Mad Men will begin airing its final episodes on April 5th. Both of us Beans have been fans of the series since it premiered way back in 2007, so we’re going to re-watch one season per week before the final season begins. Each of us will put together their own reflection about what makes each season special, and what aspects stick out on the umpteenth viewing.
The fifth season of Mad Men is arguably their best season. But before we get to why, I want to start with a quote from show-runner Matthew Weiner. After finishing up season five, he was asked for one word to sum up the season. Weiner said “success.” I find it fascinating to look at this season and think about what each character wants, how they would define success in their lives, and the lengths they will go to to complete their goals. Joan always stands out to me this season with her heartbreaking story of being prostituted out to win a major account for the company and being able to solidify her standing there as a partner. Where other characters are able to advance based on their talents to partnerships, she wouldn’t ever be able to do that as an office manager. Pete brings her this terrible offer that includes a flat payment for a night spent with car dealer, and she is able to work it to her benefit (I don’t know if that is really what I even want to call it though) countering with a 5% voting partnership in the company. Alex, what “success” story stands out to you in season five?
Oof. That is not a fun question for these characters after season five. What Joan goes through is terrible, of course. But everyone goes through the ringer. Roger gets divorced (again). Peggy gets shouldered with unacknowledged responsibility until she quits. Pete gets (literal) black eye after black eye as he learns about the empty frustration of the American Dream. Don slowly realizes that no amount of happiness or success is enough. And poor Lane eventually commits suicide because he feels like a failure as a professional and a man. His death absolutely gutted me back in 2012, and the image of his corpse hanging next to the Mets pennant still breaks my heart. Weiner isn’t wrong to say that the fifth season is about success, but it’s not the typical success story. Instead, Mad Men seems to see success as hollow at best and fatal at worst. Which is cheery!
I know we talked about how many great episodes there are this season. Which ones stand out to you the most, Becky?
I say oof! Trying to pick just one episode is so challenging! Can I just include the run of episodes from “Signal 30” to “Lady Lazarus.” “Signal 30” has some of the best costumes of the season at a dinner party thrown by Trudy for some of Pete’s colleagues. I wish everyone would dress is bright plaid dinner coats. Also, Pete and Lane’s relationship reaches a boiling point and the two of them come to fisticuffs.
“Far Away Places” includes the wonderful scenes with Roger and Jane taking LSD, which includes some of the most interesting visuals the show has done. It also has Peggy skipping work to see a movie, which leads her down a surprisingly sordid road. The final segment has Megan and Don visiting a Howard Johnson upstate, which leads to their first big instance of anger and alienation. All those events are shown out of chronological order, giving the episode the feel of a puzzle.
“At the Codfish Ball” has Peggy expecting a marriage proposal that is actually just an offer to live together. She runs a gamut of emotions, though it ends with the curdled anger that inevitably accompanies seeing her mother. The episode’s centerpiece is a banquet for the American Cancer Society, which turns into a wonderful showcase for Sally and Marie, Megan’s Quebecois mother.
Lastly, “Lady Lazarus” has the beginning of Pete’s affair with a neighbor. Pete has always seemed to want to follow in Don’s footsteps, and this affair is just another sad, failed attempt in that endeavor. Plus, this episode has two amazing scenes for Don. He sees Megan out of the office after she abruptly decides to resign. Don decides to chase after her, but the elevator door opens to an empty shaft. Later, at Megan’s urging, he sits down at home to listen to “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the closing track from The Beatles’ album Revolver.
I know these two scenes are some of your favorites from the show, especially the montage that accompanies “Tomorrow Never Knows.” You were talking about how good the music cues in this season are yesterday, so what other musical moments make your list?
So many! “Tomorrow Never Knows” is just the tip of the iceberg here. The season premiere defines Megan’s character as Don’s hot new wife through her show-stopping “Zou Bisou Bisou” number, which became instantly iconic in pop culture. “Signal 30” ends with Pete looking at a beautiful young couple get closer in his Driver’s Ed class and shifts to the most mournful version of “Ode to Joy” I’ve ever heard. A whole dynamite episode is named after “The Christmas Waltz.” But the pièce de résistance may be the final sequence of the season, set to Nancy Sinatra’s thematically perfect “You Only Live Twice.” I don’t know that I could ever identify my very favorite Mad Men moments, but these musical moments in Season Five would have to be among them.
Beyond that, I want to circle back to the thought you started with, Becky. This is, in fact, the best season of Mad Men. There are no bad season of this series, of course, but I think the high-water mark is that stretch of episodes you mentioned. The series had a long hiatus between the 4th and 5th seasons, when Weiner had a contentious contract negotiation with AMC and Lionsgate. I think that must have crept into the show here, since its return after 18 months of silence was full of narrative confidence and stylistic daring that few other shows can pull off. But that quote you found about “success” is significant, too. Weiner had won four straight Emmys for Best Drama Series to that point, and yet his production company and network still bullied him and tried to second-guess his creation. His triumph came with a healthy dose of heartache, and it’s hard not to see that written all over this season. Maybe the Emmy failures of the past three years will prompt him onto even greater heights when the final episodes air?