Thoughts on Mad Men Season Five

A few years back, before I started doing the whole blog thing, I got into watching Mad Men.  It was a show that was getting a lot of buzz at the time for being a really complex period drama that also invested a lot in giving a high fidelity look at the aesthetics of the 1960s, both in fashion and in decor.

It was also a show that tackled very directly the unexamined sexism of an earlier era in American history.

My viewing the first season coincided with the period in my life where I was first becoming a really serious student of feminist thought and cultural criticism; I would say I was very much a baby ally at that point, and a lot of the appeal of Mad Men was that it was a show that flashed a big neon sign around every microaggression (I don’t think I was even aware of what a microaggression was at the time, but I liked how clearly it pointed things out).  I enjoyed the first season so much that I mentioned it to Rachael and invited her to watch it with me.

Her reaction was less enthusiastic.

Promo poster for Season Five. (Image credit: IMDb)

We watched the first four seasons together, and while she acknowledged that it was a high quality show, her experience of the sexism depicted was much less comfortable.  She saw all the microaggressions, but also saw them juxtaposed with a mostly male cast who got to spend most of their time having a lot of fun drinking and having casual sex while the women were marginalized and used up.  Her observation was that Mad Men was a show that did indeed point out sexism unapologetically, but it also didn’t do anything to suggest an alternative.  Using sexism as a storytelling device was still using sexism.

The lead character, Don Draper, was especially aggravating because he led a double life between his playboy persona at work and his role as a father and husband in the suburbs.  Even worse, it became apparent over the course of four seasons that while the other characters were allowed to grow and change, Don was stuck in a cycle of arrested development; he ended pretty much every season the way he had started.  It became a running joke between us that Don Draper, while the protagonist, is also the villain of the series.

After we finished Season 4, we didn’t come back to the show.  There were other things we wanted to pursue, and Mad Men had done so little to suggest that there might be a change in its protagonist that there wasn’t a reason to spend any more time on it.

Of course, flash forward to this summer when I’m playing catch up on television series that I’ve been meaning to see.  I finished DareDevil, House of Cards, and Voltron: Legendary Defender and I was casting around for something meaty that I could spend my days with in between doing summer household chores.  Mad Men finished its run a couple years ago, and the entire series is archived on Netflix, so I figured I would give it another shot; I’ve developed a great fondness for thirteen episode television seasons these days.

My impressions of the fifth season, which I just finished, are these: Don Draper strikes me as much more likeable now that he’s remarried, and happens to have married a woman who isn’t afraid to stand up to him about her own wants and needs (Megan’s introduction and courtship in the space of about two episodes in Season 4 was eye roll inducing, but she’s an incredibly likeable character here).  There’s not a single instance of infidelity on Don’s part, which is refreshing after so many previous seasons where his point of crisis would come with a renewed vow not to sleep around that he immediately broke.  Taking the problem of his absurdly high libido off the table seems to make more room for exploring the character’s deeper dissatisfaction with his life, and also removes one of Don’s most unlikable character traits (he’s still a temperamental jerk much of the time, if anyone’s afraid he suddenly becomes a saint).

Peggy Olson is the show’s real hero.  She’s been there since the beginning, and her arc from secretary to successful copywriter at the ad agency is one that’s easy to cheer for.  She takes some major professional steps in this season, and every development in her life is one that deserves celebration, even as she constantly gets overshadowed by the men with whom she works.  Every time there’s a Peggy story in an episode of this season, I’m thrilled.

All of the other characters in the office strike me as interesting in different ways.  I find it really interesting to see how each of the partners at SCDP get portrayed.  They all have deep flaws (the men, of course, are all remarkably sexist), but they also have unusual positive qualities as well.  Pete Campbell, whom no one in the office likes because of his unapologetic ambition, is also the most socially aware of racial and class tensions (this isn’t saying much in a show where the only nod the writers make towards examining the issue of race in 1966 is having a two episode arc that culminates with the agency hiring a Black secretary in order to save face from a publicity stunt they pulled to mock a rival agency that got bad press for throwing water balloons as a civil rights protest; she immediately becomes a background character who never gets any stories of her own) and has an ongoing plot line built around his growing dissatisfaction with his suburban life that takes a hard turn into exploring the possibility that he’s actually depressed.  Roger Sterling has an experience with LSD that leads him to divorce his second wife (somewhat amicably; the separation isn’t perfect, and Roger definitely has at least one moment where he carelessly ruins something important to his ex) and become an honest bachelor.  He’s still careless and does harmful things around other people, but he at least owns up to it as his identity.  Lane Pryce is the tragic figure in the mix who makes things progressively worse for himself because he’s unable to admit to anyone that he needs help.  Joan Harris is perhaps the most unambiguously sympathetic character in the show.  She manages the office, doing all the parts of work that aren’t any fun while fending off myriad instances of sexual harassment and trying to hold together her personal life.

Overall, I found the fifth season to be pretty good.  The ending, with a number of implications that Don is likely to return to his old patterns after getting out of the professional rut he’s been struggling with, wasn’t so great, but as long as I have the time I’ll probably keep going.  I can at least count on the rest of the office to offer interesting stories while Don continues to go in circles.

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