“When is everything gonna get back to normal?”
Is a happy, well-adjusted Don Draper a good thing? That’s one of the biggest questions posed during Mad Men’s excellent fifth season, and it’s aimed at the other characters in the show as well as a passionate TV audience that has become seriously invested in Jon Hamm’s suave antihero.
Whereas season 4 found a newly-divorced Don struggling at his new agency and descending into depression before making a bold career move and pulling off a surprise engagement in the finale, the fifth season sort of reverses that course. Season 5 begins on Memorial Day 1966 and concludes the following spring. It also reacquaints us with a newly-married Don who actually smiles every once in a while thanks to his secretary-turned-wife-turned-copywriter Megan (Jessica Pare).
Though business is quite good at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce — mostly due to the efforts of ruthless accounts man Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) — creative director Don is on autopilot and infinitely more interested in hooking up with his wife during office hours than doing actual work. (Fellow partner Bert Cooper, played by Robert Morse, eventually calls Don out for being on “love leave.”) Meanwhile, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is desperate to remain relevant with Pete taking on a more prominent role, while copywriter Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) struggles to keep her own place in the agency thanks to Megan’s natural knack for advertising and the arrival of brash newcomer Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman).
I haven’t even mentioned the cultural shifts that result in the debonair Don Draper repeatedly looking like an old fogey — he’s mystified by the appeal of The Rolling Stones and by the new music from The Beatles — and the Civil Rights movement (on the periphery of the show for so long) literally coming through the doors of SCDP by the end of the two-part season premiere.
A big part of Mad Men’s initial appeal involved the nostalgic notion of looking back at a simpler time when men wore stylish hats with their suits and anybody could smoke anywhere at any time. As the series has progressed, creator Matthew Weiner has slowly made a lot of his characters look downright obsolete, and this season — more than any other — dramatized the way one generation overtakes the one before it.
Hamm is fantastic once again and he seemed to relish the opportunity to play a smitten, happier version of Don (if only for a little while). Still, the character’s dark side is never gone, which is just how the audience wants it. Just like Dexter fans wouldn’t ever want their favorite serial killer to become a model citizen, Mad Men devotees don’t totally want Don to keep it in his pants all the time. It helps that Megan Draper turned out to be such a polarizing figure among fans as soon as she Zou Bisou Bisou-d her way onto the season in a big way. Personally, I think Pare is pretty great and I liked that Megan was an assured, optimistic character in a sea of cynics, but I can see why some people were annoyed that she seemed to get a lot of screen time at the expense of more established characters.
Though their screen time may have been diminished compared to past seasons — which is inevitable given the way the story has progressed and the number of characters on the show — I thought everyone had ample opportunities to show what they could do. Slattery has always been great with a punchline, but this year he also got to play up Roger’s desperation and the emptiness his character can’t hide any more. The actor has never been better, and it’s a crime he wasn’t even nominated for an Emmy.
Meanwhile, Moss and Kartheiser were both outstanding as Peggy (drinking in the office; sneaking off to the movies in the middle of the day) and Pete (miserably living in the suburbs with his wife and kid) did their worst Don Draper impression. (Joke’s on them: they were impersonating the Don Draper who was miserable.) Hendricks’ Joan made some big, soul-sucking professional moves toward the end of the season and gave Don-Joan ‘shippers a treat in Ep. 10/“The Christmas Waltz.” I guess the biggest screen time casualty is January Jones’ Betty Francis, which mirrors the way Don’s new wife has replaced the old one in the show’s pecking order. On top of that, Betty experienced a dramatic weight gain to help cover up Jones’ real-life pregnancy. Jones is already not the most expressive actress in the world, so burying her under latex and makeup didn’t do her any favors.
Season 5 also seemed to feature more WTF moments than usual, including an LSD trip, two different characters performing sex acts in public, and the return of a long-lost character as a Hare Krishna. This batch of episodes also included some of the best installments in the series, including “Signal 30” (I’m shocked it took four and a half seasons for someone in the office to punch Pete Campbell in the face),“Far Away Places” (told the same story from Don, Peggy and Roger’s perspectives) and “The Other Woman” (the agency does everything it can to land the Jaguar account; Don and Peggy reach a crossroads).
The season wraps up with Nancy Sinatra crooning “You Only Live Twice” and an arresting visual that teases the return of the Don Draper we all know and loved(?)
Mad Men – Season Five is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 20 mbps. Simply put, this is as good as a TV show can look. I’m not talking about something with large-scale visual effects because TV will never be able to touch feature films in that regard. I’m talking about the care and cinematic flair that is used to compose every episode of this show and how this Blu-ray does a masterful job of presenting that for home audiences.
There is extraordinary detail throughout, especially on the medium shots and close-ups. The black levels are outstanding, especially in the presentation of shadows. The colors saturation is spot on, popping when they need to (the bright offices of SCDP, some spectacularly garish sport coats) and being more muted when necessary (Betty and Henry Francis’ grand, dreary mansion). This is as good as it gets.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also top notch, providing all of the dialogue with perfect clarity. I was most impressed and pleasantly surprised by the subtle immersion provided by the track. When we’re at the SCDP offices, there are always phones ringing in the background; when we’re at Don and Megan’s city apartment, the subs give us the low rumble of traffic underneath. Thankfully, the track also knows when to shut up, making for some haunting silences during a couple of key moments (like a tragedy at the office as well as Don and Peggy’s emotional scene). This track may not be asked to do as much as others, but it does a heck of a lot more than you’d expect.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Mad Men Say the Darndest Things: (16:41) Producer/writer Semi Chellas, writer Jonathan Igla and producer/writer Erin Levy talk about crafting dialogue for each of the main characters. The most fun part is watching the montages of their most quotable moments. It’ll save you a trip to YouTube.
What is There To Love If Not the Enigma?: (17:10) Art professor Emily Braun and Ara Merjian, an assistant professor of Italian studies, discuss Greek-born Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, whose work is about “how we can never recuperate the past.” The duo talks about the use of statues and mannequins in different forms of art throughout history. This special feature is interesting, but, at best, tangentially related to Mad Men; the season 5 cover art features Don Draper looking at mannequins and his own reflection in a shop window. I’m not sure that necessitated a 17-minute mini doc.
The Party of the Century: (23:05) Author Deborah Davis and bandleader Peter Duchin break down Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball of 1966. Other than Davis speculating that Roger Sterling may be invited — and that Don Draper would definitely be invited — to Capote’s soiree, there’s not much of a point to this one unless you’re really into party planning.
Scoring Mad Men: Themes of Season 5: (27:56) Composer David Carbonara talks about how certain characters on the show have their own musical cues and how he applied them to the latest batch of episodes. Music is an important part of the show and Carbonara works it in masterfully. Orchestrator Geoff Stradling, meanwhile, doesn’t say much at all.
Scoring Mad Men: Inside a Session: (21:14) This special feature is precisely what it sounds like: we get clips of key scenes from season 5 interspersed with footage of the orchestra performing in a studio. Carbonara and Stradling add comments about the mechanics of their working relationship. Stradling finally pipes up.
The Uniform Time Act of 1966: (5:22) Examines a collection of events that led to the introduction of Daylight Savings Time. Seriously. That’s what this is about. Other than the Uniform Tim Act being enacted in 1966 — the setting for season 5 — this has even less to do with Mad Men than a 17-minute discussion about Giorgio de Chirico.
Newsweek Magazine Digital Gallery: This cool, interactive feature allows you to check out every Newsweek magazine cover from 1966. Then again, there’s a strong chance I only thought this was cool because I studied magazine journalism in college.
Commentaries: Each episode features two tracks: one usually has Weiner with the director and/or writer of that episode, while the other features some of the actors. Weiner doesn’t do much to dispel his reputation as a bit of a control freak and egomaniac. Fortunately, he’s also staggeringly knowledgeable about the show and the time period, so his entertaining commentaries are a must-listen for any fan. The actors, on the other hand, mostly make fun of themselves and bust each other’s chops. Hamm is a relentless jokester, and Jared Harris (who plays Lane Pryce) brings a great, morbid sense of humor to his sessions.
Mad Men recently failed to win its fifth(!) consecutive Best Drama Series Emmy, but don’t mistake that for any sort of dip in quality. (The debut season of Homeland was simply superlative.) There was also a sense among fans that the first few episodes weren’t up to the show’s excellent standard. The show was gone for well over a year as AMC and Weiner hammered out a deal before season 5 finally premiered with a two-part episode. I liken that to someone who is extremely hungry getting their hands on some food, eating way too much and making themselves sick.
With the benefit of some distance from those circumstances, I can confidently say that Mad Men is still among the best shows on television and that season 5 produced some of its greatest moments. (Certainly some of its more out-there moments.) I like that the special features on this Blu-ray tried to give you a sense of what was happening in the country at the time, but including some of them was a stretch. Still, that’s a minor quibble because this is a great looking and great sounding presentation of a sensational show.