Hi again, and welcome back to Revisiting Mad Men as we enter what many (most?) would consider Mad Men‘s peak. What makes it so, aside from a series of astonishing, cohesive standalone episodes like “Signal 30”, “Far Away Places”, “The Other Woman”, and the powerful single through-line of Don’s new marriage and newfound fidelity?
I’m going to tentatively argue it’s because it’s the season that’s not about advertising. Or rather, not about SCDP.
In my season 1 review I commented that this was the only season where the agency doesn’t seem to be a character with its own inherent stakes. The business is at the exact same status and level of respect, with the same major clients and employee roster, in “The Wheel” as in the pilot. Things happen at Sterling-Coo from week to week, of course, but nothing that fundamentally brings in a sense of stakes or changes the company status quo. There’s never a sense that clients are overall being lost or gained.
Season 2 introduced the idea of the agency trying and failing to move onto a new tier of business, pitching for American, and showed us Sterling-Coo was not the center of the advertising world – or anything close to it – just because it’s the center of the characters’ world. Season 3’s tensions were driven by lingering questions about the character and fate of Sterling-Cooper, and Season 4, for most of its runtime, wasn’t “about” anything other than the thrill of a new agency working in new ways.
And now we get to the season where the men (Don, Roger, Pete, Ken…) check out in favor of extracurricular pursuits, allowing new work rivalries and animosities to go unchecked and not really caring as much as they should when they boil over. If the agency used to be the “bandage over an open wound” for most of these men, other, more personal bandages have now offered themselves up.
Joan’s journey into single parenthood takes up most of her time, and when her old climber ambitions do come front-and-center at work again, it’s only because she’s been confronted with a request so odious, using it and scraping some status out of it is the only thing she can salvage from the situation.
Peggy may still be defined by work in general, but both in her personal life and at the office, she’s no longer at all defined by the old codes and expectations of the SCDP partners, and she’s not defined by Don. Many want Megan to be the new Peggy – and the show, perhaps, sets you up to want that for her – but she’s not pulled in by the allure of advertising which Peggy never questioned.
In other words, it’s a season of people caring startlingly little about SCDP, after a previous season of people who often seemed to have nothing else going for them but the dream of “new business”. Their personal bonds with each other haven’t quite changed, and the abstract concept of advertising still holds the same pull it did on certain people (Don, Peggy, Michael), but Don isn’t the only one settling down in Season 5. The show itself is settling down and settling in, showing people who, in a variety of ways, were once desperate for purpose and now have embarrassing riches of competing extracurricular purposes to choose from – babies, newlywed life, job offers outside the agency, new drugs, suburban affairs.
(Michael, the most significant new character, is of course the glaring exception. He cares a great deal about the agency he’s joined, and doesn’t have any other contenders for what his identity should be, but he’s come in at an unfortunate time to get invested. I, for one, absolutely believe Don when he says “I don’t think about you at all”, which is what makes it one of the harshest lines in the series. Michael can get neither the intense rivalry nor the intense mentorship Don and Peggy of other years would have been happy to provide him, which makes you wonder how good he could have gotten at his job if he had had that.)
And then there’s Lane Pryce. Lane still cares about SCDP, in the same faintly desperate way so many people did in 1964. Lane doesn’t know what else to care about. Pete was easily talked out of putting collateral on his house to help SCDP stay afloat in season 4, but Lane had less reason to resist putting it all on the line. It’s no coincidence that the one character who really, truly stayed invested in the romantic idea of SCDP, the scrappy new agency, after Season 4 can’t survive Season 5.
But that’s just one take on the season, which had the most mature tone yet to go along with its characters growing past the agency, giving up on old dreams there, and chasing purpose elsewhere. Truth be told, Season 5 is best appreciated for its standalone hours (and its standout Megan and Michael content), and I’m more excited to take a look at individual episodes than to advance some sort of thesis linking them together.