SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read this if you haven’t seen every single second of every single episode of Mad Men Season 5. You’ve been warned.
1. Overall, what grade would you give the season?
MR: B. When it was good — Peggy’s exit, Roger’s LSD trip, Sally’s “dirty” — it was really good. Unfortunately, this was largely a season of peaks and valleys. I’ve grown accustomed to Mad Men’s trademark early season slow burn, and I chalk up the so-so first three hours to that tendency. But many of the b-storylines — fat Betty; poor Lane; Krishna Harry — failed to hold my interest, and there’s really no getting around the fact that not a ton actually happened, at least as far as our leading man is concerned. Season 5 was funny, sad and moving. Just never for long enough.
NT: B-. I agree, there were some very memorable images, and for the most part it was enjoyable. But I often found myself at the end of each episode trying to piece together what I just saw, rather than feeling it outright. It was rarely engaging — almost clinical in its assembly — and aside from a couple instances, like the nightmarish “Mystery Date,” the episodes (and season) lacked the tonal cohesion of seasons past.
OSC: B+/A-. Did you both forget that we were on a 17-month Don Draper hiatus? The only other comeback I’ve ever given this much of a shit about was Jordan in 1995 (coincidentally, also a 17-month wait). Perhaps the time apart did make my heart grow fonder, but I’ll own that, and you’ll get no low honor roll grading here. My favorite thing about the season was seeing how many characters were starting out in completely new situations (Doting Husband Don?), then watching their regression to the mean or, in a few cases, their rebranding (Partner/Working Girl/Ma Joan?). It was a different lens cast onto the same familiar faces, and the characters now feel more whole for it.
BG: A-. For all the complaints that I could make, Mad Men Season 5 offered Roger’s enlightenment (though it “wore off”), Michael Ginsberg’s emergence, Glen’s nasty-but-awesome ‘stache and Hare Krishna (Krishna Krishna). Oh, and Pete got punched in the face three times. I can’t bring myself to drop that to a B.
2. What was your biggest takeaway from the finale?
NT: Matt Weiner thinks we need more of a wrap up than we actually do. Aside from Peggy’s gratifying return to the screen, the first 50 minutes of action only confirmed everything we already knew. Don’s and Megan’s conflicting views on personal fulfillment are propelling them toward a break; Pete’s philandering is an attempt to “bandage an open wound;” Roger is getting used to his need for cheap thrills; and despite SCDP’s commercial success, money isn’t buying anyone love. Just ask Rebecca Pryce. Mr. Weiner promised an “orgasmic” finale, but I — like many of our Season 5 brethren — am hoping for something better on the other side.
OSC: The sheer pleasure from the season’s final moments. Set to Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice,” and after a season with the overt theme of every man/woman for himself and large character progression, the montage was an inventory list of just what everyone has become: Peggy, the burgeoning ad exec starting off on her journey to follow in Don’s footsteps like she always wanted; Roger, a continuation of the aging smart-ass with a free soul, now with another vice and still no clear idea of what he wants from life; Pete, a smug little man who finally found himself a seat at the grown-up table only to realize he doesn’t have a taste for the lobster; Megan, a young woman starring in a consequences-be-damned dream she couldn’t obtain on her own that will likely spoil her marriage; and Don, a man who tried to change himself (yet again) only to realize that happiness is just the moment before you need more happiness, and is about to return to form. There’s so much to look forward to.
MR: That the penultimate episode was better? And the one before that, too? I hate to be such a Debbie Downer, but this finale really failed to deliver. Just think of what past Mad Men finales have given us: the possibility of a Don/Betty divorce; the birth of a new agency; the shock of the Don-Megan union. This finale gave us Roger’s ass, and while I think we can all agree that was a tremendous moment, it did not an epic finale make. We got other memorable images as well: the partners spreading out across their new office space, Joan standing proudly in the middle; Don watching Megan’s reel, so much love in his eyes; Don walking away from Megan on her commercial set (symbolism 101!), finding himself alone (or is he?) shortly thereafter at a bar; and of course, Pete getting punched in the face two.more.times. We also enjoyed a nice little impromptu scene with Don and Peggy, and we got the sense that Peggy is going to be just fine without Don (more on that later). But there’s the rub: The finale felt like a collection of beautiful moments and images more than a story. And so did much of the season.
BG: Everyone hating on the finale, huh? To me, “The Phantom” was actually pretty good. There were the obvious highlights — Roger’s glorious ass, Pete’s incredible train sequence — but there was also a deeper, less intuitive gratification. In a very subtle series of shots, Matthew Weiner offered a recap, and a preview, of what to expect from each character. Though the two previous episodes indicated otherwise, Mad Men thrives on its buildup. The show emphasizes details over outcome, and more often than not, such sequences are more telling of a character’s internal monologue. Sure, there was no shocking event that paralleled Peggy leaving or Lane hanging himself. But Roger seems to have changed (Marie Calvet is Jane’s polar opposite), Don seems to be approaching inner peace (something clicked after his visit to the dentist and his film-viewing of Megan) and Pete seems to have hit rock bottom (he’s been completely erased from Beth Dawes’ memory). Entering Season 6, plenty remains unanswered. That’s exactly what I want.
3. Which character had the most compelling Season 5 storyline?
OSC: I know the easy answer is Joan, but I’m going with the human punching bag Pete Campbell. Is it more fun to see anyone else on TV go through trials and tribulations? From his highs — Don! Don! Look at my hi-fi system! — to his lows — literally being erased from his fling Beth’s memory — Pete never failed at being probably the most annoyingly entertaining character on Mad Men this spring. And just think, when we next see him, he’ll most likely have his own apartment in the city…
BG: Since you’re passing on Joan, I’ll certainly take her. Our favorite busty redhead left her husband, rejected Lane’s advances and slept with sleazy Jaguar dealer Herb Rennet (for a five percent partnership!). Like Don (the other clear choice here), she’s been on a season-long search for happiness, one that ultimately left her unsatisfied. But her most compelling scene was her test drive turned bar date with Don. The sexual tension between the two has been building since Season 1, and — if only for a fleeting moment — fans thought they might be treated to the most epic hook-up in television history. But then the world would’ve exploded. It’s probably better that it didn’t happen.
MR: My first thoughts were Joan and Pete, but since OSC and BG covered those so well I’ll go with Roger. (Actually, one quick series crossover thought on Pete: If he lived in modern times, would he be part of the Californication “Fucking and Punching” chronicle or what?!) Roger admittedly dipped off in the season’s second half, but he had such a memorable stretch early on that it doesn’t even matter. His LSD trip was one of the funniest things Mad Men has ever done, the “truth” he and Jane found together after one of the most moving. His fling with Megan’s mom was vintage Silver Fox, the ensuing courtship classic needy Roger. His feud with Pete was arguably the most compelling bit of office drama (until Lane’s subterfuge and suicide, at least), his confidant relationship with Don as enjoyable as ever (even with infinitely less joint screen time this season). In a season full of aborted enlightenment, Roger was one of the few characters who actually sought out growth and understanding instead of settling for, well, settling.
NT: Wow, way to leave me with a whole lotta nothing. I was going to go with Roger – -he’s the only one who’s succeeding in his pursuit of happiness, cheap or not. But I’ll make a claim for Peggy. The future Ms. Virginia Slims was all over the place this season, from a clumsy sleep over with Dawn to an even more inept “proposal” dinner, not to mention a fearsome number of outbursts. It wasn’t long before she realized it wasn’t worth the trouble, and by now she’s capable of getting just what she wants. She’s on the road, in a seedy motel drinking a glass of something brown – -and she couldn’t be happier. Just don’t look out the window.
4. Least compelling?
MR: Fat Betty. I get it. January Jones used to be one of the show’s stars, and the creators didn’t want to kick her completely to the curb after the Draper divorce. But while hiding Jones’ real-life pregnancy with a fat suit might have been a creative necessity, it was also a creative dud. Aside from one hilarious whipped cream craving, this subplot bored me to tears. And if possible, it made Betty even less sympathetic and likeable as a wife, mother and general human being.
NT: Beth Dawes. So Pete Campbell needs to have a little fun too, I’m cool with that. I actually found his cathouse escapades with Jaguar exec. Edwin intriguing (and hilarious). But the apple of his eye, and source of distraction throughout the season, is a Gilmore Girl? Even she wasn’t interested in being part of his story, until she conveniently reappeared in the finale to tie in a shock therapy/let’s forget our past and everything we’ve done wrong metaphor. I like the parallel, but it couldn’t have come from a staler character.
OSC: Trudy Campbell. Although a case can be made for Harry Crane, I’m picking Trudy because she’s probably the only character on the show who annoys me more than her husband (but with no entertainment value). Cos Cob? Nighties during the day? Pool planning sketches with Pete painted in? The only important thing I can remember her doing all season is setting Pete free by granting his Manhattan apartment. I’ll take Annie Edison every day of the week.
BG: Fat Betty, and her largely forgettable mission to shed weight while pounding ice cream sundaes. But I will give her this: She, inarguably, delivered the best Thanksgiving speech of all time. “I’m thankful that I have everything I want and that no one has anything better.” Perfect.
5. What was the best moment or scene?
OSC: Hands down, Don finding the empty elevator shaft in “Lady Lazarus.” First off, the sheer surprise of the moment made it one of the most memorable scenes in the show’s history (there aren’t many ‘catch you off guard’ moments in Mad Men). But the symbolism at play is all sorts of wonderful. What we have before our eyes is the exact moment when Don’s new marriage has fallen apart. Megan, his perfect new wife, has just exited his work place, quickly on the path to becoming (we soon learn) just another Betty — a pretty lady living off of Don’s success and wealth, with no risk to drive her to be anything more. And Don is faced with the reality that he will need to find another way to satisfy himself.
MR: Peggy’s farewell with Don. If I may self-quote from our finale preview: “Though the seeds had been planted, it still felt like we’d had the rug pulled out from under us. To me, the Don-Peggy relationship has always been the heart of the show. … Don’s ‘let’s pretend that I’m not responsible for every good thing that’s happened to you’ line delivered exactly the right mix of truth and cruelty, but when it came down to it, the venom subsided and we were left with respect, love and understanding in its purest form. Peggy extended her hand for a shake, Don took it and kissed it, holding on just a bit too long. There was so much, and yet nothing, left to say. The episode was called’ The Other Woman,’ and while the name applied to multiple subplots, it spoke, at the most basic level, to Peggy’s role in Don’s life. No matter the wife or the mistress, Peggy was always the other woman for Don. The one he didn’t need to dote on. The one he didn’t need to impress. The one he couldn’t lose … until he did.” This was a defining moment for the season. Ultimately, it should prove a defining moment for the series.
BG: Is this really a question? For all of the memorable moments this season brought us, none can lay a finger on Roger’s outrageous LSD trip. It was the type of scene that we never saw coming — kind of like Tywin’s horse’s appearance in the Game of Thrones finale — that left us completely overjoyed. To recap: Roger attended a strange dinner party with Jane. He ate a white, sugar cube-looking block, and then watched as a couple across the room felt each other’s faces. Then things really got good. An uncorked vodka bottle started playing opera music, Roger’s cigarette shrunk like a sliding trombone, Roger imagined himself with split black and silver hair, Bert Cooper appeared on a $5 bill and Roger viewed the 1919 World Series from his bathtub. Then Roger successfully ended his marriage. It was simply amazing. I would try to elaborate, but I’d be doing the scene an injustice. Just cue up this clip, drop some acid and enjoy.
NT: It was no question Roger’s trip, but to save us from redundancy I’ll go with the bar scene following Don’s and Joan’s Jaguar test drive. “Christmas Waltz” was an odd episode, it got the worst domestic viewership of the season with a 1.92 rating and many complained that the story moved too conveniently; it was called “transparent and soapy.” But within that style, we were given the opportunity to bask in the semisynthetic romance between two of the show’s most powerful and sexual characters. While I never actually expected them to skip off to a hotel room — or the back of the cherry red Jaguar XKE (do they have backseats?) — you can’t deny the allure of Joan and Don in Midtown. Don, with that look on his face.
6. Which new character made the biggest impact?
NT: It seemed like Michael Ginsberg was going to have a much bigger impact this season when he arrived in “Tea Leaves,” but he soon seemed to slip into the zone of the Harry Cranes and Ken Cosgroves — important to the company but not a needle pusher on the season narrative. Upon reflection I realize he only won Jaguar for the team, edged Peggy out of her position in the company and, fitting the show’s general trend of social change, diversified the office as SCDP’s first Jewish presence. Maybe it was the errant promises of seeing more of his home life or hints of a greater clash with Don that distracted me from the actual impact he was making — through quality, hard-nosed work.
OSC: If the show was about the work, it would be called The Pitch, so I’m going to have disagree with NT here. I say Megan Draper. Sure sure, she’s not technically ‘new’ to the season, but she’s new to being a major character. So major, in fact, that she drove the action across most aspects of the show: from the office to the home, from Sally and Betty to Don and Roger (via one promiscuous and cold-hearted mother in the case of Sterling). Unfortunately for her, it seems that her lasting impact will be what she has (re)turned Don into in the season’s final scene — his old self.
MR: Fear not, NT, you’ve got my support! Mrs. Calvet certainly made her presence felt; Beth was bland as all get-out, but she played a key part in one of the season’s most compelling storylines; and I suspect Dawn will prove to be a major player in what should be a race-charged Season 6. But the answer’s clearly Ginsberg. He might be annoying, but he’s also got a bizarrely magnetic quality about him. More importantly, he’s a huge part of the reason Peggy’s gone and Don’s on a mental walkabout. Don may claim not to think about Ginsberg at all, but the rest of us certainly do.
BG: If the question involves impact, a notion all three of you alluded to, can we really overlook Beth Dawes? She may be bland. She may be whiny and nonsensical. But she’s a total babe (those eyes!) and caused potentially irreparable damage to Pete’s psyche. Imagine falling in love with someone and having that person forget you completely. For all that Lane’s suicide fucked with Don’s head, this might prove to have an even more unremitting impact on Pete.
7. Speaking of Pete: Who will punch him in the face next?
BG: Isn’t it obvious? EVERYBODY will punch Pete Campbell by the end of Season 6. Here’s how I envision it playing out: Pete will strut into the next partner meeting to announce that SCDP is now in the running for JoS. A. Bank. Don, infuriated because he wears much nicer suits, will immediately respond by breaking Pete’s nose. Pete will naturally hit the desk during his fall, and blood will stream steadily down his face. As he gathers himself, Pete will say something like, “I don’t need you. I get all the new business, anyway.” Roger will take offense and promptly strap on some brass knuckles to wallop Pete’s forehead. Stunned and delirious, Pete will stagger to his feet. Only as he’s getting up, Joan will meet him with a swift uppercut to the chin. She’ll say, “That’s for whoring me out,” and will stick her high heel in his eye. A barely conscious Pete will then leave to take the early train home — where he’s again decked by the conductor — and will arrive to find Trudy sleeping with Howard. Howard will gleefully offer a roundhouse punch to his temple, and Trudy will follow suit by dislocating his jaw. An unseen narrator will then utter “Finish him!” and Pete’s baby will poop on his face.
MR: What he said! Other thoughts: I’d love to see Joan deck Pete after their super frosty exchange vis-a-vis the sex-for-Jaguar deal Pete struck. I’d get a real kick of out seeing Ken smack Pete the first time Campbell interferes with Dow Chemical. And I’d really like to see Trudy punch Pete once she finally figures out (again) what a slimy piece of shit he is. But few things would bring me as much joy as seeing Roger level Pete, his mentee-turned-rival. Obviously, double bonus points if Roger is getting a hummer from Megan’s mom before, after or while PPCing.
NT: Seems like all other bases are covered so I’ll just go with Tammy Campbell. For giving her such a bland name and an even worse haircut.
OSC: Would it be too much to ask that, on the show’s finale, every character lines Full Metal Jacket style and one-by-one, cold cocks a whimpering Campbell in the face? If yes, then my guess is Don’s new black secretary Dawn.
8. Enlightenment was a big theme this season. Did any character actually experience one?
MR: In the finale, Pete tells a brain-fried Beth about a “friend” who realized his family was a “temporary bandage on a permanent wound.” As beautiful as the line was, and as much as it gave us to chew on, it felt, more than anything, like an excuse. So much of this season was about Don falling out of time (cue opening credits), caught in a state of cognitive dissonance, knowing he should be overjoyed about his seemingly perfect marriage and job but experiencing existential dread nonetheless. Suddenly, Don doesn’t know the Rolling Stones. Suddenly, Don can’t write the best Sno Ball pitch. Suddenly, Don isn’t cool. But Don remains, if nothing else, self-aware. “What is happiness?” He asks at the Dow Chemical pitch. “It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” And while that may be true, it equates to a state of arrested development more than a state of enlightenment. In the Mad Men universe, the bandage is temporary, and so is the clarity our characters experienced in Season 5. Except for the ones dropping acid, of course.
NT: I’d say Joany had a sort of quiet enlightenment. She started off the season with a bang kicking Hurt Locker hubby Greg to the curb leaving her, baby Kevin and smother, Gail, to fend for themselves. And aside from a horrible taste in names (seriously what’s with these parents, I guess these were the days before Suri and Blue Ivy) and a disconcerting decision she was forced to make for the Jaguar account, the blustery red head made her way to a share in the company. She always seemed to be the kind of girl who wouldn’t take flak from anyone, and while she’s not as obstinate as Peggy, she put into action her brazen personality when it mattered most. Fully enlightened? Far from it, but without question she surprised and impressed herself this season.
BG: Even though he said it wore off, it’s gotta be Roger. His LSD-induced divorce freed him from the shackles of his previously stagnant life, allowing him to mingle at social functions with Sally and seduce Megan’s mother. Roger may have had a temporary setback, and there’s no justifiable excuse for allowing Pete to pimp Joan out. But in the closing moments of the finale, as his bare backside gleamed triumphantly across our TV screens, the message was clear: Roger figured it out. The world can kiss his ass.
9. How did Don respond to the pickup in the bar?
BG: After thinking for a moment, Don stared into his scotch, glanced briefly at the woman and turned quickly to the bartender. “I need a napkin,” he said. Then he reached for a pen in his pocket, scribbled a quick note and left the bar dramatically. The friend glanced at the napkin, puzzled by Don’s message. Meet me at Howard Johnson’s. P.S. Do you like orange sherbet?
MR: I really hope he passed. I’ve said all along that Don and Megan are doomed, and that while the show is clearly setting up Megan to be the one who runs, it ultimately has to be Don. He’s self-destructive by nature, incapable of ever letting his happiness be more than a moment before another moment. And while I suppose it’s natural that Don’s short-circuited enlightenment would end in adultery, this would just feel like such a … cheat. Don never came close to straying this season. Sure, he lost control of Megan for good when she landed a national commercial, but he’s Don, so he probably filed that under the “let’s pretend that I’m not responsible for every good thing that’s happened to you” category he usually reserves for Peggy. If Season 6 opens with Don in bed with one of those floozies, I’m going to pretty disappointed. Not just in Don, but in myself for believing people can really change, and in the show for believing they can’t.
OSC: MR, I think there’s a name for what you’re stricken with: delusion. Is there any question how Don responded? He absolutely slept with the beauty at the end of the bar. But before he did, as he and his new admirer were leaving, he shot a passing look at the other friend that lingered with her. They ran into each other at a bar a few weeks later, and he slept with her too. Don Draper, in all his flawed glory, is back, people. And in the sickest twist, he’s back because he gave Megan everything she wanted — the commercial — which made her everything he didn’t want. I think Don intended to change, MR, but realized that many things around him were following the same old patterns, and gave in, resigned.
NT: There’s no question that Don said yes, but forget the girls at the bar, I want to know who’s next. Don is sick of random bar hook ups and receptionists, even actresses bore him (commercial actresses at least). He doesn’t want the girl who has to audition; he wants the girl who gets discovered. So I’m predicting a high profile mistress to accompany him through his and Megan’s inevitable decline.
10. Early Season 6 predictions?
NT: It may be wishful thinking, but I think it’s all about to get weird. Not like euphonic Stoli bottle weird, but a no-holds-barred do fest. Pete with an apartment in the city, Roger with a seemingly endless acid hook-up and Don with too little discretion and too much Canadian Club spells trouble, not to mention they’ve got money to blow. I don’t think we’ll make it to 1969 in Season 6, but the prospect of Woodstock, the moon landing and the Manson murders infiltrating this world is too sweet, and if we don’t get there yet please add more period relevant events. Being backstage at the Rolling Stones concert ruled; now get Don to London near the end of the decade, sit him on a bench outside the Apple building and have him look up.
OSC: I agree with NT. As we’ve seen already in the show, when business is good, the personnel acts badly. I expect debauchery, blood and heartache (obviously). But more, I expect another death. I expect a drastic shift in power. And I expect we begin to see traces of the downfall of the Sterlings/Coopers/Drapers of the company — those averse to change in a faster and faster changing period. I predict the start of the beginning of the end.
MR: Peggy turns that “lady cigarette” into Virginia Slims, and everything changes. The most relevant title of the season might have been “The Other Woman,” because this was really a season about the women of Mad Men. Joan, Peggy, Megan. Shit, even Sally! The ladies are taking over, the men are fading away. You want truth, Roger? There it is.
BG: I envision an epic Don and Megan fallout, a Pete Campbell act of desperation and a Betty Draper Francis return to form (literally). Oh, and SDCP gets a second floor. More room for lawn mowers.