I jumped at the opportunity to review the fifth season of Mad Men because I knew I would be forced to finally ask myself a crucial and life-altering question: Why do I like Mad Men? I’m sure there are many people out there who have specific reasons for tuning in to the AMC smash hit season after season, but I’ve never really been able to articulate why I can’t stop watching.
Season 5 picks up about a year after the end of season 4. Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) has had her baby boy, and is preparing for her husband to return home from Vietnam. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and his wife Trudy (Alison Brie) have moved to the suburbs. Don Draper is happily married to wife #3 Megan (Jessica Paré). In addition, the little ad agency that could, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, is starting to dig itself out of the red and earn some modest success.
I think the big thing that draws me to Mad Men is some very focused moments of superb storytelling. Not every episode is great and compelling, but I have noticed that every season starts small, and on the weak side, and then builds to something really amazing by the end; drawing me into the next season, where I ultimately have to sit through a few lack luster episodes to get to what makes this show something special. I can say with certainty that Season 5 is the best season yet of the series. Even the early “weaker” episodes are very good, so it’s even more impressive that the season meets the task of climbing its way up to an even higher plane of greatness by the end.
I’m sure a lot of people are drawn to the period aspect of the series, enjoying this look into 1960s Americana. While I do enjoy the alien feel of the world Mad Men is set in, I feel like the novelty of it faded away after the first season. It’s still present, and there are absurd little moments that remind us how far removed from modern times in new and interesting ways, but overall I can’t give any credit for my appreciation of the show to its stylized feel. Something I believe the writers are aware of going into season 5. The show takes far fewer winks to the future. It doesn’t take a bow every time something “60s” takes place. It’s a real testament to the minds behind Mad Men that they have been able to ease off on this element of the show and fall back on their amazing cast to tell the stories they want to tell.
I think a big part of what keeps me coming back to the series is the remarkable cast of actors assembled. Not so much the characters they portray, even though every character is highlighted at different moments and is able to shine in new and fascinating ways. Jon Hamm’s omni-award winning portrayal of Don Draper is as sharp as ever as we see him happily married for the first time since the show began. His endless pattern of womanizing, then reforming, then womanizing again when he was married to Betty (January Jones) was getting tired, and the relationship between him and Jessica Paré makes this season a lot more fun than the series up to this point.
For me, Don Draper was never the main character of the show. I always saw Peggy Olsen as the center of this bizarre little universe, and as each season passed and she has been forced to adapt and toughen up to thrive in this male-dominant world, I’ve been endlessly fascinated with Elizabeth Moss’s (The West Wing) performance. Past seasons have seen Don and Peggy in a sort of mentor/protégé relationship, but season 5 sees them much more on equal ground.
One of the reasons season 5 is so strong in my opinion is the fact that Betty Draper has been reduced to little more than a supporting character. She only appears in about half the episodes here and I find that merciful. I’ve never been the biggest fan of January Jones. She’s very attractive, but not a strong actress by any means, so to put her in the same show with some of these other talents is just embarrassing to watch. And here more than in the past seasons, Jones is extremely robotic. There’s a scene late in the season where she’s trying to comfort her daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka), and it looks like the idea of empathy is a completely foreign concept to her.
Other characters’ screen time gets down played in this season too. The one I miss the most is Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), who technically appears in every episode, but his role is so small in this season that the character is not being effectively utilized. His story arc is loose and episodic with no major changes in his character, which is a shame because Sommer’s performance has always been a highlight of the series.
I may never figure out exactly what draws me to Mad Men. Perhaps it isn’t one specific thing, but a definite combination of the above. In any event, everything that makes Mad Men great is alive and well here in season 5. If you’ve enjoyed the first four seasons, then this one definitely won’t disappoint.
Special Features include a variety of behind the scenes featurettes, photo galleries and commentaries. Be sure to get this on Blu-ray if you have the option because you might as well enjoy the style of Mad Men in full HD glory.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate on October 16.