The Mistaken Course: Season 5 of Mad Men So Far


Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris, Mad Men, AMC

by Bobbi Lurie

Much has been written about Matthew Weiner’s meticulous rendering of the ’60s in his mega-hit, Mad Men. A lot has been said about set design and historical references, replete with memorabilia, but the real strength of Mad Men has always rested in its vivid character depictions, solid storytelling and brilliant dialogue. In seasons one through most of four, there was a slow-moving truthfulness to the show. It created a rare sense of intimacy, involvement and anticipation.

In season five, everything changes. The pace speeds up, the writing is sub-par and the character studies go awry.

Through the first four seasons, Don Draper’s flashbacks of his secret life as Dick Whitman were a hallmark of the series and a crucial part of understanding Don Draper’s character. In season five, the flashbacks are gone. We are, apparently, expected to believe that Don’s torment has ended because he found a new woman, a woman named Megan.

The Don Draper we have always known, and loved to hate, has never found solace with a woman. As Rachel Menken, one of Don’s lovers in season one, said, “You don’t want to run away with me. You just want to run away. You’re a coward.”

Dick Whitman is the son of a young prostitute who died giving birth to him. His name is Dick because she called the stranger who impregnated her a dick, and “dick” was the last word out of her mouth, before she died.

Dick was taken in a basket, like Moses, to a childless couple. He was meant as a gift to brighten their impoverished life, but Dick was resented by his stepmother and beaten by his stepfather. His story was the underbelly of a fairy tale.

Don Draper’s secret identity, not to mention his philandering, cost him his first marriage. He was married for ten years; he has three children. Don’s expulsion from this world does nothing to destroy the consistency of his carefully constructed, imaginary being.

But by the end of season four, the show falls apart.

Megan is Don’s secretary and she babysits his three kids at Disneyland. Also, she’s from Montreal, she speaks French and has crooked teeth. From this bit of information, we are left to speculate on how or why Don falls for someone whose performances are wooden.

Don proposes to Megan after the most important person in his life, Anna, dies. Anna, the real Mrs. Don Draper, leaves her wedding ring to Don. Don has often said that Anna is the only person who has ever really known him. Anna is also the only woman he has never slept with. Their intimacy was endearing. Don, or Dick, supports Anna financially, out of gratitude for being allowed to keep her dead husband’s name.

At the end of season four, it seems most likely that Don proposed to Megan out of grief. All he had left of Anna was the diamond ring she left him. It would make sense that Don would propose to anyone who might be there at the time.

It was a great disappointment to see, in episode one of season five, that Don/Dick is love-stricken; that he actually married Megan. It was sad to learn Don gave away his secret identity to Megan immediately. Perhaps we are supposed to see a reformed Don, one who realizes that keeping his true identity a secret is what destroyed his first marriage.

Episodes one and two (a double episode) of season five, focuses on Megan. Every other character in the show returns to inconsistent versions of their former selves. Everything rings false.

Megan throws a spur-of-the-moment (next evening?) fortieth birthday party for Don. She gets her guest list from Peggy, a fellow copywriter. Peggy warns Megan that Don hates parties. Actually, everyone knows Don hates parties. Everyone but Megan.

Peggy is forced to pretend Megan has some sort of skill or talent, when we know she only got the job as a copywriter because Don married her. But in 1966, married couples weren’t even allowed to work together. Rather than have Megan recognize that she is obliged to leave, we see her following Don around like a puppy. And he likes it that way. We don’t know if she is too good for this world or too evil to imagine. She blithely mocks Don’s secret identity, and forces him to socialize with people he’s made a point of ignoring all these years.

In these first episodes, Megan taunts poor Dick/Don, while posing in black underwear, saying, “You’re too old” or “I don’t want you.” Don, once the sex symbol of American TV, has a hard time making it with this insipid wisp of a girl-woman, whose acting range goes from posing to pouting. Don is no longer a symbol of macho sex appeal and boldness; he is a shell of a man who discusses white carpeting, after forcing Megan to have sex with him.

January Jones as Betty Francis, Mad Men, AMC

We have a reprieve from all this nonsense when Betty, Don’s former wife, returns in episode three, in the form of a fat woman with a cancer scare. Episode three is one of season five’s finest, in spite of the uncharacteristic speediness with which this sobering episode is filmed. We are shown that Don really does have feelings for his first wife; that he deeply cares about his children. Still, he shows no passion for work, which once gave his life meaning.

Although episode three gives us back some of Don Draper’s humanity, he still lives in a ridiculously large apartment. Everything that surrounds him is a reminder of the sharp angles of modernism, which enclose our once-hero. He has lost his past. The Pursuit Of Happiness is over.

By episode six, Megan is not nearly as compliant or inconsistent. We can see there is evolution but we are not invested enough in her character to care. We have no idea who she is. Throwing in random information, or symbolic acts to remind us that Women’s Liberation is at hand, is heavy-handed and does not succeed in helping us forget that Megan’s character was never developed.

In episode four, Mad Men moves into the horror genre. There are numerous metaphors for The Speck Murders. There is a lot of symbolism; a number of pairs of red shoes, also female bodies hidden under beds. In a fevered dream, Don Draper kills a woman for igniting his libido.

Episode five is basically a tribute to John Updike. As Updike said, “Most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went.”

Pete Campbell, gave up his apartment on Park Avenue, and is living in the suburbs, like Don once did. He also has a baby and a tool kit. He and his wife, Trudy, give an appropriately silly dinner party, where they manage to laugh in all the right places.

Don is the guest of honor at this party. “Saturday night in the suburbs,” says Don to Megan, “That’s when you really want to blow your brains out.” But Donald Draper is forced to go to the party by his new wife, who even bought him a plaid jacket for the occasion.

No one has ever bought Don Draper’s clothes for him before. He always shopped for himself. This shedding of the gray flannel suit, his trademark, is a shedding of the skin of the exciting, lying, cheating ad man Don used to be. Now he’s says to Megan, “Let’s make a baby.” He fixes the dripping faucet that Peter Campbell lives in; the faucet Pete can’t fix.

In episode six, someone finally drops acid. I thought it would be Pete, but it’s Roger. The writers this season have chosen to turn Roger into a senile racist. Roger used to be the master of the memorable quip.

Roger’s better on acid, but not much.

During all of season five, Roger is portrayed as an anti-Semite. After dropping acid with his beautiful young wife, Jane, we learn his wife has been Jewish all along. We learn this when Roger tells her he is leaving her, while she is still half asleep. He reminds her what she said on acid. “You were speaking in German,” says Roger. “It was Yiddish,” says Jane, confused. I doubt if Roger knows what Yiddish is. He only knows he hates his wife.

Michael, the new so-called “genius” is a Jewish stereotype, and his father is a heavy-handed attempt at a stereotype. Michael was born in a concentration camp. He confides this to Peggy, after making her giggle, by telling her he’s from Mars. There’s no recognition from Peggy that the Holocaust happened. “Are there others like you?” she asks, simply. He says he hasn’t found any. The whole exchange rings false.

We find out Peggy’s boyfriend of two years is also Jewish. He assures Peggy, “it happened,” as if New York in 1966 wasn’t heavily populated with Holocaust survivors. The fact that someone as observant as Peggy doesn’t notice this, especially when her boyfriend of two years is Jewish, is just another example of how flawed season five is, in terms of its failure to create believable characters.

Apparently, a great deal of season five is about Mad Men trying to make a point of portraying Women’s Liberation, through both Peggy’s character, and Joan, who finally dumps her rapist husband. I think we should keep in mind that Joan’s baby isn’t the rapist’s; it’s Roger’s. Roger certainly seems to have forgotten it’s his kid and I guess Mad Men viewers are expected to forget this as well.

Keeping in line with the times, SCDP also hires a “token” African American secretary. Her name is Dawn, which rhymes with Don. Other than that, we know nothing about her.

Mad Men, AMC

The writers did not bother to give her a personality. She seems to be a capable enough actress but she hasn’t delivered a single decent line.

But why should anyone be given better lines than Don Draper?

Don Draper, our Man Of Mystery, is now a “square,” according to Megan. And “square” he is. Don is, apparently, in love with tacky Howard Johnson’s. He is, most surprisingly, also in love with orange sherbet.

Don Draper never ate a thing in seasons one through four. Okay. Maybe a steak or a few bites of Betty’s meatloaf. But Don Draper had no interest in food. That was part of his power. He was too busy smoking and drinking himself into oblivion, while cheating on Betty.

Now Don insists that Megan enjoy the orange sherbet, as much as he does, even though Don never takes a bite.

Well, Megan doesn’t like orange sherbet. And she’s obnoxious about it. But so is he. Nevertheless, telling Don to call “his” mother was beyond cruel, especially since Megan “is” his mother: capable of leaving him alone with himself, barely uttering his name, before she leaves.

About the Author:

Bobbi Lurie is the author of three poetry collections: Grief Suite, The Book I Never Read, and Letter from the Lawn. Her work has appeared in numerous print and on-line journals, including New American Writing, E-Ratio, Counterexample, Otoliths, The American Poetry Review and Big Bridge. Dancing Girl Press will be publishing her chapbook, “to be let in the back porch,” in 2012. Her fiction can be found, or is forthcoming, in Noir, Dogzplot, Pure Slush, Wilderness House Literary Review, Melusine, Camroc Press Review and others. Her essays have been published in Gnosis, Inner Directions, The Good Men Project, Wordgathering, The Santa Fe Reporter, Craft International and other publications in the U.S. and the U.K.