The end of Mad Men's fifth season

22:18, Jul 01 2012

The latest season of Mad Men, its fifth overall, came to a close on SoHo on Saturday night, ending with a puzzlingly sparse episode that seemed anticlimactic compared to the excitement of the week before. Naturally, I have plenty of thoughts, but before we go any further ...

(Warning: Spoilers from Season 5 of Mad Men follow.)

The fifth season of Mad Men seemed like a different show than what it had been in years past and, while part of that was probably due to the massive layoff between seasons (the fourth finished nearly 18 months ago), I think the main reason was that it was more accessible to casual viewers than ever before.

Past seasons of Mad Men were caked in subtlety, overflowing with subtext that suited multiple viewings, and multiple readings, of what was happening on the show. This year seemed easier to follow, easier to enjoy for enjoyments sake, with story events and motives that were easy to see and easy to follow. It might not have been the cleverest season, in terms of the writing - even though Matthew Weiner's writing is still as brilliant as ever and still maintained plenty of the quirkiness that makes Mad Men such a great show - but it might have been the most fun.

Perhaps that is why Saturday's finale felt like such a letdown, an hour in which it seemed like very little happened (Don had a tooth removed, Pete's would-be mistress had the same electro-shock treatment as Carrie on Homeland, SCDP inherited the coveted second floor) despite plenty happening at a somewhat analytical level.

Much of it goes back to a scene last week, in that penultimate episode, where Don delivers his best pitch of the season to Dow Chemical. "What is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness," says Don. "I won't settle for fifty percent of anything - I want a hundred percent. You're happy with your agency?! You're not happy with anything! You don't want most of it, you want all of it. And I won't stop until you get all of it."

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If you look at the characters this season, think about their motivations for doing what they did, a lot of it is because of an understanding that you can't settle for most - you have to chase all.

Take Don: for most of the season, we saw him being faithful to Megan and playing the perfect husband as part of the perfect marriage, and part of that was because Megan was the perfect wife, emotionally and intellectually available to him both at work and at home. Yet, as soon as Megan's own ambition starts to move her further away from Don, his eye starts wandering again. Don doesn't want most of a perfect marriage, he wants all of it - and that lack of perfection is what starts him on that familiar trail, the beginnings of which we saw in that ambiguous final scene.

Then there was Lane, who desperately wanted to fit in with his American co-workers, to the point that he was neglecting himself and his marriage, chasing an affair with Joan, making terrible financial and professional decisions, and all the rest. Lane didn't want most of his American dream, he wanted all of it - and his failure to achieve that dream, much more than his failure to properly pay his taxes, is ultimately what (I think) drove him to suicide last week.*

Even Peggy and Joan reflected that theme a few weeks ago, with Peggy chasing all of her dream at Cutler Gleason & Chaough and Joan chasing hers in the form of a partnership at SCDP, instead of staying in place and settling for most of their respective dreams. The notion of chasing all of what you want, instead of settling for most (or merely some) of it, even flowed into the choice of song at the end of the finale (Nancy Sinatra's "You Only Live Twice").

Of course, this is just one way of looking at this season of Mad Men. For all I know, this might have nothing to do with the latest season and I might be way off base - and I haven't even mentioned Roger's newfound love of LSD, the introduction of Ginsberg, the joy of seeing Pete get his butt kicked twice in a season, or the stellar performances from most of the cast (especially Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and Vincent Kartheiser). But that is what I thought of the latest season, a great collection of episodes and a welcome return for one of the best dramas on television.

What did you think of Mad Men this year? Did you enjoy Season 5?

(*) I loved the moment when Lane tried to suffocate himself in his brand new Jaguar only it wouldn't start, referencing the talk earlier throughout the season about how unreliable Jaguars are. A perfect example of how clever the writing is on Mad Men.

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