Monday, June 11, 2012

Television Review: "Mad Men" Season 5 (****)

It may seem so long ago, but the more I reflect on "Fringe"s fourth season, the more worthwhile and tenderly soulful it seems. An odd note to start on, but hear me out before scampering off. The fourth season of "Fringe" tackled a massively ambitious, and thus equally risky, storyline. When you erase one of your main characters off the face of existence, that happens. I think I've taken it to heart that when you take massive risks, the results are inevitably going to be a bit messy, but they are no less worth it, I feel. "Fringe"s fourth season allowed us to revel in the show's most camptastic genre splendor, while simultaneously further investigating the emotional connections of its characters.

"Mad Men"s fifth season, much similarly, took many a huge risk in the stories that it decided to investigate. The world we were introduced to at the start of this season was one of being quite simply adrift. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was almost frozen in shock, still so long after Lucky Strike abandoned them and placed their future in question. In this world of such active indecision and struggle, it really caused our characters to examine the strengths in their own lives. What resulted was a full scale investigation of aging, decay, death, and are we willing enough to fight that? Are we even capable of winning such an uphill battle that seems so impossible to reach?

The major question that lingered following last season was "What are they going to do with Megan?" There was, and indeed still is, a strong concern that her character simply would not be well enough developed, and just not fit into the mold of the show. I can't help but congratulate Matthew Weiner for taking as much time as he did investigating Megan and what significance she plays in the continuing arc of Don Draper. Previous seasons of the show have shown attitudes towards marriage, as Betty really only ever represented a trophy wife for Don. The fourth season was really about who Don is, without the illusion of Betty and the masquerade he put on. The age of dishonesty had ended, and we saw him really forced to make decisions based on himself, and not on his role in the world.

This season investigated what happens when you come across somebody who you truly are in love with, and how do you reconcile that not just with yourself, but with who she is. The first half of the season showed Don rather hopelessly obsessed with this woman he's finally come across, and he's clinging onto it with all his might. He wants her all time, and he can't bear the idea of a second in which she isn't available. He doesn't care about the business, which needs his guidance now more than ever. He's fallen too deeply into himself and his own problems that he's forgotten that he bears a greater significance to the world. There are people who are relying on him, and yet he scoffs them off in favor of fleeing away with Megan.

There are plenty of other characters in this show who are also bound so deeply inwards to find who they are and what they want. Perhaps the strongest example of that, and quite surprisingly my MVP of the whole season, is Pete Campbell. We are so accustomed to him whining about not having everything his way, but he finds himself on a rather important avenue this season. We see him with greatest importance to the company, with a wonderful wife and child at home, and yet there's this emptiness that's eating away at him. He wants more, and is constantly in a position of achieving more, and yet none of it can fill this infinitesimal gap within him. It's really quite sad and pathetic, but potently tragic all at the same time.

Roger also finds himself on a curious voyage this season, as he realizes that without Lucky Strike, he may end up without a genuine stake in the company. Campbell, who Sterling himself reeled in, has turned against him and practically declared war on him. There is a point in this season where Roger reaches an epiphany of sorts, and finds himself invigorated enough to try to bring in clients. It's one-parts hilarious, since an epiphany for Roger still only accounts as a normal realization for most of the other characters. It is quite similarly a defining stroke in his development, and yet he draws on that to the point of soiling what potency it had. It raises the question of whether Roger can ever achieve the true happiness he so deeply desires, almost to the point of convincing himself he already has it.

Lane Pryce has been one of my favorite characters of this show, and he had some truly special moments last year which showed how happy in the glory days he was capable of being. This season brought us back around to the fact that he's a Brit living in America, he's an outcast of sorts in the company, and he needs to find a reason for being there, like everyone else. His financial status is at stake, and we see the most honest character of this show being eaten away at by the underhanded dealings of everyone around him. Jared Harris is given his moment to shine this year, and it's absolutely the most brilliant he has ever been. This man truly deserves an Emmy nomination to come around for him, for his arc this season is truly heartbreaking.

Every man for himself isn't just a theme that occurs exclusively to the men, but also to the women of this season. Joan Harris is given more focus and attention than she ever has before, and we see a strong development of who she wants to be. This facade of the American dream is fading away, and she is questioning what she is capable of, just like Don was last season. The two of them share that in common, and there are quite a few scenes this season in which they discuss that intriguing dynamic between friends and something a little naughtier. She is put to the burner, being practically asked what great importance can a woman like her play in this company, and are the things in her life worth the sacrifice she'd have to pay?

I will admit that there is one arc that is simply forced, and just never works once this season, and that is Betty. I honestly have felt her role as icy bitch has been quite good for the show before, and showing a softer and more sympathetic side to her was a bid to get audience in favor with her. It didn't work, and in fact she just becomes even more of a trophy wife in her state, only more visibly atrocious. There are two things they can do to remedy this. One is to get rid of her altogether. The other is to put her back where she was before, being a superficial bitch mom who we're not meant to empathize with. Here's hoping Weiner goes for the latter.

Then there's Sally, whose arc this season has quite honestly been mixed. She is the representative of the future generation of women, and we see her escalate in those questions of what is an adult through the eyes of what's clearly a child. She wants to embrace this facade of adulthood, but she scoffs at it. She thinks it's disgusting, and towards the end of the season we start to see her come to a realization of that. That's all well and good, but there are too many times where they try to use creeper Glen as a vehicle in the direction. I dare say, that boy has served every purpose he has. Weiner has passion for his last scene this season, and I'll allow him that. It's a fine place to leave that character, and never go back to it.

There's been a wide degree of scuffle on the internet recently regarding whether or not Peggy Olsen would be a character for the final two seasons of "Mad Men". Rest assure, she's a commodity that Matthew Weiner is not interested in losing. This season does, however, give her pause as to exactly who she is to this company. She's always been married to the job, and that shows its detriment and ache to her love life, but it's also fascinating enough that she likes it that way. She is in love with her job, and it's that passion for the work that is so deeply at the heart of the show. Her outbursts of rage and passionate aggression are some of the most arousing scenes of this season. They are leveled by the tenderness with which she delivers the more intimate scenes of the season, one in particular that is a true masterstroke of cinema if I've ever seen one.

But Peggy's love for the job is inevitably contrasted by Megan, who we really sink into this season more than we ever thought we would. She's not just another trophy wife, or a kid that Don is fucking. She has true enthusiasms and aspirations, and she serves as a bright ray of happiness against all the cynicism of the office setting. She has genuine talents, and those are the reasons Don fell in love with her. What we see is her investigating whether she is willing to chase after those dreams of hers, since she has the time to do it. Will she sacrifice this love with such a faithful man as Don has become? Many blow her off all too easily as a detriment to the season, but I loved every moment with her. Every fight further informed these two.

More than anything else, this season has been about the inevitability of aging and decay, and Don deals with that on numerous occasions. Twice in this season he falls ill, and suffers potent and significant delusions on account of such. We see him rise from being aloof to the goings on at work to being newly invigorated by the allure of success, but it's still all about him. The use of a new character, Michael Ginsberg, shows just how enthusiastic this new generation of artists is becoming, and Don takes it as a challenge to do better. His ego gets the better of him, and we see a man who is trying to grasp at humility, but just coming short of success.

1967 was the beginning of the science-fiction era, which plays a true role in the arc of this season. It's very cinematic, woozy, and lots of obvious symbology sets in, but oddly enough it works. Season 5 represented a dystopian nightmare of sorts, where these characters are doing their best to come to a bright future. They are all chasing their dreams, their passions, and this season quite honestly a full-heartedly captured that. It wouldn't feel so obvious at times if they weren't so invested in making their impact. There were hammer smacks of events this season, more than usual, but it all comes organically, and marks as important a season as we have ever gotten. If nothing else, certainly the darkest.


Best Drama Series: "Far Away Places"
Best Direction: Scott Hornbacher ("Far Away Places")
Best Screenplay: Frank Pierson and Matthew Weiner ("Signal 30")
Best Actor: Jon Hamm ("Commissions and Fees")
Best Actress: Elizabeth Moss ("The Other Woman")
Best Actress: Jessica Pare ("Lady Lazarus")
Best Supporting Actor: Vincent Cartheiser ("Signal 30")
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Harris ("Signal 30")
Best Supporting Actor: John Slattery ("Far Away Places")
Best Supporting Actor: Ben Feldman ("Tea Leaves")
Best Supporting Actress: Christina Hendricks ("Christmas Waltz")
Best Supporting Actress: January Jones (Ugh, NOTHING!)

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