It took almost two years to get season five of Mad Men on our screens but, wow, what a season it was. From the very first episode, it really felt like the series had come back trying to prove that it hadn’t fallen out of favour because of that lost time. Throughout season five, you could sense the writers and producers trying to reflect that the show is still relevant despite every other show being allowed to continue on for the year when they missed out. And to the show’s credit they certainly achieved that. Mad Men and Don Draper remain absolutely entertaining
Season five treated the viewer to some very big, dramatic moments. Megan quit copywriting to become an actor, Peggy quit Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to make it on her own and Lane Pryce quit life by hanging himself in the office so that all of the partners would have to see. Pryce’s vengeance is undoubtedly the biggest moment of the season but it is especially brilliant when you re-watch the season and are reminded of all the little moments where Lane’s dissatisfaction was simmering under the surface. From the picture in the wallet to punching out Campbell for jeopardising the account, Lane Pryce was slowly becoming to resent his place in the world and his part in SCDP. Even the little moments, like Pete Campbell discussing his life insurance policy on the train add to the overall substance of the story. And, though I recognise it as a fine piece of writing, I will be sad to see the character of Lane Pryce go. Jared Harris was a terrific actor and hope he goes from this into something even bigger. Another Sherlock Holmes film perhaps?
After so many big moments throughout the season it is understandable that a few people are criticising the final episode, The Phantom, for being a bit lacklustre. Though understandable, I disagree that the lack of a big, final moment to end on make the episode a poor choice for a finale. I think it is subtle and often Mad Men is at its finest when it is being subtle and reserved. The image of the five partners standing on the empty floor above their office was immensely satisfying. It reminded me of the poster for season four with Don Draper standing in an empty room with just a telephone. In both cases, it seemed to symbolise a new beginning; a wide open space ready to be conquered. And it only serves to make Pryce’s death more tragic when you consider his debts and the sudden financial wealth of the company.
But the main story for the final episode was the crashing point for another simmering issue throughout the season. Megan Draper was still struggling to get her break as an actress. As the show progressed she became bitterer with every passing rejection and ended up completely lowering her standards. Don, as we’ve seen in previous episodes such as Babylon, is not particularly keen on the pseudo-artist types who seem to think that what they do is somehow more creative than what he does for a living. He even expressed this sentiment when Megan asked him to swing the commercial role for her. Another little irony; she could have been in a commercial earlier had she stayed with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and done the Cool Whip advert.
This storyline is particularly interesting, however, because it has revealed a side of Megan that was previously unknown to the viewer. In the season four finale, we saw her as caring and calm, even when the children misbehaved. A stark contrast to Betty Francis. But, as we saw this season, she could get very angry. There were a few times that she was angrier than I think we’ve ever seen Betty, most notably at dinner when Don stumbled in after being out all night with Joan in Christmas Waltz. She has found that she’s good at something that doesn’t give her satisfaction but is unable to find a job in the one thing that she truly desires. By the finale episode, she is broken and her mother’s comfort is to tell her that maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. A true, if somewhat harsh, statement. But Megan isn’t the type to give up like that.
The situation she placed Don in was a difficult one. He could use his power and sway as creative director to heavily recommend his wife for the part or he could deny her the dream she’s had since she was little. And, he must know, even in part, that if he gave her what she wanted that it would kick start her career and then she would be off to film shoots and Broadway. Realistically, he would go home to an empty house every night. We’ve seen what Don was like when he had an empty home to go to, even if it was only figuratively empty, and we’ve seen what he became with Megan by his side; faithful, noble and responsible with his drink. I think the show does a very good job of showing us that Don is afraid to let Megan go if it means he might not be that kind of man any more.
As Megan correctly pointed out, Don had never seen her act. When he watched the acting reel, the viewer can see him smile. It was then that you knew he was going to give her the role and let her go, regardless of the consequences on himself, because he saw how happy she was. Because he loves her, it seemed natural that Don would sacrifice his own happiness for hers. As a viewer, it’s hard not to remember lines from Joan and Roger such as ‘That’s the kind of girl that Don marries’ and ‘Go home and show her there’s a routine’. It became very clear that Don was being pulled in two directions through the season even before this ultimatum came along.
Yet, it led on to the apparently subtle and understated ending of the finale. Don walked away from the shooting set, saying goodbye to his wife and going to a bar. When he is approached by two women who ask whether he’s alone or not the episode ended, leaving the viewer to wonder both about his answer and what will come. But that question of ‘Are you Alone?’ has many connotations and many answers. Although married, his wife’s acting dream has certainly left him alone and, as creator Matthew Weiner noted in a recent interview, being alone and cheating may not follow on from one another. It will be interesting to see if the leaf he turned will stick. And yet, Weiner has also suggested Jessica Paré, who plays Megan, may be leaving the show. The question is, will she leave because of divorce or because she’ll be too busy off somewhere acting in the background?
In terms of endings, it’s not a big, oh-my-god moment. It doesn’t shock you to your very core and it isn’t a game changer. But it is interesting and it leaves plenty of questions about where the characters are in their lives and where they could potentially go in the next couple seasons. I think it does more for the show as a finale than what one of the bigger moments might have done for the show because, personally, I absolutely can’t wait until next year to watch season six.