Monday, May 7, 2012

Mad Men Season Five - Same As It Ever Was

What if I told you there was a show about an unhappily married man living in the suburbs who is desperate for something more than his humdrum life.  And what if I told you that same show featured a happily married man seeking nothing more than maintaining that marital accord.  Pretty standard sitcom fare, right? Maybe a pay cable series with an occasional glimpse of a bare breast? Right. Except Mad Men has always been more than a connect the dots show, but now, more than halfway through its fifth season, the narrative direction of the show seems less certain than ever. After spending early episodes framing a foreboding dawn of Aquarius, all dark shadows, mass murders and riots, plot pacing has downshifted into a time warp of suburban ennui and pedestrian infidelity. 

While the title of the season's eighth episode, Lady Lazarus suggests resurrection, the storyline suggested anything but being born again.  If anything, the episode was an inversion of the early 1960s.  Pete Campbell, now ensconced in Cos Cob, Connecticut, has spent much of 1966 trolling for love and affection or rebelling against the quiet desperation of anomie (and a rifle for those gophers), or maybe both.  His preferred sexual role playing involves female submission, he attempts to power play Roger, but covers his unhappiness with a laser focus on work.  Sounds a little like a Season 1 Don Draper, but the difference is that Pete is impotent. A chance encounter with his commuter friend Howard's wife Beth, who confides in Pete that she is aware of her husband's indiscretions, results in a furtive, groping lovemaking session that leaves Pete unrequited when he attempts to extend that evening's lust into something more meaningful. He calls and is rejected, he shows up at their marital home under the pretext of buying life insurance and is denied, and is stood up in the City when he rents a hotel room complete with chilled champagne. 

At work, Roger deftly clinches work with the sporting goods manufacturer Head and, as a bonus, gets to watch Pete fumble with the ski equipment the client has provided.  LSD may have offered Roger clarity, or perhaps he better understands his role in SCDP, but either way, his anger at being bigfooted by Pete has dissolved into comfort with his own talent and skill with the added benefit of being able to pawn the "hard work" off to a guy who wants to make his bones. Indeed, watching Pete patiently waiting for Beth in that hotel room flashed me back to scenes from earlier seasons where Roger successfully utilized hotel rooms for his liaisons with Joan and how Roger's casual alpha maleness contrasts with Pete's forced attempts at the same. 

Meanwhile, Jack Shapiro was not one of Megan's former flames, or even, as I was hoping, a first husband from Canada never divorced, but rather, a casting director for a play.  Turns out Megan's commie dad actually got through to his daughter, who does not realize that advertising is actually a form of acting and instead, decides to fold up her tent at SCDP and pursue her dream of appearing on Broadway (or off Broadway, or films, whatever works).  When Peggy and Don blow a canned presentation to Cool Whip and he blames Peggy, she lashes out at him, suggesting he is projecting his anger at Megan for quitting onto her. 

Peggy's misreading of Don is a hallmark of this season, but it's not just Peggy who seems at sea with this "new" Don, it's the viewer too.  As @winelibrarian put it, in discussing Megan, "She's turned Don into a pussy. period." While the comment was pithy, I think it missed the mark. After four years of getting inside Don's tortuted psyche, no one seems willing to accept that Don is a different man now - 40, appreciative of the second change his marriage to Megan has given him and not the swinging dick he was in years past.  Any man who has experienced one (or more) of these things in life can relate to Don's desire for peace and tranquility. His conversation with Megan when she reveals her lie to him is telling - instead of screaming or slamming doors, their conversation is mature and nurturing. Indeed, that Megan admits her lie, and Don does not rebuke her, is itself telling.  While Joan may have offered the cynic's view of Megan's career change, even the wink to Megan as Betty 2.0 is warped - yes, she is over a stove with a glass of wine in her hand, but she also reminds Don that coming home to a meal will not be an everyday experience. 

While it is entirely possible Don's marriage to Megan may still fail, indeed, I've argued that Megan must be killed to resurrect the "old" Don, it may simply be that Don is transitioning into a phase of his life where he is comfortable not being "that guy" anymore.  Tellingly, he seems to not understand current culture, whereas when the show started, he was spending afternoons in movie houses and constantly scribbling tag lines on cocktail napkins.  When Megan gives Don a copy of Revolver to show how quickly The Beatles were changing their sound, Don gives it a listen but quickly pulls the needle off the LP and goes to bed.  Tomorrow may never know, but Don is not quite ready to tune into that changing landscape. 

*Note on blogpost title:  I was going to use "Tomorrow Never Knows" but the bloggers who get paid to blog already used it.  For Grateful Dead fans, you'll know that their version of "TNK" sampled a line from The Talking Heads Once In A Lifetime "same as it ever was ... same as it ever was." 

Twitter: @scarylawyerguy


  1. Hey there! I've been meaning to stop by and scribble on your library wall here. Where's Tilden?

    I think you're on to something regarding Don's transition. Moving Megan out of the workplace will be almost killing her as far as the Donald is concerned and will untether him from the a-changin' 60's even more; she's been enabling him to coast in that regard, business-wise. He may have to get out of the stylish chaise lounge, and dip that big Draper toe in the cultural pool, if not completely jump right in. (No randy euphemism intended, necessarily) Yet I still don't think it's a set-up to the rebirth of old Don for long. Ultimately it's back to a transition into self-acceptance of the current aging model.

    There will almost certainly be some sort of dramatic personality driven resurrection in these homestretch episodes but in Season 6 I could see Weiner playing against the whole re-emergent Alpha Don trope and let the viewer dissatisfaction and the ratings chips fall where they may, him being a big David Chase fan and all. He's studiously kept the show away from archtypes and he seems to value the mundane "this is what people do" character reality philosophy for the most part. Just idly speculatin' though.

    I've been enjoying your recaps.

  2. I am flattered that someone with such a deft command of the English language finds my recaps enjoyable. "The Donald" - that's clever and your use of the word "trope" makes me wonder if you are also an Up With Chris Hayes fan? Anyway, I had an earlier blog suggesting Megan should be bumped off to resurrect Swinging Dick Don, but maybe I'm growing ok with the mellowed, middle aged Don. Of course, Weiner will throw a random curveball out of nowhere late in the season (sale of SC to PPL in S2, Betty finding the key that led her to the magic shoe box in S3, American Tobacco bailing in S4), so predicting what will happen is probably a fool's errand.

    I agree that one of the best parts of the show is that even though we're now in 1966, the characters have maintained fidelity to who they are ... except Don (though to borrow Episode 1, Scene 1, Line 1 of Season 4 - "Who is Don Draper?"). I like the "light bulb" moment Roger has had that instead of trying to compete with Pete, his life is much easier allowing Pete to do all the hard work while he (roger) does all the shmoozing. Here's hoping he and "red" find each other before the series ends.

    Thanks for reading and for your brilliant comment.


  3. I thought it was good the way Don supported Megan's decision even though it disappointed him. Interesting that scene where he goes to get in the elevator and it's not there! Good thing he was paying attention. Someone should call Time-Life about that elevator! Maybe it's a metaphor that someone is going to end up down the elevator shaft. Or maybe Matt Weiner is just messing with us and no one will die! I don't know why Pete is not happy with his life - he seems to have everything, success on the job, loving wife, baby, house in the suburbs. The title of this episode Lady Lazarus is a poem by Sylvia Plath (who committed suicide at the age of 30) and there have been other allusions to a character dying. Hope it's not Pete but he seems like too big of a character to let go. There was also the mention that his insurance plan covered suicide, the fact that he asks Harry why women get to decide everything making it seems like he's powerless to control his life. Wonder why Peggy screwed up that pitch to the Cool Whip people? I'm kind of disappointed that Joan had that big episode where she kicks out her husband and they never returned to that again - why didn’t she tell Peggy or someone in the office about it? Seems like she's still wearing her wedding ring too. Don told Roger that Megan doesn't want kids which is the second time that is mentioned. Interesting that Don hasn't cheated on Megan - wonder if that's coming...
    I enjoy your recaps.

  4. The elevator was an odd thing, out of nowhere, uncommented upon, and moved on from quickly. I thought the earlier part of the season was ugly with death imagery - car crashes, shootings, etc. but they've dialed it back a little. I too think SOMEONE is going to die, but my money's on Coop - while he did have a "Yoda" moment with Don (reference: "love vacation"), he's been pretty much MIA for the past season and a half.

    I think Peggy was legitimately annoyed at the dialogue, maybe a little jealous. The tension between her and Don this season has been interesting. After handing over responsibility to her (with Anna's passing) Don seems to be alternately shitting on her and ignoring her. For her part, she does not understand this "new" Don and seems to be picking up a drinking problem. I worry about Peggy. Joan did mention, albeit elliptically, to Peggy that the "paper" she had with Greg (marriage license) meant less than the "paper" he has with the US Army. I'm not sure she straight out said "divorce," but Peggy seemed to understand.

    I've read others referencing Plath, I'm not entirely sold that just because she had a poem of the same name, that was the inspiration (Lazarus being a well known part of mythology). I thought the Harry/Pete dialogue was a cheeky inversion of the Don/Roger lines from early Season 1 (D: What do women want? R: Who cares). We've come a long way, baby!

  5. Just wanting to share some thoughts - love this post.

    In the S2 or S3 - Don says to Peggy - "They can't do what we do and they hate us for it." Like they were so unique. Then comes along Megan and knocks it out of park with Heinz and Cool Whip. Both Don & Peggy were in awe of her. This has got to be a blow to Don's ego - I think Peggy had it right - he was not angry at her. He is angry at the situation. Now Megan is going to be gone most evenings. That's how theater life is. Will he get his mojo back- like we have seen him do in he past? Like the way he handled the Japanese and the way he handled losing Lucky Strike with the letter? Will we see him come up with a new game plan - now that his love fest is over?

    The death suggestions are so blatant this season - maybe it means a resurrection of Don's creativity and the direction of the company. If the East coast snubs him maybe he will turn to the West coast. Tomorrowland? Maybe he heard the Beatle song and will turn within for his answers.

    I am concerned about Peggy and the drinking/smoking etc. Just about every scene this season shows her over doing it.

    1. Faye Mac: Thank you for you comment (and your compliment)! I don't remember the exact line you quoted, I do remember Don wooing Peggy to SCDP by observing that she understood that things changed when JFK died and that insight was "valuable" (as a commodity to be exploited, of course, not because it showed empathy or anything!).

      I think you are right that Don was in awe, but of the idea that he found the perfect combination - sex kitten AND advertising ace - but, to his credit (and very not Don pre Season 5), was willing to be supportive of Megan's decision to jettison advertising for the theater. It will be interesting to see what happens with her acting career (Joan's laceration of her switch notwithstanding). When Betty wanted to go back to modeling in Season 1, he was not quite as supportive (although there were extenuating circumstances).

      As for Peggy, I'm not sure she was in awe of Megan so much as some combination of perturbed, prideful (Peggy trained her after all) and jealous (knowing Megan is essentially an "untouchable" at work because she's Don's wife). The tension between Peggy and Don makes me sad because of their history. It will be interesting to see how/whether Don re-pivots off the "love vacation" to being Swinging Dick Don. The agency seems to have steadied itself from the dire warnings after Lucky Strike left, is getting (or pitching) new clients and even hiring. If history is a guide, Weiner is going to throw a major curveball (possibly starting with plotting this Sunday?) that will begin to tie together this season's themes.

      Thanks again for reading my blog!


      Moving the show to the West Coast would be quite the game changer!