Friday, June 15, 2012

Mad Men: Season Five Review

Last week was the last episode of season five of Mad Men. I've avoided talking about it too much because of the nature of the show: with only 13 episodes per season and about 4000 different important characters, events seem to transpire quickly. This is also the first season I have watched live; I didn't start watching the show until the elongated hiatus between seasons 4 and 5 while the actors and creators were negotiating their contracts. (And, in true Netflix fashion, we watched four years worth of the series in about a weekend and a half, which is how it should be done in a modern society.)

Anyway, at this point I should mention there are spoilers in the below, so if you haven't watched Mad Men, you should get cracking and come back when you're done.

The overarching themes of the series this season were the following:

  • Short, Dry Summer: There were plenty of predictions about what this season was going to be about. Many people thought this would be the year that Mad Men confronted the issue of race head-on. The time frame is right--it was a year of protests and rioting, after all--and while the series had always referenced it, there were very few examples of directly addressing it. And it seemed to be that way--the opening scene depicted a street protest and the first episode ended with an awkward transition to a multi-racial workplace. And then...nothing. Aside from one minor side story in the middle of the season, it really wasn't talked about at all.
  • Let Me Know When It's Time: The recurring imagery all season was one of suicide. Some were subtle (the life insurance pitch), and some were quite blatant (missing an elevator car?). At the beginning of the season, there were about six good candidates--everyone from Sally Draper to Pete Campbell were possible victims. By the end of the season, we all pretty much knew who it was going to be, and it was just going to be a manner of when and how (and a faint hope that it wouldn't happen). 
  • Back-Burner Betty: I'm not sure if it was due to January Jones's pregnancy, but Betty Francis was hardly in this season. She was in only four episodes this season, and only one of them ("Tea Leaves") really focused on her in any significant way. Sally got more screen time then her. Partly it's simply due to the storyline--she's no longer married to Don, so she really can't be a daily occurrence, but it's still odd to see her so little after she was a mainstay.  
  • Too Much Megan: Although I don't hate the character of Megan, she has effectively replaced the Betty character slot. But after seeing Don being a scumbag to Betty, it's, well...boring to see him bend over backwards for such a needy and annoying person. Based on how the series ended, it's possible this will change, but quite frankly there was just too much teeth this season.
  • What's this show about, again? While I certainly love all of the characters and side plots, I sometimes feel like the central reason for the show--the advertising industry--is forgotten in the shuffle. Sure, there were some major plot lines detailing gaining clients such as Jaguar and Mohawk, but more often than not it seems like an afterthought. I realize the show has always been like that, but lately it seems more pronounced.
  • Someone needs to punch Pete again. It's awesome every time it happens. Thankfully, this season, it happens a lot.
  • I Already Miss Lane. Lane Pryce was one of my favorite characters, so it was sad (but inevitable) when he left. I think he filled a needed place in the firm--that of the prudent, moral center--that will need to be filled. (Draper won't be doing that now, of course, and Cooper is too old and out of touch to have the energy.) Will Joan be able to do that? She certainly has the taskmaster role down pretty good and she's already proposing decisions with the thought of "What would Lane do?" Still, her character seems ill-fitted to do that, which means someone new will have to fill it or someone will have to have a major personality shift (say, due to the ingestion of hallucinatory narcotics, perhaps?)
Is this Mad Men's best season? No, although I think it has some of the best episodes. Sadly, with two main story arcs (Pete's relationship with Rory Gilmore and everything having to do with Megan) being particularly, well, boring, a lot of the season seemed to drag. In addition, this season started to do some gimmicks that weren't executed very well. In "Mystery Date," Don dreamed a large part of the episode (with the viewer unsure as to what is real and what isn't) due to a fever; it ended up just being a mess. Likewise, in "Far Away Places," the episode is done showing three different stories running at the same time so that they overlap...but none of the stories really have anything to do with each other, so the mechanic is completely wasted. A lot of throwaway scenes seem to add little (such as Ginsberg's father), although I'm willing to overlook it for future developments. And one or two of the episodes were just downright boring and barely advanced the overall story at all.  With a season only having 13 episodes, getting 3 or 4 dogs isn't a particularly good percentage.

That said, it's also opened up opportunity for a lot of new and interesting things to happen. The season itself was pretty good and it made me want to know how the firm is going to develop. This season seemed to have an uneven pace--some things progressed remarkably slow, while other important story lines seemed to jump quickly to a conclusion. But those things don't necessarily devalue the interest of the plot itself, which is still quite fascinating. I am kind of over the real-life timeline that's been a mainstay in the past, so I'm glad there was very little of it this season (although I can't imagine things such as the Vietnam War not being incorporated by the end of the series). In addition, some of the criticisms I've listed above seem particularly well-suited to be addressed in the future, so I'm looking forward to more.

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