danrydell said...

Roger's greatest season, Maris to Don's Babe Ruth.

Anonymous said...

Generally a great season (the one-two punch of Joan's partnership and Lane's suicide were devastating), but, in the wake of those episodes, the finale was an astonishingly airless anticlimax. Almost nothing of consequence happened in that entire episode.

I didn't really notice the series' lack of subtlety until Campbell's dreadful, on the nose and way-too-insightful monologue in that final installment. It felt utterly tone deaf.

Oh, well. You can't win 'em all. But, in general, I thought it was a great year.


MBunge said...

"The audience has to WANT TO put in the time and effort to gleam the themes and decipher the intended messages."

MAD MEN has always been a show that few people watched but those few people endlessly talked and wrote about it. Indeed, it seems like talking about it was often more important to fans than watching the show. That's because if you don't analyze and decipher and gleam MAD MEN, what are you left with? Not much. As fodder for self-reflective blather, MAD MEN can't be beat. As entertainment or even art, it can't even beat out its network-buddies BREAKING BAD and THE WALKING DEAD.


Mark said...

I was hooked all season. I guess I'm a simple one to please. Cookies, pasta, overt messaging.

Anonymous said...

As an audience member, I don't mind the unsubtle cues in Mad Men. You watch TV, there are distractions, sometimes you don't catch the gist right away of what is going on. BTW, I hate Megan and I want her gone. I hate Betty and I want her back! Julie

David Schwartz said...

Kudos Julie (or anonymous)! You're right, I hate Betty, but want to see more of her, and I like Megan, but she's been seen a bit much this season. I find Megan often unappreciative of the obvious advantages she has in being able to pursue her acting career without having to worry about supporting herself. She also proved herself duplicitous in a way I never would have expected by essentially stabbing her friend in the back to get herself a job. Roger is wonderful in every scene he appears. Don is straddling the line between creative powerhouse and approaching irrelevancy as he becomes more and more out of touch with the changing times. I just hope Peggy stays prominent in the show. And as much as I love the Beatles, $ 250,000 was a pretty large vanity "get" for Matt Weiner (and by Matt Weiner I mean...)

Anonymous said...

You don't have to watch everything. I like how some of the dialogue makes sense for new viewers, while meaning more for longtime viewers.

"Your decisions affect me"

Anonymous said...

Enough with the baseball references.
It's Lou Piniella, not Pinella.

And Maris to Babe Ruth? You meant Gehrig perhaps?

Marty Fufkin said...

I didn't find this season as overt as you say. In fact, I thought the uses of symbolism and metaphor were bordering on too clever for its own good -- though they made for interesting discussion. Pete's dripping tap and how it was fixed, for instance, was interpreted differently among those I talked with. (Pete's solution for minor problems is to crank up the pressure until things explode, leaving the big fix for Don.)

Pete's admission to his shock-treated lover that he's never happy despite having everything might have sounded simplistic, but from a psychiatric point of view, it was a shedding of narcissism -- his first insight that he needs to work on himself rather than collect the superficial trappings of happiness. Pete is the most blatant narcissist on the show, and for him that was a big step. Seeing that his fantasy lover was in fact unhappy, sick, and ultimately "erased" helped him reach that point. Every episode had some great morsel like that, something that could be discussed and interpreted different ways.

My only problem with the season was the lame cliffhanger. In past season-closers we had Peggy discovering she's pregnant the moment she gives birth, the team starting a new agency, Don marrying his secretary ... this time we have, what, Don might cheat again? Likely to get caught because it's a friend of Megan's friend? Well, doesn't have me holding my breath.

Jeffrey Mark said...

I've been with Mad Men from the start. I'm from a family of wildly creative "Mad Men" ad guys - especially my dad's younger brother. Uncle Hal was a creative director at a number of large ad agencies in NYC back in the '60s/'70s - just a few years younger than Don's age on the show. He has a good number of similarities with our boy Don - love of everything advertising and women and money. He even divorced his first wife and married a woman about half his age back in 1969, exactly like Don did with Megan. But, unlike Don Draper, my good 'unc "got with it" as the '60s progressed...he really liked The Beatles' music, and a lot of the rock music of that time period. He "got with it" and started dressing very cool, very hip - the gold/yellow/green turtlenecks and sportjackets...a Nehru jacket in beads, the whole magilla.

So while 'unc dressed and grew hip with the times so that he could keep his competitive edge in the shark eat shark world that is NYC advertising, Don is staying safely put, trying to hold it together and stay in control, but very insecure about the changing pop/social culture in 1967, and just being too afraid to adapt and change with it. That's the big difference between my favorite 'unc and Don. My 'unc drove a Porsche,(Don the Jag) continued to drink in the way Don does, but 'unc did venture into pot and even an LSD experience from time to "open up his head and let the creative juices spill out", as he once told me. Uncle Hal grasped and clutched onto "change" during that time because he told me a long time ago, "if you stop just for a moment, the crowd - the herd will stomp right over and crush you."

"Unc didn't want to get crushed by the thundering herd on Mad Men Avenue. So he "got with" the changing times. I dunno if Don is ever going to adapt to the changing times - if he's capable. That's not the point of the show so much, at least, in Don's life. His character is not "deep" as we all know watching him over the past 5 years. My 'unc by nature was far more self-probing, self-analyzing in those days of NYC $125 analysis, very very popular with Mad Men in NYC back then.

Will Don Draper ever go to an analyst? That could be a very interesting plot point/development on the show. He showed a healthy sign of self-reflection in season 4. Have Don go to a shrink in season 6...possibilities...Uncle Hal did it for years...(trying to figure out why he created the ad campaigns he did - he was always wondering what affect his commercials and ads had on the culture at large). Yeah, 'unc has caught the show every now and then - I hype and hype him on it all the time, but...he has his ad agency "battle scars," and sometimes it just gets too close for comfort for him now in his mid '80s. And, sadly, just like in Mad Men, 'unc lost a creative partner to suicide. Life as art/art as life. I can't wait to watch the next two years of the show. More brilliance on the way.

-bee said...

I love the show, and there were great individual episodes (my favorite was the heartbreaking "The Other Woman") - but felt that the 'shape' of the season as a whole was not quite up to par.

It especially annoyed me that the season began with guys in another agency dropping water balloons on the civil rights protesters, which lead to the hiring of Dawn - but then none of this was brought full circle, with Dawn seeming like a great big red herring compared to Don's prior secretaries.

Ginsberg got more time and more initial character development than Dawn, but his character really didn't go anywhere either and remained a cipher.

I feel like Megan's character is not as well fleshed out as she should be. We see her say she wants to act, we see her rehearse, but we don't really know what acting means to her (not to mention if she is any good). She drags Don to experimental theater, but not hear her express how this relates to her ambitions. Is she SUPPOSED to seem like a dilettante?

I presume Weiner has things planned for these characters, but still, the SEASON for me lacked as much of a satisfying shape as the prior ones.

In other notes, while he is not terrible by any means, I don't think Vincent Kartheiser has the chops to make Pete worthy of all the time the show allots to him.

On the other hand, I find the gradual development of Ken pretty intriguing, and wonder what's in store for him.

Peggy, Joan and Roger, great as usual. Don? John Hamm deserves an emmy (that look on his face when Paggy quits - AMAZING) but outside of suicide I wonder if Weiner sees any clear path for him out of his wilderness of frustration and denial.

Breadbaker said...

I enjoyed much of the season. There were some wonderful moments, particularly Sally and Roger in The Codfish Ball. My problem has been Megan, not so much the character, but the situation. I thought I was watching "Mad Men", not "Stage Door '67". All the scenes involving Megan's acting career just seem like so much fluff. When Don was married to Betty and living in the suburbs, the contrast in their daily lives was interesting and evocative (I grew up the son of an ad man in the 60s in the suburbs, though not the New York suburbs). Learning (in a not particularly enlightening fashion either) about the travails of a young, struggling but married and financially secure actress in New York in 1967 is of exactly zero interest to me. I'm listening to Mark Harris's book about the best pictures of 1967 and the story of Dustin Hoffman's travails in the same place at the same time is about a million times more engaging, both because it's true and because Hoffman had undeniable talent that took ages to be discovered, during which he took jobs that were far less remunerative Megan's job at SCDP, let alone her current straits. Cry me a river it's taken her three months to land a role.

Cap'n Bob said...

Forgive my pointing out one small typo: glean, not gleam.

alc said...

First time poster.

I think a lot of the discontent people seem to be expressing may stem from the fact that, this season, a lot of the characters took a big step backwards. Peggy quit, Lane took his life, Joan reduced herself to common harlotry, Don (seemingly) lost the battle of staying satisfied with his new wife. Hell, even Betty—beautiful betty—got fat. In a series about (let’s face it) horrible people facing problems that occur as a direct result of their horribleness, a series in which said people must overcome said problems and come out on the other end slightly less horrible than before (or, really, why watch?), that didn’t really happen. They didn’t grow. They didn’t overcome. They didn’t come out on the other end slightly less horrible than before. No, all they did was mutate over the course of thirteen episodes into slightly different shaped but equally repellant pieces of crap.

This mutation, I will say however, was documented expertly and in an entertaining way.

Marty Fufkin said...

"bee" made some comments about certain characters not being developed as fully as in past seasons. I wonder if this has been an unintended result of AMC forcing Matt Weiner to cut 10 minutes off every show this season to squeeze in more ads. I couldn't help but wonder, at the close of every episode, what use might have been made with that extra time had the length been the same as other seasons.

Question Mark said...

I think the fact that Don and Pete (to use your examples) actually did 'spell things out' was important since while their admissions weren't news to the audience, it was a big step for the characters themselves to baldly discuss these issues and admit them to themselves.

Overall I loved this season and it easily stands up there with the previous four. Megan Draper was a revelation. Every character seemed to have at least one 'centric' episode (sort of like Lost) that explored their storylines to a satisfactory extent and yet left me still eagerly awaiting S6.

I will have a hell of a time picking between Hamm/Cranston and Slattery/Esposito on my imaginary Emmy ballot.

Roger Owen Green said...

Anon- comparing Maris to Babe Ruth actually does make sense, since Roger broke the Babe's record in 1961, and was largely despised for it because he wasn't "homegrown" Mickey Mantle, but it was an outlier year in a solid career.

Unknown said...

Few thoughts:
1. Peggy can't be bought and it drives Don crazy. Love it.
2. Kinsey as a Hari Krishna was a Three's Company plot device. *wince*
3. Having Lane commit suicide in the penultimate ep took a lot out of the finale. Unfortunate choice.
4. This season, for the first time, Roger was more interesting than Don.
5. Bert Cooper may be a eunuch, but he's still got plenty of gonads.

Greg said...

I liked the season a lot but I worry that some uninteresting characters are sucking away screen time from some interesting established characters (like Peggy). Ginsburg seems like he's going to be a great add but it's hard to tell based on how little they've given him. Why the Hare Krishna diversion? Spend that time telling us more about how Joan felt after her pimping episode. I'd be more engrossed in Betty if January Jones were a better actress. I'm not interested in Megan at all except the effect she has on Don. Matt Weiner has created a mostly fascinating group of people and he seems to be letting the less interesting ones have more air time.

chuckcd said...

I hear they are changing the name of the show next season to "Whiners".

Saw an episode of "Firefly" recently with Christina Hendricks in it...
A younger, hotter

Edward Copeland said...

I thought Mad Men had one of its best seasons ever up through about the "At the Codfish Ball" episode, then things started to slip. While it is well written, well acted and well directed, the show always tends to be on the nose and underline things in BIG BOLD TYPE. I hope all season that somehow Weiner would surprise with the suicide references, but the minute they started appearing, it seemed obvious to me that Lane would be the victim. A season that started well just sort of ran out of steam by the end. They introduced the new Mike Ginsburg character with the promise of developing an interesting story then let it drop. A friend and I even had a bet on when and where Sally Draper would get her first period. (We were both wrong. I was betting on Megan being there to help sending Betty into a tizzy). Compared to Breaking Bad whose fourth season I just re-watched on DVD, it's just not a contest. BB does foreshadowing that you don't even notice except in retrospect and stays compelling from beginning to end. That's why I think it took The West Wing beat The Sopranos so long at the Emmys before Sopranos finally won for lesser seasons and Mad Men keeps winning. WW and MM are tasteful and don't ever make the Emmy voters feel icky. This isn't to say that Mad Men isn't a great show, but Breaking Bad is so infinitely superior that it's high time it gets the top prize.

Edward Copeland said...

To HourOfLead:

The reason Weiner likely put Lane's suicide in the penultimate episode was because he was schooled at the knee of David Chase on The Sopranos and with the exception of the fourth season (when Carmela threw Tony out), Chase always had the season's big development in the second-to-last element and let the finale seem somewhat anticlimactic.

-bee said...

@Edward Copeland:

Hey - I'm a fan of Breaking Bad, but for me Giancarlo Esposito as Gus SAVED the series for me.

I thought the first season of Breaking Bad was excellent, but when in subsequent seasons it began to coyly teeter-totter between Walt/Jessie trying go go straight then falling back into temptation things started to get repetitive to the point where I began to lose interest (I admit, at the end of this season of Mad Men with Don at the bar, I sorta had a sinking feeling of 'been there done that').

Not to mention there began to be a lot of lazy writing where Walt/Jessie got out of scrapes not by any clever planning on their part, but through chance/dumb luck.

Gus was really well played and well written. The stunt where he outwits his dangerous rivals in Mexico was one of the highlights of the show for me. I was relieved that Walt ultimately bests Gus not by luck but by guile.

I also got very sick of broadly drawn Skyler and Marie, although Skyler FINALLY started to become interesting last season as she got drawn into the business .

I have to say I think ultimately, Mad Men is the superior show because there is more substance to it and the characters both seem to have more depth AND yet are more intriguingly mysterious. I am always wanting MORE from the characters whereas I think Breaking Bad has suffered from too much padding to try to extend the show out to being longer than it really should have been.

DJ said...

, Chase always had the season's big development in the second-to-last element and let the finale seem somewhat anticlimactic.

Yes, but Weiner has had at least two blockbuster plot elements end seasons: the formation of SCDP in "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" in Season 3 and Don's engagement to Megan in "Tomorrowland" at the end of Season 4. So if Weiner learned the "put the big development in the penultimate episode" trick from Chase, it's clear he doesn't always use it.

The final episode was a coda, touching on the "every man gor himself" arc of the season, but it also sets up the next season. The firm is expanding. Money is rolling in. Don is ravenous for success again. Now that he's helped Megan with her career, will she leave him like Peggy did? Speaking of Peggy, will she win the account for what will obviously become Virginia Slims? And on and on.

When will season 6 begin? My choice would be June 1, 1967.

Jeffrey Mark said...

An emphasis on Peggy in season 6 would be perfect. Heading up her new cigarette account, showing Peg in action would be a welcomed plot point - she's worth every second of screen time, so very fascinating a character on MM. There is so much richness to her - so much complexity - so much show this visually with Peggy...perfect.

More Sally Draper...she's coming of age during one of the most amazing cultural-social-political golden ages of all time right smack dab in 1967-68-69. We can see everything changing and rearranging right before her very eyes - through the eyes of hopeful youth. The right MM character for the right time - more emphasis on Sally in Season 6. I'd like to see her getting closer to her more "tender" scenes between the two of them...that would work perfectly...MM needs to show that more next year...would add more depth...hell, hire me - I'll write the scenes!

Would love to see Don try analysis. It's all the rage right in that time in NYC. He can afford the $125 an hour. Would be fascinating seeing Don slowly, slowly facing his demons verbally with a shrink. Why not? I think this would add tremendously to the show. What'ya think, Matt? I'll write the "shrink scenes" with language that will hit viewers right between the eyes. This could be a very nice turning point in the show next year. Why would Don go see a shrink? Because it was going on in NYC heavily in '67. And, Don was quite introspective in season 4, writing in his daily journal...those VO scenes worked well...just take that into the office of an over-priced NYC analyst and it could work! Fascinating possibilities...

And put BETTS back into analysis. Yes...let's probe more into her inner's time for the woman to finally face her demons. Would contribute significantly to the show seeing Betts open up and spill some tears! Lots of rich, intriguing dialogue can be written for those scenes.

Anonymous said...


The Walking Dead is NOT art and hardly quallifies as entertainment. The characters aren't even one note, they are all a quarter note and as thin as a single ply piece of toilet paper that's been soaked in piss in twenty hours.

Put plain, the show sucks, but because it has OMG ZOMBIES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! the dorkoid spazz crowd has bleated and farted and shrieked about it to make it seem that it has the BIGGEST. AUDIENCE. EVER!!!!!!

Marty Fufkin, You are wrong about AMC forcing Weiner to cut 10 minutes off of every episode, they are just as full of actual show as they have ever been. If you were actually paying attention instead of sneering over how brilliant you are and how stupid everyone else is, you would have noticed that the show runs from 10:00 PM to 11:05-10PM every episode, which means an extra 3-4 minutes of actual showtime.

Anonymous said...

It was nice to see that Glen is still alive and, well, creepy as ever.

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Anonymous said...

Let's see. Sally Draper continues to bore me. And I'm tired of fans putting her on a pedestal. Just because everyone seems to think that her mother is abusive, they coo over Sally, who is nothing but a self-absorbed brat who wants to be "Daddy's Girl". Please . . . less Sally.

The writing for Season 5 seemed just a touch TOO obvious and heavy handed. The hint of an impending death on the show was ridiculous and the person in question turned out to be a character who had not been around since the beginning . . . namely Lane Pryce. Apparently, Matt Weiner has finally realized that he could barely do anything with the Lane character and finally got rid of him.

There was simply TOO MUCH Megan Draper. And I hope that Jessica Pare's acting skills will improve next season. She reminded me of Evangeline Lilly during the early seasons of "LOST".

Don Draper was not interesting. The Fat Betty story was sorely underused and so was January Jones. Dawn Chambers turned out to be another Carla - a black token with no personality.

"Joan can do no wrong even when she does."

Yes, she can. I'm also getting sick and tired of "MAD MEN" fans putting Joan on a pedestal. It's been going on since Season 2.

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