Judge Daryl Loomis is working on a super-secret project. Don't tell anyone; he's making soup.
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), Mad Men: Season Four (Blu-Ray) (published March 28th, 2011), and Mad Men: Season Five (Blu-ray) (published November 12th, 2012) are also available.
Just imagine: Joe Namath in a straw hat.
Over its first five seasons, Mad Men established itself as one of the most beautifully designed, best written, and most enjoyable shows on television. When Season Six rolled around, something changed. The change wasn't so much with the show itself, but with how long-time fans perceived it. In order to look at what happened, this review of Mad Men: Season Six on Blu-ray will actually start with the episode "The Other Woman," the third to last episode of season five. Some spoilers will follow.
Facts of the Case
These thirteen episodes take place during the tumultuous year of 1968, and things couldn't be more tumultuous for the members of ad agency Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Yes, they have the Jaguar account, though they got it by disgusting means. The last name of the agency doesn't exist anymore, but they push on, looking for bigger and better things. Can Don Draper (Jon Hamm, Friends with Kids) keep his marriage to Megan (Jessica Paré, Hot Tub Time Machine) going? What will happen to Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss, On the Road) at her new agency? Will Roger Sterling (John Slattery, Iron Man 2) find enlightenment with his new love, LSD? We'll find out as the tragic events of 1968 unfold.
At this point, the problem with Mad Men is that the story has essentially followed itself to its logical conclusion. This is a world that no normal person should want to live in and, once things took its obvious turn for the worse, it stopped being the vicarious thrill that it once was.
As I wrote, this started in earnest with three episodes left in the fifth season. In that episode, it came to pass that in order to grab the Jaguar account, Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks, Drive) has to prostitute herself to one of the most vile individuals show creator Matthew Weiner has produced. Of all the people who could have stopped it, the only one who tries is Don, who walks away from the situation, at which point the other partners vote in his stead to make Joan an offer for her body. She makes partner as a result, but now Don has finally seen how disgusting his agency can be. Next, as a result of some bad financial decisions, Lane Pryce (Jared Harris, Lincoln) hangs himself in his office, a terrible omen for a television show. Finally, after it all shakes down and Don is at his wits end with both his career and his marriage, the final scene of the season finds Don in a very familiar place: a bar. The final line of that final scene comes from a beautiful young woman comes up to him and asks him, "Are you alone?"
The answer to that question becomes the entirety of Season Six. The answer, of course, is yes, and over these thirteen episodes, we see the degradation of a character that viewers have come to love as he comes to realize this for himself. See, for the first four years, it was fun to watch as Draper philandered and boozed his way into whatever he could possibly want. It was fun; nobody wants to actually be Don Draper, but he was fun to watch. Then, at the end of season four, he married Megan and everything seemed like it might change. For most of the following season, if he didn't look like a changed man, he looked like he was leading that way and it appeared he was experiencing genuine character growth. How fun! Then those final events of the season go down and, as we open up on Season Six, we find Don back to his old tricks and, really, doing so in pathetic fashion, seeming more like the despicable Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, Alpha Dog) than the Don we once knew. He's broken, drinking way too much and cavorting with Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini, Freaks and Geeks), his downstairs neighbor who is also married.
It's just not fun anymore, but I don't think it's supposed to be. There was never a chance that Don Draper was going to change; it would have been illogical to have him completely change his tune. Instead, where it looked like the intelligent, kind, talented, and beautiful Megan—almost the complete opposite of his former wife, the now Betty Francis (January Jones, Unknown)—was going to give Don everything he ever could have wanted, it only brought his jealousy and pettiness to the surface. No, the fact is that Don Draper kind of sucks and he won't be satisfied until he's six feet under. I don't know if that's where he'll wind up by series end, but the falling silhouette we see at the beginning of every episode sure becomes more pointed as the series has progressed.
While Mad Men: Season Six is clearly focused on Don's downfall, this is a large ensemble cast with a ton of well-told stores. Pete gets the big smackdown by wife Trudy (Alison Brie, Community) for his own blatant indiscretions. We have the strange and elusive new character, Bob Benson (James Wolk, The Crazy Ones), who comes out of nowhere to make one of the more compelling subplots of the season and who, as the season goes on, seems to become a scarier, better version of Don. Most importantly, we have the big merger, which brings Peggy back to the office and starts the all-new conflict between Don and Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm, Alfie), which shows that, in spite of Ted's own flaws, that advertising doesn't have to be as disgusting as SCDP has made it. Plus, the growing spite of Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka, Carriers), Betty actually showing some warmth and humanity, and the rise of pot-fiend copywriter Stan Rizzo (Jay Ferguson, The Killer inside Me), and there is a lot to take in during this season.
In this massive, sweeping soap opera with all its storylines, the production of Mad Men may be the best part of the show. It's hard to think of another television program that is so gorgeous, so detailed in its design, lighting, and color scheming as this. They've progressed from the drab edges of the 1950s into the bright saturation of the late 60s so naturally that you almost don't notice the changes year to year. But when you see the look of the show in the first season and compare it to now, there is almost no resemblance. Like great music and great editing, though, great design should go relatively unnoticed because it just feels right. There are no unintentional anachronisms and nothing feels out of place at any point in this season or, as far as I can remember, any season before it. In capturing a time and place, few shows have ever worked better than Mad Men, no matter whether it's technically fun to watch anymore or not.
It's too bad, though, that the Blu-ray release for Mad Men: Season Six is so paltry. Technically, it's a gorgeous three-disc set. The 1.78:1/1080p image is nearly perfect, with fine detail everywhere you look and nicely saturated colors. Flesh tones look great, black levels are nice and deep, and it looks as sharp in the darkest scenes as it does in the lightest. The 5.1 Master Audio sound mix is equally strong, but because it's such a dialog-heavy show, isn't quite as impressive. Still, it's very good, with excellent clarity and dynamic range. The surround channels are used that heavily, but there is subtle detail that adds immersion and atmosphere. Dialog and music always sounds strong and there's no background hiss on any level.
Where the disc falters is in the special features. Disc one features an interactive gallery that invokes almost as much frustration as that original Memento DVD. It has the appearance of a poster board with different subjects, such as drugs, race, Vietnam, and a few others. When you scroll over them, they play either a slide show or a video, but the navigation makes no sense and there's very little context for any of it. Disc two has a thirty minute featurette about the history of LSD, with archival interviews from Timothy Leary and modern interviews from some of his associates. It's informative enough, but has absolutely no relevance to the show. Disc three has the only relevant piece, another thirty minute featurette about the show's fantastic production design. For a show with this kind of popularity and dedicated following, it deserves a lot better than this.
At this point, either you enjoy this vicarious ride through a depraved world that you'd never want to experience first-hand or you regret getting on the soulless train of our precious hero Don Draper. Whichever side of the fence you sit, there's no doubt that Mad Men: Season Six is as meticulously designed and impeccably written as ever.
Not guilty, now where's my damn secretary with that Old Fashioned?!
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