The fifth season of Mad Men had a troubled creation, with behind-the-scenes squabbles threatening its existence and delaying it for what felt like years, so it's perhaps not surprising that it turned out to be very dark in tone. It may have begun with some Gallic singing and dancing but by the end we were in territory that was both grimy and tragic.
It's been such a dark journey that it seems like a long time ago that Jessica Paré announced herself to the world with that sultry performance of Zou Bisou Bisou, and to understand it all will probably require waiting until Mad Men has finished, and then watching it all the way through again. It's that kind of show, one that will become even more satisfying the second time through, picking up on all of the things we've missed along the way, all the subtleties and signposts for future plot developments.
Certainly who would have guessed at the start of the series (SPOILERS!) that Peggy would be working for another agency, that Joan would sleep her way to becoming a partner in the firm or that poor Lane would end it all by hanging himself in his office? For a show that often moves glacially slow, those are big events that all happened in the last three episodes of the season, but then again the whole show is about change, isn't it? If Zou Bisou Bisou feels like a long time ago, just think back to the first episode and Peggy timidly stepping into that Sterling Cooper office as a new secretary.
For those who complain that little actually happens in Mad Men, they are missing the bigger picture of the seismic events that were happening in 1960s America, and, up to 1967 now, you sense greater turmoil to come as the decade reaches its sour end. The ability of characters to cope with the changing world has been a factor this time around, with racial issues raising their heads, LSD blowing minds and The Beatles blowing a whole in AMC budgets for that amazing Tomorrow Never Knows scene.
We've seen Pete Campbell and Lane both sinking to new depths, fatally in the latter's case, with the two having a punch-up in the boardroom on their way down. Campbell, has found that emulating Don Draper's life isn't as fun as he hoped, and is being crushed by suburban family life (just as Don was) and has resorted to cheering himself up with other women (just as Don did). Vincent Kartheiser has always been excellently odious as Pete, but has really upped the sleaziness this time around. You sense darker times are to come for him.
With January Jones reduced to fleeting bitchy appearances (involving an unfortunate fatsuit first time out) around her real-life pregnancy, we've seen less of Betty than usual, which is a shame, but she was in fine form towards the end of the season, fighting a cold war against the Drapers, with the blossoming Sally her battlefield. Paré has certainly impressed in her first full season, showing both sexiness and steel to stand up to Don over her career, ditching advertising just after her first success to try and be an actress. By the end, she'd had to compromise by manipulating Don into getting her an acting role in an advert, but will she lose his attention in the process?
There's so much else that's gone on, from Kinsey's reinvention as a Krishna follower to Harry's hilarious cock-up backstage at a Rolling Stones gig to Roger's LSD trip (and his bare bottomed appearance at the end of the season), but Peggy's decision to look for pastures new was a surprising development. You can't help but feel that she'll end up back at SCDP, but whether it's a glorious return or one with her tail between her legs is hard to predict. She may not have got to go to Paris yet, but seemed content in her hotel room at the end, fornicating animals aside.
Of course, the real jaw-dropper has always been Joan, who has had a baby, got a divorce and become an SCDP partner this season, as well as losing her ally Lane along the way. Christina Hendricks has had some fantastic scenes (that Christmas date with Don being a good example) but the episode where she faced her own indecent proposal was phenomenal. Of all the iconic images there have been this year, the expression on her face as she watched Peggy walk out for the last time while she was celebrating the Jaguar deal was just perfect.
After five seasons of a TV show, the temptation is always there to say that it's not as good as it used to be, or to take its quality for granted when there's shinier new things to admire. But there's nothing quite like Mad Men; a historical show that has no guns, no swearing, no nudity, no violence and often no action. And yet its as gripping as Game Of Thrones, as grimy as The Killing and as sophisticated as... well anything else you could think of. So cherish Matthew Weiner's creation, because there's all too little that even comes close. It'll be a long wait for Season 6, but hopefully not too long...
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