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"Mad Men's" Genius Fifth Season

The finale couldn't top Fat Betty, a shocking death or "Zou Bisou." But after a riveting run, bring on year six.
 
 
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“Zou Bisou Bisou,” fat Betty, murderous fever dreams, Roger Sterling’s adventures in LSD, Pete Campbell’s sexual liaisons with a former “Gilmore Girl,” scenes from a Howard Johnson’s, Hare Krishnas, Joan’s acceptance of an indecent proposal, and Lane Pryce’s suicide: It has been one gonzo season of “Mad Men.”

Almost every episode has contained one of the crazy, audacious, John-Deere-tractor-taking-off-a-guy’s-foot-in-the-office, Roger-Sterling-does-blackface moments that past seasons doled out sparingly. Next to all these intensities, last night’s finale could not compare. It felt downright stately (except for the moment when Peggy first appeared on-screen in her power-red Chanel suit, commanding two dudes around like a Don Draper-style boss: I clapped. Oh, and then there were the rutting dogs outside Peggy’s window, my new favorite nonsense “Mad Men” metaphor, replacing the overdetermined old person from last season who meaningfully held fruit in Don Draper’s hall), a sort of dull coda to the craziness that came before, an epilogue and a callback to the calmer episodes of seasons past, a return to normal, thematically interesting if not dramatically riveting.

At the beginning of the fifth season, Roger Sterling asked, “When will everything get back to normal?” One way to think of this season is as a helix. The characters are not exactly back where they started, but somewhere in the vicinity, further up, older and higher, but with the same view. (Next season Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — maybe soon to be Sterling Cooper Draper Campbell? — will get a second floor, connected by staircase, and Pete will have the same view as Don Draper). Pete’s hairline, which was mentioned way back in the season’s first episode, has been receding dramatically; the costume department is dressing Joan in less flattering clothes, and she needs glasses; Lane’s dead. And, yet, these characters remain their immutable selves, mucking around in the same themes and patterns. Roger’s still trying to get women to take care of him, even if he is also partaking in LSD while naked; Harry Crane is still insufferable; Joan feels compelled to play the Lane part at every meeting; Pete has become king of the office but he’s still getting punched in the face, trying out the self-serving gestures Don was kicking around in Season 1 (“Let’s go to L.A. It’s filled with sunshine,” he tells Beth, hoping she’ll run away with him, just like Don hoped Rachel Mencken would) and coming to the conclusion that all of his behavior — in a speech that just about any character on the show could have given — is a “temporary bandage on a permanent wound.” But most of all, Don Draper is still Don Draper. The song playing at the end of this episode, continuing the year-long tradition of extremely on-the-nose fade-out songs, was Nancy Sinatra singing “You Only Live Twice.” (Maybe Zac Efron can get his tattoo amended to YOLT?)

The episode ended with a fetching young woman approaching Don, who has just left Megan on the sound stage of her very first commercial, and asking, “Are you alone?” We don’t see him answer, but I don’t have many doubts. Don thought Megan could change him, could make him feel better, could, in the words of Pete’s speech to Beth, make getting older mean something. For much of this season, she did. But she’s just a temporary bandage on a permanent wound. Life still hurts, teeth still ache, the people Don cares about are still hanging themselves, he’s still dissatisfied. (Here’s Matt Weiner on Don’s speech to Dow Chemical last week: “It was supposed to be ugly. It was supposed to be a voracious representation of dissatisfaction – what does this man have to complain about? That greed for the sensation of victory is ugly, and that’s kind of who he is.”) And he still has a wife who needs taking care of.

Just a few weeks ago, when Megan quit the agency to be an actress, Peggy announced her faith that Megan was one of those people who could just “do everything.” At the time, it felt like Peggy was right. Don’s young, brave, ambitious wife was the kind of person to whom things came effortlessly, and if she wanted to be an actress, she would be an actress. Every since she “Zou Bisou”-ed at the beginning of this season, I’ve hoped the long arc of her and Don’s relationship would be that Draper was finally going to get out-Drapered. At some point, Megan would cheat on him or leave him, the way he has cheated on and left everyone else. The player would get played.

But in the finale, Megan’s future does not seem so undeniable. Peggy might be wrong. Megan continues to have a hard time finding work. Her friend tells her about a commercial one of Don’s clients is shooting, and Megan betrays that friend to ask Don to get her an audition instead. He’s reluctant and dickish about it, put off by her auditioning in front of people he knows, if also, in his way correct: She should want to make it as herself, not as his wife. Megan goes to the bathroom and cries, and then pouts and gets very drunk. (I wish Megan’s behavior seemed more intrinsic to her character. The woman who hate-ate all that sherbet wouldn’t behave like this kind of a sad sack. But Megan is still a foil for Don and not quite a person.)

Marie Calvet, Megan’s mother and Roger Sterling’s hookup, suddenly seems to be seeing her daughter far more clearly than Peggy. Marie is enormously skeptical about Megan’s future as an actress. After calling her daughter an ungrateful little bitch, she tells Don that Megan’s tantrum is what happens when one has “an artistic temperament but is not an artist.” (Between this week and Betty Draper’s performance last week, it’s been a good run for bad mothers.)

Marie’s incisive quipping doesn’t end there. She goes to Roger Sterling’s hotel for a quickie and Roger emotionally asks her if she’ll please do LSD with him because he doesn’t want to do it alone: “Please don’t ask me to take care of you,” she says, in what basically amounts to some version of both Don and Pete’s fantasy, a relationship in which they provide all the money, and their wife provides all the emotional support. (Pete and Trudy’s relationship fell apart when she was distracted by their child; Trudy probably staved off divorce when she embraced a banged-up Pete and comforted him by assuring him he did, in fact, need his own apartment in New York.)

When Marie gets back to Don and Megan’s apartment, Don yells at her for letting Megan get so drunk. “She’s your responsibility now,” Marie replies, and the cheating’s in the bedsheets. Don ends up helping Megan get the commercial. He watches her screen test in a smoky room, and smiles, but there’s something nostalgic about it, just as there was when he pitched the Carousel in a similarly lit room back in Season 1 — like he’s remembering when he saw Megan for the first time, when she was the young woman who was going to help him, to love him, to teach him about Beatles records, and make him the envy of every party, and not someone who needed his help too. And so, yes, Don Draper’s alone. Again. What a jerk, but what a season.

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.
 
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