BEWARE, SPOILERS AHEAD
I have always been one of Mad Men’s strongest fans. I watched the show immediately when it started airing and it was love at first sight. For once, here was a show that did not care what the audience wished or expected. The pace was slow and analytical, the dialogues rich and subtle, the characters deep and complex, and the acting reached perfection. The first four seasons I adored, and watched them at least four times each. After the fourth season, I started to get worried. The announcement that season 5 would be delayed seemed ominous: how can a show survive such a long break? I was also worried at some signs that I saw in season 4 that some of the characters were becoming more and more Manichean, and thus more caricatural. Of course, I mean Betty here. Throughout season 4, Betty became increasingly mean, and even more of a bad mother than she was before. Gone was the emotional complexity that had been exposed during the first three seasons. The subtlety of Betty’s character started slowly to fade away when she was one of the most complex characters on the show.
This phenomenon did not stop there, unfortunately. When season 5 began, I was at first shocked to see that in the two-hour premiere, there was no Betty. But still, the two episodes were nice and entertaining. Some themes though, treated with a lot of delicacy in the previous seasons, seemed a bit more heavy-handed. The script insisted a tad too much on the fact that Don was now getting old and that the age discrepancy between him and his very young new wife was going to be a problem. I was not very enthusiastic but still kept my faith in Matthew Weiner. The discovery of “fat” Betty, then gave me quite a shock, and I believed that it was the way for Weiner to bring back the many layers that Betty once had. How wrong was I. As the season progressed, I became increasingly displeased with the show. I used to believe that Weiner knew where he was headed with his numerous characters, but that belief diminished episode after episode.
Running in circles
It’s always the same old song. Don still has the same frown, it’s hard to tell whether or not he’s happy with his new life. He stopped cheating, that seems to be the main change in him. However, from his various fights with Megan and his disappointed look when she emancipates herself from him, you can tell that it’s only a matter of time before he starts sleeping around again. It seems a bit thin for a character the size of Don Draper. Now that we know his whole story, now that he stopped lying to the people he loved, Weiner has trouble giving his main character something to do other than drink and look depressed. There’s nothing that we haven’t seen before: his running away and abandoning Megan on the stop during their brief getaway, his anger towards Peggy as his little protégé starts to become more and more independent, his harshness towards those he believes are like him when they are not, his refusal to deal with his guilt issues. To me, this is the greatest problem of all. For the past four years, we have seen the character evolve into this man constantly caught up by his guilt and his dark secrets. Don never liked himself, not as Dick and not as Don either. So each time he builds a new life, hoping that it will cover up for his shame and self-hatred. But apart from the resurgence of Adam, the brother he led to suicide, Don seems pretty fine with himself. He even starts to trash Betty when he is the one who lied to her for years and years. And Weiner asks us to sympathize with the liar more than with the cheated wife. In one episode, Don says that he doesn’t want Betty to put “her fat nose” into one of his matters, and wishes that Megan “won’t end up like Betty”. This contempt for his ex-wife seems to be coming more from Weiner than it would from the character. Don would know that he led Betty to what she became: an unhappy housewife.
On the other hand, Weiner, like Don, has fallen in love again, much to the viewer’s dismay. Though Jessica Paré is a fine actress, and Megan appears to be very nice and very proper, I find nothing fascinating at all about this character. At first, I thought she was a very ambitious girl who had married Don to get ahead. But that thought was invalidated when Megan decided to leave the company. So in the end, we are left with a nice girl, who treats Sally as a friend, who loves her husband in spite of his many flaws, and who wants to be an actress. In the last episode, there was one interesting sentence that shed some light on Megan. Her mother tells Don that her daughter’s problem is that she has an artistic temperament but that she is not an artist. That is an interesting theme, but I failed to see it in the many scenes Megan was in. All I saw was a girl just trying to get a job in the acting business. And from her good performance in Zou Bisou, I hardly see why she would not be talented. Weiner’s fascination is hard for me to understand: Megan’s screen test in the last episode did not bring any emotion in me the way “Carousel” did, when Don watched images of Betty and their children. Weiner centers most of his episodes on Megan and Don, leaving the others with cheap and soapy plot lines. I am really getting tired of Pete, for example, he too treads water. Always whiny, always dissatisfied, always the same sad little boy who never gets what he wants. I thought that gaining power inside the company would change him a bit, make him progress (whether that progress is good or bad). I found his affair with Beth horribly irritating. And what about those electroshocks? Has Weiner been watching a little too much of Homeland before writing that one? The other absurd extra-marital affair of the show was Harry and the girl from Hare Krishna. That scene was a climax in ridicule.
“Getting tired of this dynamic”
In season 5, Betty has obviously become the Wicked Witch of the West. She continues to be horrid to Sally (apart from their final and nice scene together) and still sulks in another unhappy marriage. I have always loved the way January Jones handled her character. The actress, it is
obvious, has absolute faith in Weiner’s decisions. And boy, did she have to handle some nasty stuff this season. Weiner is decided in humiliating the character (or the actress?) over and over again. She has to swallow some cream right out of the can, stuff herself with ice cream (hers AND Sally’s). And then, confronted to Megan’s thin young body, she decides to wreck havoc in Don’s marriage. But fails, because she is a nasty woman, whereas Megan is the nice, perky, never-tired-of-having-sex wife. Mad Men has become a soap, where they are good guys and bad guys. The Evil Betty versus Marvelous Megan dynamic started to tire me after the first four episodes. Perhaps the main problem is that the dynamic of the show hasn’t changed at all. All the plot twist are far too predictable. Lane’s fate, for example, is far from being shocking, and we are not really concerned by his departure, nor moved. The end of the season is also far too easy. From the first episode I thought the season would end on Don’s relapse. I hoped he would relapse in an unexpected way, but it’s the usual boring way that won. Weiner seems to give in to easy tricks. The elevator scene, Sally’s “dirty” line, Glen’s supposedly philosophical thoughts… All seemed fake and cheap and unworthy of a show that used to deal in subtlety and finesse. Gone too Weiner’s taste for detail. Julia Ormond as Megan’s French Canadian mother is painful to watch. Why hire a real French Canadian for the father and not the mother? The discrepancy in accents is quite unsettling. Furthermore, I doubt that divorce was so common in the 60’s. Now, most of the characters are divorced, or have been, and do so quick as a flash. Roger (twice now), Joan, Don…
There were some good things in this season too. The episode that reunited Dawn and Peggy, for example, was one of the best episodes of the season. Michael Ginsberg is an interesting character and I hope he will be more developed next year. I am harsh only because Mad Men used to be a passion of mine and I am sad to see it decline. What has happened to Matthew Weiner for him to drift away from the essence of his show? Is it because his focus is now on the production of his first feature? Or has the long break killed his creativity?
I do not really care for the answer. All I wish for is that next year, when I’ll watch the premiere of season 6, I’ll find the Mad Men I used to love.