Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski is sorry to be late for the partners' meeting. Her Jaguar wouldn't start.
Our reviews of Mad Men: Season One (published July 2nd, 2008), Mad Men: Season Two (published July 14th, 2009), Mad Men: Season Two (Blu-Ray) (published July 14th, 2009), Mad Men: Season Three (published March 22nd, 2010), Mad Men: Season Three (Blu-Ray) (published April 1st, 2010), and Mad Men: Season Four (Blu-Ray) (published March 28th, 2011) are also available.
"I just keep thinking about what's going on here and I missed it too much."—Joan Harris
In Mad Men's Season Five premiere, the above words are spoken tearfully by Joan (Christina Hendricks, Firefly), the office manager of Madison Avenue ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP), who has been away from work after having a baby. Any fan of the series watching the premiere in broadcast must have felt a stab of identification with that line after rumored strife between creator Matthew Weiner and network execs at AMC resulted in, basically, a skipped season. Thus, after almost two years away from the sound of ice clinking into cocktail glasses that signaled another day of hard work and heavy drinking at SCDP, the eagerly anticipated Season Five joyfully brought the whiskey bottles back out.
If the quality of the drama this time around isn't quite up to the standard set by the previous couple of seasons, Mad Men: Season Five (Blu-ray) is certainly still worth raising a glass to.
Facts of the Case
Spoiler Alert! I'll be discussing plot points through the end of Season Five
Spanning from early summer of 1966 through spring of 1967, Season Five begins with Creative Director Don Draper (John Hamm, Friends with Kids) having moved into a hip new pad with his hip new wife (previously his sexy secretary) Megan (Jessica Paré, Lost and Delirious). Don's kids—Sally (Kiernan Shipka, Carriers), Bobby (who can keep track of who's playing this kid anymore?), and Gene—are having half their weekends with their dad and spend the rest of the time with their irritable mom Betty (January Jones, X-Men: First Class) and saintly stepdad Henry (Christopher Stanley, Crosscut), who seem to have purchased a haunted mansion in the suburbs.
When the happy couple strolls into the office together, they're usually late for meetings with the partners Bert Cooper (Robert Morse, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), Roger Sterling (John Slattery, The Adjustment Bureau), Lane Pryce (Jared Harris, The Notorious Bettie Page), and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, Angel) or with faithful and put-upon copy writer Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss, The West Wing).
Season Five's thirteen episodes are divided among three Blu-ray discs:
• "Tea Leaves"—Don pursues unlikely collaborators
when a client requests The Rolling Stones for a commercial. Peggy is tasked with
hiring a new writer and the best candidate may be insufferable. In trying to
solve her weight-gain problem, Betty finds out she may have cancer.
• "Mystery Date"—As the Richard Speck murders
make news across the nation, their themes of dark desire and sexual violence
ripple through SCDP. The new copy writer, Michael (Ben Feldman, Drop Dead Diva), pitches an
unsettling commercial to a client, against Don's wishes. In the grip of a high
fever, Don is tempted to reprise old betrayals. Dr. Rapist (aka Greg, Joan's
husband) comes home from Vietnam…briefly.
• "Signal 30"—Accounts man Ken Cosgrove (Aaron
Staton, LA Noire) tries to hide his extracurricular fiction writing from
the SCDP bosses. Pete hosts a dinner party for Don and Ken in the suburbs, then
gets challenged to a fist fight in the office when he angers Lane.
• "At the Codfish Ball"—Megan's French-Canadian
parents visit New York to see Don get an award, and Sally gets to attend, too.
Peggy and Abe advance their relationship and hope her mother will approve (she
• "Lady Lazarus"—Pete begins an affair that
doesn't work out the way he expected. Megan's sudden decision to leave
advertising, despite her success, and pursue her dream of being an actress
leaves Don and Peggy in a funk.
• "Dark Shadows"—Sabotage is in the air in our
characters' work and home lives. Roger tries to land an account away from Pete's
prying eyes by hiring Michael to do some on-the-side copy writing. Don feels
threatened by Michael as a writer and sets out to prove his own work is better.
Betty attempts to stir up trouble between Don and Megan by telling Sally a
secret to pass along.
• "The Other Woman"—As the guys try to pitch
Jaguar as the car equivalent of a mistress, the women in and around SCDP face
tough choices. Megan uncovers Don's chauvinistic attitude toward her new career,
Peggy thinks about her options in the face of continual degradation at SCDP, and
Joan receives an indecent proposal.
• "Commissions and Fees"—Lane's embezzlement from
the company is discovered and the decision of what to do about it falls in Don's
lap. Sally calls an old friend for an unsupervised day in Manhattan.
• "The Phantom"—Don is feeling abandoned as
people drift out of his life through suicide or new jobs. Megan's new job, or at
least her attempt to get acting jobs, is not going well and her visiting mother,
Marie, doesn't provide the encouragement she hopes for. Pete finds the woman he
had an affair with visiting Manhattan for an unsettling reason.
Mad Men's previous season opened with the line "Who is Don Draper?" and then provided viewers with a season-long fresh answer, showing Don's messy, painful evolution from divorce to alcoholism to professional embarrassment and finally remarriage. Season Five has a very set trajectory for our leading man, too, but does not reveal its tagline until the year's closing line.
By then, his new wife, Megan, has descended in his esteem from a confident and ambitious copy writer at SCDP to a tearful, insecure actress who needs Don to pull strings and get her a part in a hokey TV ad. The ad has a Beauty and the Beast theme, and the season's final scene finds Don walking away from the set where Megan is playing Beauty—away, literally and figuratively, from a fairy tale (the castles-and-magic stuff we see on set and his fairy-tale marriage to this alluring young woman). He emerges from the dark wasteland of the surrounding film studio into a dim, smoky bar whose ambiance fits him like a glove. It's as if returning to his place of origin and, appropriately, we hear him order his usual and aptly-named cocktail: an Old Fashioned. As he settles in, a woman approaches him and asks—on behalf of her lovely friend at the other end of the bar—"Are you alone?"
We feel the weight of the question, at the end of a season where Don has lost a business partner, Lane, to suicide, seen his protege, Peggy, leave for another company, felt his kinship with Joan damaged, and watched his new marriage erode. Of course, Don himself is partly to blame for most of these spiraling abandonments, but that's a whole other ball of wax. As he returns the gaze of the woman at the bar, we simply know that the season as a whole has already provided the answer to this question it finally poses directly in this last scene: yes. Don feels alone in some grand, metaphysical sense, but the more basic message we're getting is that he's done being done with adultery. Dr. Faye was right about Don: he only likes the beginnings of things.
This season-long arc for Don is an interesting one, giving him a rare number of humanizing moments along the way (his collaboration with Megan to land the Heinz account, his chivalry with Joan in the wake of her divorce), which I'm guessing will have to fortify us through a sixth season of renewed assholery. The nature of Don's main story this year also required that a new character, Megan, get an awful lot of screen time, which I've heard wasn't a total crowd-pleaser. Personally, I was much more interested in Megan than I expected to be, based on the vibes of sweet, French-Canadian domesticity she gave off at the end of Season Four. She doesn't turn out to be a doormat mother/babysitter for Don's kids (though she does end up babysitting plenty), nor does she turn out to be a moldable mini-me for Peggy at SCDP. From her risque party in "A Little Kiss" to her refusal to affirm Don and Peggy's self-worth by pretending she loves advertising, Megan exhibits a sense of independence that keeps Don nicely off-balance, even to the point of serious marital strife. It's too bad, though, that she turns into a needy ball of tears by the season's end, seemingly on the path to becoming another incarnation of Betty, the model-turned-housewife whose younger days we now wonder about with fresh interest. Was she, too, once as loving and vivacious as Megan? Is she simply the product of a long, oppressive marriage to a guy like Don?
Don begins to feel old and out of touch in these episodes, but the series itself is nearly as fresh and engrossing as ever. Other than a mostly lackluster finale, the show's creators have only given me three significant things to complain about. The first is subtle, but pervasive: a new feeling of literalness in the show's usually-superb dialogue. When Peggy explains directly to Megan that she feels like a proud mentor upon hearing of her success with Heinz rather than a jealous rival, it feels very on-the-nose. When Don makes his aggressive pitch to Dow Corning about why they should ditch their agency that they're already "happy" with, he spits out, "What is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness." Gee whiz, is he really talking about himself?
My second complaint is that even as the show heads into 1966 and '67, it still pays precious little attention to race, despite the season's opening scene of a competing agency's writers dropping water balloons on African American protestors. Other than one single-episode storyline for the new African American secretary, Dawn (Teyonah Parris, How Do You Know), this subject is pretty much ignored, despite its cultural immediacy at the time. Sure, the Madison Avenue guys were not necessarily following the Civil Rights Movement closely, but they probably weren't following Hare Krishnas closely, either, and the writers managed to give that group more screen time!
My third problem with the season is more of a wait-and-see type: Peggy's departure from SCDP. While her decision to leave was both warranted and empowering, and the episode's execution of that storyline was very strong, I think it would be a huge mistake to have her leave the show itself. It's unclear at this point how big a role Peggy will play in Season Six, but she's such an established presence on the series—arguably second only to Don himself—and connects so strongly with women viewers that losing her as a regular would be a devastating blow.
Still, there's so much to love about Mad Men: Season Five (Blu-ray)! Roger, in particular, is in top form this year, with the LSD trip he never stops mentioning and his memorable one-liners (on the airplane mechanics' strike: "Boo hoo, they need more wrenches or something"). Who didn't want to stand up and cheer when Joan kicked out Dr. Rapist and said, "You're not a good man. You never were, even before we were married—and you know what I'm talking about"? The writers again pull off some masterful choreography of themes within individual episodes, as in the swirl of sex, gender, and violence that is "Mystery Date" or the brutal checkpoint we get regarding the place of women in and around SCDP in "The Other Woman."
In terms of technical presentation and extras, Lionsgate does an excellent job with Mad Men: Season Five (Blu-ray)—though, again, perhaps not one quite as exemplary as in previous seasons. Much of the show's aesthetic appeal hinges on the lush, nostalgic rendering of 1960s decor, fashions, and music. The series' crew recreate the past in these areas beautifully, and this Blu-ray release does their work justice in the image and sound department. The 1080p picture is bright and crisp, with great saturation levels on those popping '60s greens, blues, and oranges. I was surprised to glimpse compression artifacts here and there, but mostly forgot about them through the delights of the objects in frame. The episodes sound great, with the series' memorable, period-appropriate score coming through at just the right levels—and the Beatles song they bought the expensive rights to play in "Lady Lazarus" coming through very loudly.
Music is the subject of two featurettes on these discs: "Scoring Mad Men: Inside a Session" (21 minutes) and "Scoring Mad Men: Themes of Season Five" (28 minutes). While the show's original score is great and deserves exploration in this form, just one featurette on the subject would have sufficed for me and there were other topics I would have rather seen explored. How about a featurette on Lane Pryce and actor Jared Harris to mark the character's departure from the show? Or one about the Civil Rights Movement and the summer of '66 riots our characters keep mentioning?
Instead, the historical featurettes we get are "The Party of the Century" (23 minutes) and "The Uniform Time Act of 1966" (5 minutes). "Party" is a well-produced exploration of author Truman Capote's Black and White Party of 1966. The party has no apparent connection to Mad Men's characters, thus the featurette is a bit puzzling, but if you like '60s fashions, high society, and gossip, this is a fun one. "Time Act," though, is quite disappointing—just a 5-minute, text-heavy Powerpoint-style presentation with a score. "What Is There to Love if not the Enigma?" (17 minutes) is considerably more interesting, showcasing Greek-born painter Giorgio de Chirico, whose work inspired the image of Don looking at two mannequins in a store window that was used for Season Five advertising. The two professors interviewed may go on a little long about de Chirico for those only casually interested, but the last few minutes in which Prof. Emily Braun does an aesthetic analysis of the Mad Men are great. The interactive extra "Newsweek Covers" rounds out the set's historical content with a sampling of twelve of the magazine's 1966 covers and a listing of some major articles inside.
For pure character love apart from all those pesky historical events, there's "Mad Men Say the Darndest Things" (16 minutes), in which series producers and writers guide us through some of the show's best one-liners. The biggest non-surprise there? There's some mother-hating going on in that writers' room, as some of Betty's meanest lines apparently have come directly from words spoken by the writers' own mothers. However, the real showcase of Mad Men extras remains the staggering selection of audio commentaries. As detailed above with my episode descriptions, members of the cast and crew sit down for a whopping twenty-six commentary tracks—two for each episode. As you can imagine, the levels of engagement on each of these is uneven, but I love the wide range of people who get to comment (from creator Matthew Weiner to costume designer Janie Bryant and child actor Kiernan Shipka) and the fun combinations. Only the most obsessed fans will listen to all of these, but I highly recommend sampling one or two from episodes you love or individuals you want to hear from.
Feeling disoriented about recent changes in the company—and, we gather, the culture—Roger Sterling asks, "When is everything gonna get back to normal?" We in the audience may chuckle or sigh, knowing that this aging, would-be aristocrat in the summer of '66 is on the wrong side of history. Things won't be getting back to normal for our mad men as the series rolls on toward the tumultuous 1968 and beyond, but they'll be back to normal in my house once I'm settling in on the couch for the Season Six premiere this spring.
If only I could learn to like the taste of an Old Fashioned…
Not guilty. Now give me sketches of the talking beans.
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