Recap: ‘Mad Men’: Great expectations
It is quite possible that as soon as I write this next paragraph a giant hole will open up beneath my chair and I’ll free fall in to a special version of hell in which the only thing to watch on TV is ‘Newlyweds’ reruns and a version of ‘Dawson’s Creek’ without Pacey Witter. The only people I’ll have to converse with will be Kim Bauer, Oliver Trask and Greg the Rapist. But I’m going to say it anyway.
This season of ‘Mad Men’ was weak.
Now, saying that a season of ‘Mad Men’ is weak is basically saying it’s on par with the best of the rest of television (‘The Wire,’ “Breaking Bad,’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica’ excluded, obviously). The show is still levels above even the best network shows. But this season just didn’t feel the same as the stellar four that came before it. And after waiting 17 long months for the fifth season I feel kind of like I was ripped off.
Like, that was it? That’s all you got, Weiner?
There seems to be a general consensus among TV critics that this season’s overhanded and obvious symbolism was its biggest problem. And I tend to agree. ‘Mad Men’ has always had fairly overt symbolism, but for all of its obviousness, it usually spoke for itself. It was there, but the writers would let the viewer suss it out on their own, let them come upon it naturally – not have someone literally standing there telling them what it means.
Apparently this season it was determined that viewers weren’t smart enough to discover the symbolism or the overarching themes on their own. It seems like once an episode characters were spelling it out for us in big neon letters with flashing lights and arrows overhead screaming, “Hey, folks! Look here! This is what it all means!”
I have the utmost respect for the cast and crew of ‘Mad Men’, and I guess maybe I’ve put them on a pedestal and it’s my own fault that I’m disappointed. But the show has won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series four years in a row – only the third television show to pull off that feat (‘Hill Street Blues’ won it from 1981-84 and ‘The West Wing’ from 2000-03) and so I think my expectations are warranted.
And again, I’m not saying this season was a dud. In fact, there were many memorable moments that will probably stick with me for quite some time. Like finally seeing Joan call out and kick out Greg the Rapist. Like Roger opening the vodka bottle while on LSD and having the music pour out. Like Pete getting punched in the face (finally!) by several different people. Or Don kissing Peggy’s hand after she breaks up with him for the enemy. Or seeing Lane’s lifeless body hanging by a rope from his office. Or Roger Sterling’s bare ass. These images will definitely stick with me.
But as a whole, this season is probably my least favorite. And the theme of the season – what do you do after you’ve found success and happiness? – seems to be the same problem plaguing the series itself. This show has set the bar for extraordinary television. We’ve come to expect so much from this show that when it missteps it seems like a major fall, whereas on a lesser show it wouldn’t make as much of a difference.
I don’t want to say that I’m happiest with this show when its characters are falling headfirst into a downward spiral (Don Draper style, not pathetic Pete Campbell style), but there is something to be said about the drama that comes with that sort of situation.
Happy people – even unhappy people who think they’re happy – are not as interesting as people making bad decisions or doing bad things. There is a reason that the best shows on TV right now tend to have antiheroes and not classical heroes at the head of their tables (think ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Justified’ or ‘Sons of Anarchy’).
I understand that the writers were trying to give the characters, and us, a view of the other side. Here’s what it looks like when your dreams seemingly come true, but now that you’re here, what do you do? What is the next dream that you want?
Like I said, the writers spelled it out for us all season, most notably when Don told the men at Dow Chemical, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”
We’ve all been so happy with this show that we were waiting with bated breath for this new season to make us just as happy. But when it didn’t deliver the way we – or at least I – thought it would, we’re left holding the remote.
Watching Don walk away from the brightly lit commercial set with Megan dressed as the Beauty and into a dark, empty sound stage was a beautiful shot, one that I will remember – and one I’m willing to bet most viewers will remember – for a long time to come. But it was also yet another painfully obvious symbol that was meant to show us his return to the reckless, dark and detrimental ways of early season one.
He’s leaving behind the fake happiness he thought he had found with Megan for what is probably the darkest timeline of all. Because he realized that what he had with Megan, while shiny and new, wasn’t what he wanted either. This is a man who’s constantly reinvented himself and still hasn’t been able to hold on to his happiness. And that’s the point of this entire show and the advertising world it’s set in, isn’t it? We tell ourselves lies in order to rationalize what we think will make us happy, but that happiness never lasts. We’re always searching for something more.
And so when the woman comes up to him in the bar and asks him if he’s alone, we don’t need to see Don’s answer. We’ve been watching Don’s unraveling all season. We already know what he’s going to say.
Note: Photo courtesy of AMC.