I was among the 3.5 million viewers who eagerly tuned in when Mad Men returned in March after a 17-month hiatus. In fact, my husband and I made it a point to watch the two-hour season premiere in real time rather than by DVR. (Sorry to report, we’re typically in bed by the time the show airs. But as dedicated “maddicts,” we made an exception.)
Eight shows in, Season Five has been surprising, to say the least. Series creator Matt Weiner is almost as passionate about secrecy as he is about historical accuracy. So there have been many unanticipated plot twists with few to no spoilers tipping us off in advance. Who would have ever foreseen “Fat Betty?” Or Roger and trophy wife Jane experimenting with LSD? The references to contemporary events have been more common and more obscure. I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who has Googled a 60s news story the morning after an episode. And, while Don Draper’s home life appears sunnier on the surface, there are dark shadows everywhere.
The biggest complaint I’ve heard from other fans is that the episodes aren’t as linear or character-driven as those in the first four seasons. Indeed, it appears that the personnel of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce have fallen down a rabbit hole. Each episode has felt like its own little film, acted and directed with precision and centering on some deep psychological theme with often disturbing results. The show has dipped into different genres stylistically; “Mystery Date” was on the verge of becoming gothic horror with long descriptions of Richard Speck’s real-life mass rape and murder of a group of young nurses. Juxtaposed was Joan’s disintegrating relationship with her (rapist) husband and the Draper children’s truly monstrous (butcher knife–wielding) step-grandmama.
The two most recent episodes (which well may be my favorites so far) felt more like past seasons. In “At the Codfish Ball,” there were distinct themes (mothers and daughters, growing up, disillusionment), but the episode had a specific beginning, middle, and end. I loved the sisterly scenes between Peggy and Joan. And who can deny the genius of Megan’s father’s rather Freudian mistake when he asserts that “Sooner or later, Don, your little girl will spread her legs and fly away.” (“Wings, Daddy,” Megan corrects him.) Plus, I have to confess that any episode that gives extraordinary young Kiernan Shipka (Don Draper’s precocious daughter) so much attention will always rank high with me.
This week, in “Lady Lazarus,” we revisited some familiar Mad Men territory and the beginning of a new story. Pete, disillusioned at the agency (and never one to walk away from an extramarital affair), takes up with the wife of a fellow commuter. What was most interesting, though, was how desperately he tries to make a brief encounter into something more. As his “side dish,” Alexis Bledel (the former Gilmore Girl, quite grownup now) urges him to let it go. “Fantasize about it,” she advises. Meanwhile, Megan was given permission to pursue her own fantasy. She has left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to try acting. Don seemed perplexed by her decision, but supported it. And, as a loyal viewer, I was happy to note that Megan’s departure opens the door for more scenes between Don and Peggy. Their stories (together and apart) have always been among the show’s richest and most complex.
Despite these recent episodes, I still wonder: Why all the fragmented storylines? The episodes so far have the feeling of a show’s final season, when the creative team gives itself license to veer off from its accepted form. Like the enigmatic final episode of The Sopranos, or the apocalyptic last battle of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or when Bob Newhart woke up next to Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from the earlier Bob Newhart Show, and realized that the entire run of his second Newhart series was a dream. But we know Weiner and company have another couple of years in their contract.
One clue comes from an interview with actor Vincent Kartheiser, who plays the show’s slimy account exec Pete Campbell. Prior to the premiere, Kartheiser was asked about the new season and how he thought the show’s fans would react. He asserted that the season was brilliantly crafted, and explained that when you see the last episode, you will realize that everything that happens was foreshadowed at the beginning. His statement in itself was a bit of a brilliant spoiler.
Even though I am willing to stay with it, I can imagine that many people won’t want to work so hard. I myself prefer to watch Mad Men as entertainment rather than as a puzzle to be solved. The tricks seem a little too self-indulgent on the part of the writers.
Which brings me back to my original query. Have Weiner and crew jumped the shark? No, I don’t think so. But, they may have been drinking a bit too much of their own Kool-Aid. Or, should I say, their own Manhattans? This is Mad Men, after all.