So to prepare for the highly anticipated return of Mad Men and my upcoming weekly reviews, I rewatched the entire season in the last 2 weeks with my boyfriend. I was pleasantly reminded of how the artistry of the writing for Mad Men reached its peak in Season 5, integrating the vast and often chaotic changes of the period with the action in the Mad Men universe. I can’t remember so much major development happening episode to episode in any season prior – it’s like the tempo of action that occurs within a season escalated with the rapidly changing period of 1966 – 1967. The modern world is finally colliding with the Mad Men ad men (and women!) – we can’t disconnect or disassociate their specific lifestyles from the outside world, and we begin to see how the world is impacting their lives. There have been many wonderful reflections and explorations of self for each major character, all occurring under the widening umbrella of age and mortality. As we think about what’s to come, let’s quickly re-cap where we left our main Mad Men crew. Beware: spoilers ahead if you’re still catching up!
Roger goes through some of the most entertaining (and arguably uplifting) developments in the show. Any fears he may have of being marginalized and deemed useless to SCDP should be quashed, at least in the audience’s eyes. His spark was fierce last season, from his newfound efforts to meaningfully contribute to SCDP (even though he usually paid people off to do the hard work) to his openness to the experience of LSD. We see him try to do right by the women he’s wronged, which is a lot even if he winds up failing. We see him embrace where he is in his life and the position he’s in, despite the stark realizations of his age amidst his first LSD trip. His childishness is still present, but for a crowd of people looking more into the darkness of what their lives have become, he’s one of the few who is fighting for the light, and is tasting it, even if only artificially. I mean, that last shot we see of him is a poignant one – his joyous stance at his window overlooking the city in the night, in the splendor of his most natural self (obviously on another LSD journey) It can almost be seen as a secondary birth for Sterling – entering upon a new venture as a newborn child would enter the world, naked and open to the coming experiences. It almost makes you forget about his near death instances from Seasons 1 and 2, when he had a heart attack and when he barely handled overeating seafood followed by an aggressive climb up the stairs. Thoughts about his trajectory for season 6 – Will he shine on in his prime? Or could he turn to the darker side of experimental drug use?
Probably the only other individual with the brighter outlook on the coming year(s) would be Peggy. She had a roller coaster of a season, what with being marginalized not for her age or skill but by the mere fact that she is a woman. She was undervalued and undermined by everyone, including Don in shocking turns (like throwing money in her face, ouch) We see her ebb and flow through her doubts in her career, even asking advice from Dawn, the new secretary (defining question: “Do I act like a man to you” – such a charged question!) She tries and fails to play the boys’ game like a boy, and even blunders through trying to fulfill the feminine role she’s squeezed into (i.e. the role playing at the Cool Whip factory that backfires) Thankfully, Peggy doesn’t just sink into oblivion at SCDP – she turns to an old friend (what’s up, Freddy Rumsen) and seeks opportunity elsewhere. We are treated again to some more Peggy-Don moments that solidify the nature of their platonic mentor-mentee relationship. Their goodbye scene is perfectly bittersweet, highlighting a drastic change that not only Peggy realizes, but Don. I’m trying to find an amazing read discussing the Peggy-Don dynamic, where it was discussed how the main trajectories we’re following in the Mad Men world are Don’s reign as ad king compared against Peggy’s slow rise to the top. If this is true, I predict Season 6 will see the beginning of their stars crossing and realigning – with Peggy still very much a player in Season 6 (thankfully!) we will hopefully see more of her star rising. We begin to see how the world is swaying to the power of a woman by the end: Ginsberg flubs a pitch for pantyhose (obviously would’ve best been handled by a woman) contrasted against Peggy giving orders and being respected for her authority. I know Liz Lemon jokes in the 30 Rock finale that Mad Men will end with Don working for Peggy – could this very well begin to pave its way in Season 6? Maybe not to that extreme, but hopefully we see Peggy get the leg up in the new world that Don is slowly starting to fall away from (no pun intended with the whole opening sequence imagery here)
It’s hard to not discuss women and power without mentioning Joan. The most troubling developments occur in her storyline, what with her disappointing divorce to basically her prostitution for the sake of the Jaguar account. Though she sways a horrible situation into one that allows her a seat of power, the tragedy of her story lies in the cost she pays to get what she well deserves. This is a stark contrast to Peggy’s rise as an empowered woman, where self-respect is salvaged for Peggy, Joan sacrifices it. Other possibilities swimming around that have been suggested from Season 5 are the nature of Joan’s relationship with Lane, Don, and Roger, and how they will affect her in Season 6. Will Joan be haunted by Lane’s memory, now that she’s assuming his responsibilites? Will Joan cozy up to Don because he had been the one man to show her a shred of decency in her darkest moment at SCDP? How will her seat of power interplay with Roger and his likely undying desire for her?
Last season, I followed the Vulture recaps closely, and monitored the predictions of Pete’s possible demise. We see him descend to a level of hopelessness never before seen. Despite the facade of a very eager company partner celebrating triumphs he attempts to be credited for, we realize together that he is still terribly unfulfilled. Even in a seat of power, he has none over the business or even his home life. His escape route for the season – the troubled Beth – also leads him further into nowhere. He gets (delightfully) beaten up twice in one season, and the end result of Trudy succumbing to his request for a city apartment still leaves something to be desired for him. I’m sure the predictions are still high for if he will be next to meet an unpleasant and untimely demise, but I think the grimness will eat him away differently than just the plain death we were confronted with in Lane. I guess the curiosity here is what else will Pete use to fill his emptiness? Or… could he finally gain the respect he deserves among the partners since he is the youngest and arguably most connected to the growing influence of the youth culture they must advertise to?
The differences in Don’s marriage to Betty and Don’s marriage to Megan are an important interplay in the Mad Men universe. We’re treated to seeing the harmony of Don being with a woman who plays at his level – it definitely helps for Don that Megan understands and is integrated into Don’s life as an ad man, the very aspect of his life that Betty was shielded far away from. Of course, not everything can be hunky-dory and we see the effect of a modern woman battling Don’s controlling ways. Their fights are charged by Megan trying to stand up for herself and think for herself, with Don revealing his upset and disappointment in the moments they disagree and aren’t aligned. This becomes especially clear in his growing resentment of Megan’s pursuits for acting. Their relationship strains when Megan bravely quits advertising to pursue her dream since they no longer share the connection of the creativity in the advertising world. Don is quick to antagonize Megan, and she struggles through holding her own. However, will her pursuit of acting prompt Don to return to his old ways?
Betty and Sally
Betty and Sally’s adjustment to the Francis lifestyle has also taken an interesting turn. Betty’s cancer scare showed us some of the healing that has occurred between her and Don, and her pettiness is revealed with her cattiness upon seeing a love note from Don to Megan amidst Sally’s family tree project. Her weight gain is also a very clear display of the boredom/dissatisfaction with this new life she has chosen for herself. Will she seek the comfort she used to get with Don? Or something like it? Also, Betty’s relationship with Sally takes its turns as well, with Sally not only understanding the depth of the Don-Betty dynamic (she plays against Betty’s insecurities for her father’s sake after discovering Anna Draper) but also searching for the “right” maternal figure. Sally confides in cooler, younger Megan, but yearns for the comfort of the more experienced mother. A defining moment – among many in a stellar season for Sally – is when she, despite all her eager efforts to project herself as an adult, is crippled with anxiety and fear when she gets her first period on her sneak date with Glen. How will this shake Sally’s dynamic between Don and Betty? Will she still be a daddy’s girl, or start to side more with her mother? How will Don be shaped by Sally’s rapid growth to womanhood and adulthood? How will Sally deal with her teenage growth? Remember: Sally also got a very disturbing first taste of sexuality after playful banter with Roger then witnessing him receiving a particular favor from Megan’s mother.
The most striking development for Don this season is seeing him in a more vulnerable state. His marriage to Megan and the recognition of his age have broken the cool veneer of his ad man persona. Don spends the first half of the season in what Cooper calls a “love leave,” his surprising devotion to Megan constantly on display. But we also see his fears and anxieties as he develops in his marriage to Megan. He has a vivid nightmare about not being able to resist cheating on Megan, and he also has a panic after the fight with Megan at Howard Johnson. His relationship with her is wrought with the challenge of being challenged – Megan is a modern woman who knows Don’s secrets, and that interplay both works for and against their marriage. We also see his fears of not having that gift anymore to pitch ideas – he forces out an idea of Sno Balls and sabotages Ginsberg’s pitch by leaving it in a cab. We see how his breaking down physical self is in alignment with the struggles and challenges of his personal life – his fever when he bumps into an old flame (that then leads to the nightmare), the toothache after Lane’s suicide (which is coupled with his brother coming back to haunt him). Don is facing the challenges of getting old – it’s like he and Roger switched off as far as how they manage with their age. Will Don continue to let these things get the best of him? How will he handle Megan’s independence? Will he continue to be the shining star of SCDP as we move forward into a realm of pop culture that he seems no longer able to keep up with?
I’m excited to see how much SCDP changes to bend to the late 60s. Let’s hope tomorrow’s 2 hour premiere will give us a healthy dose of catching up to the Mad Men players’ lives, amidst the sea of change we left them last.