Monday, April 9, 2012

Mad Men Season 5 - A Wolf At The Door

Mad Men has never been a particularly upbeat program.  Its main characters constantly struggle with their own foibles and shortcomings, often making bad decisions and acting callously.  But where in years past their emotional turmoil and suffering was expressed existentially, in introspective poses that suggested desperation and quiet moments alone with their thoughts and the repercussions of their actions, the show's velocity no longer affords such distance.  Now, crises appear in color and right at their front door.  

A third of the way through Season 5, a quartet of episodes have moved the show calendar less than two months, but the atmosphere and tone has turned dark and foreboding.  Everywhere our characters turn, danger lurks just out of sight.  The mood is set early, with references to riots, worker strikes and the killing of eight women in Chicago by a psychopath. It is against this backdrop that new copywriter Michael retools a pitch for women's shoes after the client has accepted an initial idea.  His brooding on the idea of a Cinderella being pursued in the dark of night ends up resonating with the executives but earns him a stern reprimand from a feverish Don.  

Back at the office, Peggy successfully leverages Roger's panic at being unprepared for a pitch meeting with Mohawk Airlines into a big payday for doing extra weekend work.  When she discovers that Dawn, Don's new African-American secretary, has been sleeping at the office because of fears set off by the Speck murders and also because she lives too far away from the office to safely commute late at night, she invites Dawn to stay with her.  Peggy's self-satisfied moment of bonding quickly dissolved when, back at her apartment, a pregnant moment occurs where she realizes her purse, now stuffed with $400 from Roger, is laying on the coffee table within Dawn's easy reach once she goes to bed.  The following morning, Dawn has quietly alit from the apartment, the only sign of her stay being a polite courtesy note thanking Peggy for her hospitality.

While Peggy and Michael channel the news of the day, Joan experiences the uncertainty of being a "war bride" front and center when her husband Greg returns from Vietnam.  At first, their reunion is heartfelt and full of promise, with Joan's mother discreetly leaving the two alone so they can have sex, but quickly dissolves when Greg reveals he has volunteered for another year's duty.  Whereas Joan had accepted Greg's initial enlistment with some frustration (but resignation), she is no longer willing to mutely comply with her husband's unilateral decision. In an intense scene, they finally have it out - Joan digging up, albeit in code, Greg's ugly rape of her in Don's office before they were married and Greg expressing his desire to feel like a "good" man, something that only occurs when he is leading a team of doctors in the theater of war.  The denouement is Joan's simple, but difficult decision to tell Greg to leave their home for good.  When he threatens to take her up on it, she says nothing, and so it goes. Divorce and dislocation, something that was dirty and private when the show began, now feels far more pedestrian and mainstream. 

The Speck murders linger in the background of the Francis home as well.  Grandma Pauline, babysitting for Sally while Henry and Betty are out of town, wants to shield Sally from this horrific news.  When precocious Sally pilfers a newspaper from the trash and reads about the senseless killings, she is frightened beyond belief, asking to sit up with Pauline and ultimately being doses with seconol to help her sleep.  When Henry and Betty return the following morning, the two are comatose, grandmother slumped on the couch and Sally out like a light underneath the couch, like a scared cat. 

The other person all of this unrest affects is Don, who has a brief encounter with a former paramour in the elevator at work in front of Megan, resulting in an awkward moment.  Later, as he's struggling with a fever, the woman, Andrea, reappears at his apartment door, seeking a sexual liaison.  Don shoos her out, wanting to be faithful to Megan and not sliding back into his old habits.  When Andrea somehow comes back in, he relents and they have sex, but afterwards, she angers him, and he chokes her to death.  Of course, this is all a hallucination, but the intensity of his reaction to his own conduct says everything.  He is a man still haunted by his demons.

In the span of an hour, and in "show time" two days, the world our characters inhabit spiral quickly out of control.  Joan is getting divorced, Peggy's subtle bigotry exposed, Sally has now been introduces to pharmaceutical medication and Don has (literally) wrestled with his demons.  If this was not bleak enough, show creator Matt Weiner chooses a song titled "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)" to end the episode - it's lyric of violence an apt coda to this dark and disturbing hour of television. 


  1. Great recap. I did not interpret Dawn's sleeping in the office as fear of the Richard Speck murders. She indicates she has slept there before and that a cab would take her no farther than "96th St."

  2. What an intense episode. I am still trying to think it through. Thanks for your recap -- just one minor issue -- Don's former paramour is Andrea, not Jennifer. Thanks!

  3. Enjoyed it! (Also Grandma Stephanie is really Pauline....) Thanks!

  4. Thank you for the comments and the positive feedback. I was a little bleary this morning when writing and should have taken notes on the names of those characters last night. Thanks! As "Mystery Date" unfolded toward its awful ending, I started to think "instant classic."