Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials not the Blu-ray edition under review.
The distinct pleasure of serialized storytelling is the slow burn. It's spending an extended period of time with the same characters, watching them grow, but also tracking them as they grapple with things that may not have consequences for some time to come. Just last night I sat down and read the 12th volume in Mike Mignola's Hellboy comic book series, subtitled The Storm and the Fury, and in it, he drew together a whole spool of threads that he's been dangling since he began the comic in the 1990s. It was honestly thrilling seeing the investment I put into the tale as a reader pay off in such big ways.
While Mad Men: Season Five is maybe not at quite the same monumental juncture as Hellboy vol. 12, it does bring to bear much of what we have been waiting for since the show's debut. In particular, the social change of the 1960s has been looming over these characters in a big way, and though they at times both embraced the new and held it at bay, there's no longer any denying that the past that created these titans of advertising is now a nostalgic memory. The men and women of Sterling, Cooper, Draper & Pryce are now in an era they did not invent, and they are a part of it whether they want to be or not.
Mad Men: Season Five has subplots about equal rights, both in terms of race and gender. It wrestles with the generation gap and the burgeoning youth culture (best represented here in the scenes backstage at a Rolling Stones concert, when there was still a difference between corporate squares and, well...the Rolling Stones). It introduces the darker side of drugs and psychedelics. It opens up bedroom doors and it shows us how the sexual revolution is playing out for different couples. At the same time, it also underlines the fact that the same old power structure still has power. Money will always rule, and the old guys have it, so you better be prepared for how desperately they will hold onto it.
Throughout the initial airing of Mad Men: Season Five--and if you weren't watching then, if you've waited until now, fair warning, you probably shouldn't be reading this, skip to the audio/visual section--the series reinforced its place as the reigning champion of "water cooler television." There was much to be talked about this season: Don Draper's strange relationship and the power games he plays with his new wife; Betty Draper's weight gain; Roger Sterling taking LSD; and perhaps the two hottest issues of all, Joan Harris' earning a partnership role in the firm through less than savory means and the drastic actions of Lane Pryce after he mishandled the firm's money. Both subplots seemed to push the show into even darker territory than before, territory that reflected the changing times. Violence and political turmoil provide the larger backdrop for this cycle of shows. It's 1966, the year of the Univerisity of Texas shootings and Richard Speck's insidious killing spree. The illusion of America's innocence would never be put back together.
Yet, I'd actually posit that the events of Mad Men: Season Five are no more shocking or morally contemptuous than what Matthew Weiner and his team of writers have laid out before. The trick that Mad Men has so masterfully pulled off is that it has slowly eroded our own illusions about how we feel about the Norman Rockwell image of late 1950s Americana, both the realistic interpretation of the times and the ironic glances we cast backwards. As Weiner and crew advance the story forward, they remove our ability to stand back and giggle at how politically incorrect everyone is. It's not the behavior that's changing, it's the context.
For me, Weiner is most successful at this in his depiction of women on the show. For all the attention Don Draper (played, of course, as a piercing enigma by Jon Hamm) gets as the ostensible main character, Mad Men's backbone has always been its incredible female supporting cast. While all of the males on the show are basically jockeying for the same ol' traditional roles both at work and at home, the women are trying to find their way in through a variety of different avenues. The life of Betty Draper (January Jones) is a living, breathing example of what Betty Friedan calls "The Problem That Has No Name"--as is her replacement, albeit unknowingly. Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) represents the younger generation that was getting married before they were mature enough to handle wedded life, and who by rejecting the lives their mothers lived, accidentally stumbled straight into facsimiles thereof. Megan may be trying to balance marriage and career, but she ultimately capitulates to Don's influence. By the end of Season Five, she stops trying to gain for herself and instead lets him arrange things for her.
More devastating, however, is the juxtaposition between Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). While Peggy has endeavored to get by on brains and talent, and while she looks down (along with the modern audience), on women who get ahead via their sexuality, the outcome of Joan's difficult choices is arguably more successful for her than Peggy's. That is not a value judgment on the part of this writer, either; that is just a cruelty that the Mad Men scribes identified and emphasized. Peggy by her own insistence has done everything right, but she ends up beholden to the wrong people; Joan is pushed into a corner and practicality demands she take the less appealing way out. The triumph here is for the writers, who have somehow managed to equalize the two in that, at the base of things, they are both trying to do the right thing.
Of course, for all of this, it's still about Don, and the best parts of these storylines is in how they intersect: how he deals with Peggy's absence and perceived betrayal, and how he tries to be the white knight for Joan. The episode where he and Joan go out for a night and he tries to cheer her up doesn't just satisfy the lusts of fan fiction writers everywhere, it grows a powerful friendship that, in other circumstances, could have been a romance. In fact, when I think back over the first four seasons of Mad Men, nothing really romantic comes to mind. This is new ground! The closest we got to a love story prior was the relationship between Joan and Roger Sterling (John Slattery), a bond that the writers completely unravel as they bring Joan and Don closer together. (As has been pointed out by other commentators, the coat that Joan wears when she becomes the sacrificial lamb originally came from the former lover that is now partly serving her up.) Don's efforts to be the good guy not only contrast strongly with Lane's more fumbling attempts at the same, but they don't even totally jibe with what we've seen from him before.
Yet, if we've paid attention to Don at all in all this time, we know that much of what drives him is his belief that certain ideals are possible and the disappointment that they don't already exist. This manifests in small ways, such as his inability to accept poor work from his underlings, but also in these larger ways: he is a romantic hero, and Joan represents the kind of solid relationship he can never have. Thus, his gestures toward her are all the more heartbreaking, and his failure to stop the unspeakable from happening essential. Mad Men: Season Five finishes the dismantling of the Don Draper construct that was begun in Season Four, only to put it back together again, stronger than ever. It's like John Wayne was exposed for wearing women's underwear underneath his cowboy outfit, only to ride back into town on a bigger horse, wearing a bigger hat, and carrying a bigger gun.
That may be the biggest surprise of all in Season Five. As Lane's British reserve turns to contemporary American anxiety and Roger goes from being a dashing silver-haired lothario into a somewhat laughable mid-life crisis, Matthew Weiner draws a line in the concrete and preserves Don Draper, the man we would have otherwise presumed Mad Men would destroy. What is the alternative? Pete Campbell? Props to Vincent Kartheiser, who has gone from one of the most annoyingly accurate portrayals of an annoying teenager to ever be on TV (the truly loathsome Connor on Joss Whedon's Angel) to now giving us one of the most annoyingly accurate depictions of a Grade-A American simp. You can call him pathetic, but in his way, Pete Campbell is one of the best villains on television. We love to hate him. He is there to drive Don nuts in the same way Christopher drove Tony Soprano nuts on The Sopranos (a series Matthew Weiner worked on). I've compared Don to Big T before, and it grows increasingly apt: they are American myths, the hateful kings of their kingdom that we are drawn to and love anyway. They have their protégés, but they will never measure up because the men these boys follow have blazed the trails and, by doing so, made it too easy for those coming up beind to reach for their goals while also too hard to make their own mark.
Again, this is part of the larger fabric of the Mad Men series, but what makes storytelling of this kind truly special is how the show creators provide us with mini dramas along the way. There are so many good individual episodes in this cycle of shows, so many segments that could stand alone as tragic and wonderful short stories nestled in the greater novel, they leave us with something substantial while we patiently await the final destination. As already mentioned, there are the episodes with Don and Joan, and also the final story with Lane Pryce (the exceptional Jared Harris). There is also the one where Don and Megan are fighting while on the road, which is one of a couple of installments here that play interesting tricks with time. Most impressive, though, and most memorable for me, is the episode with Pete Campbell and his wife (Community's Alison Brie) hosting a dinner party at their home and the metaphor of Pete as the little man trying to capture a full symphony in his tiny stereo. There is something too introspective and self-involved in how entertainment and technology was (is) becoming more compact, and it's all too appropriate for a guy like Pete, seemingly raised to survive only in an office environment, whose main tools are insecurities and posturing. How could he possibly complete with Don Draper's ability to fix a sink?
The show spreads 13 episodes over three discs.
Subtitles are available in English and Spanish. There is also Closed Captioning available.
As is to be expected, the Blu-Ray is packed with audio commentaries, two per episode. Expect to have every nook and cranny examined, off-camera friendships exposed, true tales told; settle in, there's a lot here to go over! The list of commentaries is as follows:
Disc 1 has one 16-minute extra, a collection of quotes and commentary, "Mad Men Say the Darndest Thing." It explores writing for certain characters and shows their personality through popular lines they say.
Disc 2 leads with the fascinating portrait of artist Giorgio de Chrico, who provided the inspiration for Season Five's advertising campaign with the mannequins. The 17-minute "What is There to Love if Not the Enigma?" examines the pre-surrealist work of the painter and the themes contained in his art, which have some parallels with the show's themes. The 23-minute "The Party of the Century" gives the rundown on Truman Capote's famous black-and-white ball, an event contemporary to the show's timeframe. For those looking for more production material, the near half-hour "Scoring Mad Men: Themes of Season 5" takes us behind the scenes as David Carbonara works.
Disc 3 is a little light on the supplements, swinging back toward the historical. The 5-minute "The Uniform Time Act of 1966" looks at the introduction of Daylight Savings Time, and there is also a gallery of Newsweek covers from around the world, highlighting events that would have happened during Mad Men: Season Five.
The extras are in high-def.