What to Make of Mad Men’s Fifth Season

Mad Men concluded its fifth season last night with an episode that seemed to revert the story—or at least Don’s story—to its factory settings.  Nothing’s for sure thanks to the semi-cliffhanger ending, but we at least got a hint that Don may be returning to his previous pattern of infidelity.

Why?  As with most things on the show, it’s not entirely clear, and it may never be.  The most obvious explanation would be depression over Lane and, by extension, Adam.  Don feels responsible for both suicides, and he receives no absolution even when he unilaterally decides to reimburse Lane’s widow with the $50,000 buy-in Lane provided to SCDP after Lucky Strike pulled out.

If that’s the correct analysis, the follow-up question is whether it’s merely depression that puts Don back on the path to infidelity.  Complicating matters is the fact that Don’s wandering eye during his previous marriage coincided with Betty’s acceptance of the role of a traditional (perhaps bored) housewife.

Here, the exact opposite is happening.  Megan is pursuing her acting ambitions vigorously, despite emotional abuse from her mother and some resistance from Don over possible out-of-town gigs.  Don relents in the season finale, reconsidering his previous position against using his influence to place his wife in an advertisement for an SCDP client.  Yet, we still get an unmistakable whiff of vintage 1960 Don Draper at the end of the episode.

I think that the key is the brief scene in which Don is watching Megan’s screen test alone in the office.  The soul-crushing events (and Adam Whitman hallucinations) preceding that moment all dragged Don back into a place as dark as the one in which he found himself at certain points during season four.  Megan elevated him out of that, or so it seemed.

Now, he’s convinced himself that he was wrong: He still has the darkness in him.[1]

Whatever it is that made him a miserable person can’t be overcome by his massive professional or personal success.  Much of what Pete says about his “friend” in his hospital room conversation with a post-shock-treatment Beth applies to Don as well as Pete: The marriage and trappings of success are merely a band-aid on a deeper wound that won’t heal.

Pete and Don do have the same view after all.

But Don comes to another realization that’s just as important.  He may have been wrong about himself, but he was right about Megan.  Watching that reel reminds him of all the good he saw in her when he first knew her, with the sharpest contrast between Megan and the flawed, childish Betty being in Megan’s interaction with Sally and Bobby.

Don comes to believe that him failing to assist her in her career aspirations would be a sin.  Who is he to stand in the way of someone like her?  That’s only a tiny step away from deciding that he’s unworthy of her, which may be where he is at the very end of “The Phantom.”

In his mind, he’s beneath her.  He’s earned being miserable and unfulfilled.  Attractive barflies are the best he can do.  He’s driven two men to suicide.  Misery surrounds him, emanating from every pore.  Megan is better than that.

Betty was different.  She was vapid and unfulfilling.  Don cheated on her because he didn’t respect her, or because he thought he deserved or needed something more.  If Don cheats on Megan, it will be because he doesn’t respect himself, and he doesn’t believe he can give Megan what she deserves or needs.

History repeats itself.  Yet, not exactly.

That, above all else, is the hallmark of Mad Men’s writing brilliance: Crafting compelling stories that intentionally parallel earlier dramatic developments without being derivative or repetitive.  It would be an understatement to call that an impressive feat.

That also speaks to something I noticed during much of season five.  I re-watched the first season during the last several weeks of the current run of new episodes, and there are some unmistakable parallels to what was happening in 1960 and what’s “currently” happening in 1966-67.

In 1960, Don was the creative force of nature various suitors tried to lure away from Sterling Cooper.  Peggy filled that role (on an admittedly smaller scale) in 1966.  Roger caught wind of the overtures from McCann Erickson back in 1960, offered Don more money, and he ultimately stayed at Sterling Cooper—but the clincher was Jim Hobart at McCann trying to use Don’s wife as a bargaining chip.  That cemented Don’s decision to remain at Sterling Cooper.  Unlike Don, Peggy, feeling unappreciated, decided to move on to what she believes will be a better opportunity, despite Don playing the part of 1960 Roger and trying to convince her to stay.

Another parallel from season one, and one about which I had forgotten, was Betty experiencing an “I’m sorry I gave up on my dream, I want to give it another try” moment that tracks Megan’s current aspirations.  The difference is that Betty decided to suppress her ambitions and hide her disappointment from Don when her modeling job vaporized.  She famously took out her frustrations on the neighbor’s pigeons at the conclusion of that particular episode.

Looking back on 1960–61 with the benefit of season five hindsight, the viewer also receives an explanation as to the genesis of “Fat Betty” in these episodes.  Suffice it to say that Betty’s eating habits are intertwined with her unresolved childhood issues concerning her late mother.

Another example of the storyline parallels between ’60 and ’66 comes when Sterling Cooper fights to keep its biggest client.  In order to maintain the Lucky Strike account, management (led by Bert Cooper) decides to drag Roger out of the hospital only days after he had suffered his first coronary.  When Roger has another heart attack during the subsequent American Tobacco meeting, everyone then regretfully agrees that putting Roger in harm’s way was a terrible idea.  The partners (save Don) allowing Joan to sleep with the Jaguar dealership head immediately called to mind a similar compromising of integrity for the sake of the firm’s financial health, albeit with the opposite result.

Whatever it takes.

Cooper, despite his generally conservative cultural leanings, is a ruthless businessman first and foremost.  He had no problem allowing Joan to prostitute herself in order to build SCDP’s book of business.  As in 1960 when Roger nearly dies, Don is the one who is most concerned about Joan’s actions.

The thing that impressed me most in watching these early episodes is that it didn’t make the current year feel like a re-hash in any way.  It actually enhanced the story to see these themes repeating themselves from different perspectives, sometimes with new people filling similar roles.

That’s part of the genius of this show, and why I’m so looking forward to the final two seasons of Mad Men.


[1] I personally think it’s now fairly clear Don is suffering from undiagnosed mental illness brought about by emotional trauma from his horrible, loveless childhood.   That was a more debatable point prior to this season, but it seems less so now in light of the increased frequency of hallucinations and a seemingly insatiable sadness interrupted only by fleeting moments of joy.
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