The Best of MAD MEN Season 5: Episode & Performance
The fact that Mad Men is not watched and loved by virtually every person on Earth fills me with deep emotional and philosophical turbulence. The show is the greatest weapon for those who are keen to suggest that television is usurping cinema as the Great Populist Art. It’s so good that Homeland’s Emmy sweep this year was basically a chance for the Academy to tell Matt Weiner that it’s polite to share. And how thrilling is it, as a viewer, to know that we live in a time when something like Mad Men is possible? At the end of the line, we’ll have a 91-hour piece of art. If it is true that Mad Men episodes are better than most contemporary cinema, what kind of treasure chest do we have in front of us?
Season Five was recently released on DVD and I did the customary rewatch and explored the extra features and commentary tracks. Not that his ego needs any more prodding, but Weiner does give some of the most illuminating commentary I’ve ever heard. The “recap” culture surrounding Mad Men and so many other current television shows can make it difficult to maintain perspective on a program’s long-term existence. A weekly chapter will end and the world feasts on the details of that episode, often forgetting that we’re dealing with a unique type of narrative – one that can stretch across an entire decade or an entire lifetime with a level of nuance that’s simply impossible in other forms. Weekly recapitulation, as a form, is a strong tool that ultimately fails when trying to contextualize an entire season. So, in the interest of evaluating Mad Men’s most recent season, I want to look at some highlights and see how this installment fits in the full history of the show.
In lieu of a long rambling post, I’m cutting it up into specific categories. Today, I’m doing “Best Episode” and “Best Performance.” Later this week, we’ll have highlights for Scene, Shot, Montage, Costume, Set, Sterling-ism, and more! Let me know your picks in the comments. And don’t forget to argue with mine.
BEST EPISODE: “Signal 30”
Some will suggest that the best episode of Season 5 is a more flamboyant one – “The Other Woman,” which served as the climax of the season or “Far Away Places,” which boasts Mad Men’s most daring structural experiment. But it is “Signal 30,” an episode of brave psychological acrobatics, that best displays what Mad Men is capable of accomplishing.
The story of “Signal 30” belongs to Pete Campbell. Pete’s emotional collapse during Season 5 is possibly even more affecting than Lane’s suicide. He’s a unique creature in this world, but one that we all know and understand. A man who has worked so hard for stability and wealth and power that he doesn’t know what to make of it when he gets there. Like all of us, Pete is a child stepping into situations understood to be “adult.” He and Peggy are our most accommodating guides through the 1960’s, seated somewhere in the nebulous land between youth and old age. They’re neither the agents of change nor the agents of stasis. If you watch closely, you’ll see Pete’s hairline recede noticeably from “A Little Kiss” to “The Phantom.”
“Signal 30” begins with Pete laughing at the maudlin, overwrought driver’s-ed horror film. Removed from the anxiety, he’s able to find humor in it. Then we’re back at his one-story ranch house in the country and the faucet goes drip drip drip. He “fixes” it by cranking the pressure up so high that the leak stops but the faucet waits to explode. Season 5 is partially about how these characters greet permanent problems with temporary solutions – infidelity, LSD, food, and so on. Of course, some folks, like Lane and Joan, do find a way to address major issues and are dramatically changed because of it.
The episode continues, making us privy to Ken’s burgeoning career as a fiction writer. We are allowed into Pete’s home with the Drapers and the Cosgroves and, underneath the easy, rustic posture of Pete’s presentation, we recognize a storm. Mad Men has always been a show about reconciling the worlds of Work and Home. This conflict is made obvious in the Draper household, but Pete represents the core of this war in Season 5. His inability to find peace between the two manifests itself in his physical difficulty with the commute. Pete’s story for the season ultimately resolves when Trudy relinquishes and suggests that he get an apartment in the city. This is more than just a dramatic opportunity for future plot development; it’s a symbol of his separation. Trudy, unknowingly, is ending their marriage. Pete spent all of Season 5 in between Work and Home, finding Beth in the same half-world, but Work won in the end.
Later in the episode, Don, Roger, and Pete take a Jaguar representative to a whorehouse. Pete’s experience is initiated by a series of fantasies where he finally submits to being called a king. In “Commissions & Fees,” Don says, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” This relentless quest for power and control over life and, as a result, others is just as present in Pete’s struggle between Work and Home. “Signal 30”’s climax is, of course, the cathartic bare-knuckle contest between Pete and Lane – new and old, American and British. However, Mad Men doesn’t always find fulfillment by satisfying the audience and uses Pete’s humiliation to motivate a dynamite scene between him and Don in the elevator. Earlier, Pete assumed that Don was judging him for his sexual indulgence and tells him, “I have everything.”
As they stand in the elevator, Pete’s face swollen with shame, he says two things that define his character for the season. First, he remarks that “this is an office, we’re supposed to be friends.” The episode is the first in a series to take that idea to task – just how wide is that gulf between Work and Home? But then Pete gets desperate and says, “I have nothing,” mirroring his empty confidence from earlier.
“Signal 30” has one of the great endings of the Season and of the Series, really. Ken, who has been told not to write fiction, initiates a new pen name by writing a story called “The Man with the Miniature Orchestra,” referring to Pete’s enormous stereo. We see Pete back in driver’s-ed, this time watching his desires walk by without noticing. The drip drip drip returns, this time only in his imagination. Something much bigger needs to be fixed.
“Signal 30″ is a sort of climax in Pete’s development throughout the entire series. We can easily recall the spunky turd from the pilot and the blackmailing tool from Season 3. But it’s Pete’s inability to change himself that defines him. Of course, he might not even believe that he needs to change, but rather expects the world around him to change. This episode is a rare example of Mad Men committing to major, irreversible character evolution so early in a season. “The Other Woman” can be seen as doing the same thing for Joan, but “Signal 30″ carries a more urgent structure, less fascinated with itself and more prone to self-discovery.
BEST PERFORMANCE: Christina Hendricks in “The Other Woman”
After “The Other Woman” aired, there were a few commentators who contended that Joan “wouldn’t really do that.” I still find that sentiment to be embarrassing for those who made it. “The Other Woman” isn’t perfect structurally, but in terms of carefully being led through a series of difficult character decisions and arriving at a satisfying conclusion, it’s a masterpiece. And it wouldn’t be half of what it is without Christina Hendricks. She gives the smartest performance of the year.
Hendricks understood what was going on. She knew that this proposition was a major storytelling risk. Instead of heightening the emotion, she chokes it back and lives with it. Joan’s decision is cold and cynical. She uses the tool that probably got her a job in the first place to secure her own future and the health of her son. The writers designed a scenario where a moment can pay the price for eternity – it’s almost hard to imagine Joan rejecting the offer. The only thing Joan needs to do is survive that singular experience and she is given everything she needs.
Hendricks plays the critical moment – that graceful intercutting between the Jaguar pitch and her exploitation – with heartbreaking gravity.
Again, imagine how easily these moments could be overplayed. The moment where Hendricks grabs his hand and opens her own dress is one of crushing resignation. My sadness doesn’t come from Joan’s choice to sell herself, it comes from the knowledge that this is her only way to get where she wants to go. This is where Mad Men excels as social history/social criticism. It allows us to invest ourselves in these personalities and then subjects them to period realities. Sometimes the outcome is funny, curious, or in this case, awful.
“The Other Woman” is the climax of the season as well as the climax for Joan’s character in the series thus far. Hendricks plays out an event with permanent consequences as quietly as possible. It’s an unforgettable episode and one that will continue to reinforce Joan’s motivations and philosophy for the rest of the series.