An Eye For An Eye, A Tooth For A Tooth: Final Thoughts On Mad Men's Season Five
John Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men, AMC
by Bobbi Lurie
Mad Men has given me many hours of quality escapism. My involvement with the characters, through four seasons, provided me with a rare opportunity to connect deeply with imaginary companions. It allowed me to leave my life and its pressures for forty three minutes at a time. That’s not a small thing. Quality television and film allows our world to expand. But characters must show consistency or the viewer is distracted and the magical connection to fantasy is lost.
Head writer and creator Matthew Weiner’s decision to have Don Draper’s second wife, Megan, dominate more than half of season five was a big mistake. Megan’s character was never realized by the writers and her acting wasn’t strong enough to carry off the pretense of being irresistible. It was Jon Hamm’s task to act as if Don Draper was madly in love. Or was that look on his face indigestion? We only learn later in the season that Megan’s competence in the kitchen is very limited. She only knows how to make spaghetti. And I’m talking cold, dried out spaghetti, without even a tad of red sauce or olive oil. We know Don hasn’t eaten much of anything for four seasons but Megan, who has supposedly changed his life, forces him to eat her dried out spaghetti by throwing dinnerware against the walls of their penthouse apartment.
For my part, I lost interest in the fake marital bliss, beginning with episode one. Lots of rave reviews for Megan’s song and dance routine, but we’re talking about a television series which once cared about creating believable characters. Megan changes from episode to episode. She is used as a prop for Freudian slips and experimental filmmaking.
“I know you,” Megan said to Don in Fantasyland, at the end of season four, when they’re in bed together, after a hard day at Disneyland. Having an eighteen year-old tell a forty year-old they know them…well… Don was obviously too drunk to remember that once someone says they “know” you, there’s no chance they’ll ever try and get to know you. Megan didn’t even know Don didn’t like parties. She knows nothing about him, in spite of the fact that he’s told her about his secret identity. He didn’t even reveal the truth about his secret life to Betty, mother of his three children. Megan feigns gratitude but she’s not grateful. She’s a teenager with a tantrum.
Don Draper, the main reason for watching Mad Men in the first place, faded into the backdrop for most of the season. Jon Hamm was left with very little to do. Feigning love for someone who is neither lovable nor interesting. I don’t know how hard that is to act, but it isn’t easy to watch.
The second strongest character on the show, Peggy, was suffering from character inconsistencies all season. The writers insulted her intelligence repeatedly, making it so she was extorting money from Roger and feigning ignorance of The Holocaust, in spite of living with a politically astute Jewish man, in 1966, when New York was teeming with Holocaust survivors. The writers forgot how aware and intelligent Peggy is. She’s a practicing Catholic, underneath all her attempts to keep up with changing social mores. She’s not a blackmailer and she’s not unaware of the suffering of others. One of the best moments in season five was when she finally quit her job. I wanted Don to leave Megan. I didn’t want Peggy to leave Don. But someone in that show had to leave.
January Jones and Kiernan Shipka as Betty Draper and Sally Draper, Mad Men, AMC
On the other hand, Betty’s storyline was great. She gained weight, like every other woman in America, and she came to realize her daughter, Sally, needed her. Sally has always held her own in this show and deserves to be commended, if not for her acting skills then for putting up with horrible step-grandparents who either perform sexual favors in public or drug her with Seconal. Matthew Weiner’s son, who plays Glen, Sally’s confidant and secret crush, has always been a strong presence. I’ve always liked Stan, the artist, as well. He lit up the show this season and deserves credit for it.
I refuse to criticize Julia Ormond, the British actress who plays Marie Calvet. The French have been criticizing her problematic French accent way too much. They fail to see her greatness, not only because she finally highlights the obvious: that Megan can’t act; but Julia Ormond is only fourteen years older than Jessica Pare, the actress who plays Megan, and Megan is supposed to be Julia Ormond’s fourth child. Was this yet more carelessness on the part of the overconfident Mad Men writers? I don’t think so. The subtext here must be that Julia Ormond first gave birth before she went to school, perhaps before she was even born. Anyway, the French don’t like Megan’s father’s accent either. Jessica Pare is actually from Montreal so Megan obviously speaks with the accent of the Quebecois. Her pretend father, Emile, however, is from Belgium, and the French think he sounds German. My point is, the whole world is watching this show. You can fool the public some of the time but…
It’s hard to be lenient when looking at the writing done this season for the actors who have the chops to keep Mad Men alive. Roger, and other members of the core cast of excellent actors, suffered from serious forms of character inconsistency and deprivation of decent lines, a disease complex which can destroy even a series as strong as Mad Men.
For four seasons, Mad Men maintained nuanced performances by characters who were blessed with excellent writers capable of creating rich studies in human behavior. Roger, once the best presenter of one-liners, became a senile bigot, in season five, until Weiner allowed him to take LSD. Pete Campbell, as the second Don Draper, simply isn’t believable. Or wanted. Turning Joan into an obvious prostitute felt like a gimmick.
Dawn, the one African American who was cast on the show, as Don’s personal secretary, was never even given a decent line.
Before Peggy’s wonderful exit, with Don kissing her hand, not wanting her to leave, before Joan and Don sat in a bar, side by side, giving off intoxicating sex vibes, we (me), the audience, had lost almost all interest in the show.
Mad Men almost came back in the end. But only almost.
Not to analyze everything beyond what is useful but, I have to say, the final episodes of both season four and season five shared the same theme: teeth.
In the last episode of season four, Megan tells Don that she can’t get an acting job because she has crooked teeth. According dream associations, crooked teeth is an indication of struggles with perfection and feelings of inadequacy. It suggests a lack of ability to achieve ones’ goals.
Don Draper’s real wife, who isn’t his real wife, but the wife of the dead man whose name he stole in order to go AWOL in Korea, was his best friend; she died of cancer, leaving him her wedding ring, enclosed in a tattered blue velvet box. Theirs was a spiritual marriage. It wasn’t just that Anna was the only woman Don never had sex with. She, Anna, was the mother he never had and he was the son she never had. Anna accepted him completely and allowed him to take her dead husband’s name. The meaning of Anna (Άννα in Greek) is “grace”, or “favor” and Anna was all the grace Don ever knew. So what was Don Draper/ Dick Whitman to do? He was in mourning while Megan was baby-sitting his children in Disneyland. Don gave Anna’s ring to Megan. After she told him about her teeth.
By the end of season five, Don’s tooth is killing him. The pain is unbearable. He’s tried to deal with the pain of this bad tooth all season but by the time we get to the last episode, he needs a professional to get it out, a professional who will give him enough nitric oxide to enable him hallucinate like he did in season four.
We see a close-up of Don’s tooth. We see the size of its pain. Again according to dream psychology, dreams of having a tooth pulled suggests things which are not wanted; it suggests doing something that you do not want to do.
Don didn’t want to get Megan that stupid job. Playing the part of Don Draper’s wife is a great honor. Doesn’t Megan realize this? Didn’t Betty?
Don’s had it with this happiness crap. As he said to the manufacturers of Napalm, happiness is just the need for more happiness. (I paraphrase.)
Don lowered his professional standards and what little moral principles he’d managed to fake and, in the process, lost all respect for the second wife he once believed was one of a fairy princesses in Disneyland. But, after Megan quit advertising, rejecting Don Draper’s religion of manufacturing fantasies, he finds she is nothing but a cheap ad campaign. By the end of season five, Megan, the girl-woman who teaches Don’s young daughter
to make fake tears, finally changes roles: trading her part as Mrs. Don Draper for a spot in a shoe commercial.
Getting that role for Megan was the last humiliation Don Draper is going to allow himself to suffer. If he knew his second wife betrayed a friend for this bit part he’d be even more disgusted. We, the audience, were meant to think he found Megan to be brilliant and beautiful, capable of wiping up all the spilt milk (shakes) of his life. But that was in Disneyland. We’re back in New York. And once Don sees Megan in the true light of a black and white film reel, there’s no point in staying to watch her perform anymore.
Don Draper, who is not a real man, but the name of a dead man, walks triumphantly past the small stage Megan acts on. He walks the long walk through the huge sound stage, bringing us back to the fact that this is a television series, after all. We, the audience, are happy to see the television figure, Don Draper, going back to the bar, back to the flirting ladies, back to the days when people weren’t afraid to smoke.
Here is what The Bible has to say about Mad Men Season Five:
I have given you emptiness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places (Amos 4:6)
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.