The Mad Men Project: Epilogue

by Colin McGuire. 0 Comments

When I initially had the idea to spearhead something like this, I was wary. It takes a lot of commitment from people who I knew I wouldn’t be able to compensate fairly for their time, thoughts and work, and as each week has passed through this season, there has always been a tiny part of me that was at least a little uncomfortable with the notion that if anyone wanted to back out of a week — or for that matter, just woke up one morning and thought “Why am I doing this? I am going to tell Colin I’m out and I hope he trips and falls over his own two feet today” — they could, and there would be absolutely nothing I could do about it.

Fortunately, though, that never happened. I consider myself unbelievably lucky to be able to convince (i.e. con) these people into participating in our tiny observation of a television show that only a tiny amount of people even watch. They have carried this thing. They have gone so far above and beyond my expectations and without question, I am eternally grateful for their posts each week.

Yes, I knew it would alienate the three people who might read this blog on a regular basis if they didn’t previously pay much attention to “Mad Men” or if they simply never thought it was all that great of a television program anyway. And sure, I believe there was a commenter at one point who suggested we get a life and stop over-analyzing a silly TV show. But to me, the whole thing was worth it. It opened my eyes to story line perspectives that I know I would have never come up with on my own. It made me remain passionate about a show that I was clearly ready to walk away from about halfway into the season. And, of course most importantly, it allowed me to weasel my way out of writing at least one blog post a week.

If there is still anyone left reading this blog or this project, you must know how thankful I am that you stuck with it and you found something — anything — that you deemed valuable while watching the fifth season of this show. I would also encourage you to have a look at any or all of these people’s websites, Twitter accounts, Tumblr accounts and personal blogs in the future when taking the normal six minutes we all take each day to scour the Interwebs. My most sincere respect and gratitude goes out to the writers who so fearlessly tried to make heads or tails of this show, and because there is nothing that never ceases to exist on the Internet anymore, I hope that someday we can all look back on this and giggle about how obnoxious I can be when writing three-paragraph walk-ups to much more intelligent commentary than I could have ever offered.

So, now, without further ado, it saddens me to have to say the following for the very last time: Let’s see what our board of experts had to say about season five of “Mad Men” …

Adam Campbell (Blog) – Roger Sterling

I kicked off this maiden voyage into television criticism/analysis wondering if Roger Sterling’s character would benefit from some kind of redemptive arc in season five, perhaps a chance for the writers to show that a soul and a conscience lie beneath his two-piece suits and immaculately coiffed white hair. However, season five totally demolished the concepts of redemption, conscience and soul in broad strokes and no character emerged unscathed. Unlike Don, there was no “kindler, gentler” version of Roger, only a more self-absorbed and slightly psychedelic incarnation.

Roger started off the season grappling, in the most desperate fashion, with a newfound sense of professional irrelevancy in the wake of Lucky Strike’s departure. Watching Roger trying to poach Pete’s accounts was painful yet funny, and it was sort of disheartening to see the perpetually snot-nosed Pete effectively castrate his boss and one-time mentor. But Roger hung in there with subterfuge and deep pockets, and archenemy Pete was stricken with his own set of life crises that allowed Roger to escape the crosshairs. Thankfully, this sad-sack version of Roger didn’t last all season, and the “Codfish Ball” and “Commissions and Fees” episodes in particular featured the rogue wit and silver tongue of Roger The Account Man that we’ve all come to know and love (or hate).

On the interpersonal/fairer sex front, Roger carried on in his usual caddish manner, bored and frustrated by his doomed-from-the-start marriage to Jane. A potentially scandalous story development could have taken place with Roger’s illegitimate fatherhood of Kevin Harris, but Joan was smart enough to keep him at arm’s length from her and the baby. Roger’s dalliances with Mrs. Marie Calvet also could have ended in calamity (or fist in the face from Don), but he managed to squeak by yet again. However, Roger’s chemistry with the ladies wasn’t going to captivate or surprise viewers as much as his dalliances with the handiwork of a Swiss chemist.

I originally dismissed Roger’s LSD experience as a misguided move on the part of the writing staff to introduce LSD as a “Hey that is sooo 1960s, we should throw it in there” move and a cheap way to get Roger out of his marriage to Jane. The season finale had me backpedaling on this idea. While I don’t think it’s a storytelling masterstroke, the usage of LSD by a jaded, selfish and cynical ad man is a fitting piece of symbolism. Advertising is built upon escapism and the promise of happiness through a captivating but ultimately meaningless stream of imagery, very similar to the vibrant hallucinations and ultimately hollow revelations of an LSD trip. Roger never faced any landmark event in his life with any apparent seriousness (especially the divorce and suicide of this season), and the LSD gives him another convenient method of escape. I do believe his love affair with acid will be short-lived, however, not due to the drug’s eventual illegality, but when its totally co-opted by a long-haired youth movement with a penchant for liberalism, vagrancy and rock and roll.

As I shut the book on season five, it sticks in my craw that Roger remains so darn unlikeable. Is there any shred of decency, shame or moral fiber in his being that will finally show through? Aside from minute glimpses (his “date” with Sally at the Cancer Society Ball, his insistence on financially supporting Kevin) into the “kinder, gentler” realm, Roger remains a vain, impulsive, cynical and narcissistic man child. “Mad Men” is rightly praised for the warts-and-all humanity of its key characters, but with Roger, it’s impossible to see past the warts.

Julie Ciaramella (TwitterBlog) – Megan Draper

I went into this season unsure of what to think about Megan. I wasn’t prepared to hate her, but I also wasn’t prepared to like her as much as I do. In fact, she intrigued me so much during the premiere that I asked if I could write about her in addition to Betty. I had a feeling that she was going to become a huge part of this season, and a character who would have an impact on various storylines going forward.

Megan gave us a much-talked about scene when she started off the season singing “Zou Bisou Bisou,” a moment that I think either endeared her to a lot of people or made a lot of people hate her. I sat there watching her and wondering, “Who is this character?” I wanted to know more about her. I had a feeling there was another side to Megan beyond the one we see vamping it up in a black mini-dress.

At the start of the season, Megan is riding high on her success as a copywriter at SCDP. For someone who never displayed any real interest in advertising, her talent came as a surprise to her, her co-workers and the audience at home. Megan displayed a real knack for getting clients, as seen in the episode where she wows the boss from Heinz. Since she was doing so well, it was shocking when she announced she wanted to leave SCDP to become an actress.

You can divide this season for Megan into two parts: when she worked at SCDP and after she left. It all starts to go downhill quickly during the infamous Howard Johnson’s Orange Sherbet Incident. Yes, Megan was incredibly immature during that scene, but it almost made me like her more. Here was a woman who wasn’t going to sit there and do what her husband asked. She was going to do what she wanted. And leaving SCDP was a further illustration of this: she might have been good at advertising, but she knew it wasn’t for her. So she decided to go after her dreams and do what made her happy, which was acting. She knew it wouldn’t bring immediate success. Her parents and husband disapproved, but she was going to go after it, probably knowing that what she faced ahead was a difficult road.

Without getting too personal, I’ve been in a similar situation, in a job I thought I was good at but hated, and I threw caution to the wind, packed up my things, and left. I didn’t have a real plan; I had an application to graduate school in the mail and a lot of uncertainty and fear about the future. I could identify with Megan’s decision. You know when something isn’t right for you, and sometimes the only thing you can do is leave and try to go after what you really want. You’ll face some setbacks. There might be months or years of struggle. But most of the time, life has a way of working itself out. In the season finale, we start to see that Megan’s decision might be paying off when she books her first commercial.

Megan displays some brilliance in booking that job as Beauty of “Beauty and the Beast” in that commercial for Butler Shoes. I wrote about this last week, but the way she asks about it for herself instead of her friend is a great move, and one I saw coming as soon as her friend asked Megan about it. She uses Don’s position to get hired. He doesn’t seem happy about it at first but seems to come around to the idea after watching her screen test.

I wonder if next season, we’ll see this job translate into more jobs, or if we’ll see Megan doing something else. I think the writers left Megan in a hopeful place. It would have been easy to end the season with her still curled up in bed feeling sorry for herself, but instead she’s doing something she loves. It’s not about money for her — it’s about doing what makes her happy. She’s too driven to keep feeling sorry for herself, and that’s what I like about her.

As for her marriage with Don, I don’t know if they’ll still be together by the time season six rolls around. They’ve vacillated between a loving marriage of equals and a scary, sexually charged relationship (witness the post-party scene in the season premiere, or Don chasing her around their apartment and tackling her to the ground). And with the way the episode ended, will Don cheat on her? If he does, will Megan find out? I want to know, but until then, I’m going to keep rooting for Megan. The women on this show have always been the most interesting characters to me, and I’m excited to see what journey Megan will be on, whatever happens to her.

Mark Zeltner (TwitterBlog and Blog) – Don Draper

Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious. Both are disappointed — Oscar Wilde.

I spend a lot of time surrounded by young adults and I always find it amusing when I hear them plotting out the rest of their lives. They have everything worked out from who they will marry to how many kids they will have to where they will work and at what profession. I used to warn them that it is impossible to plan out your life like that. They would always look at me with condescending grins and resume planning. I don’t warn them anymore. Soon enough they will find out that, at best, life is nothing but barely contained chaos.

I think the acknowledgement of the chaos of life is the genius of “Mad Men.” In reality, nothing much happens on the show. There are no obnoxious genius doctors saving lives or maniacal serial killers battling other maniacal serial killers or sexy vampires sucking on other sexy vampires. The show is about middle-aged people who are married with children that work in an office in a nonessential profession (no wonder no network would touch this show). It all seems so normal that when something does happen it is all the more shocking. Just like in life, when you think you have it all figured out, something always seems to happen to destroy that notion.

When Don Draper proposed to Megan at the end of last season most people were shocked. It seemed so random. But most of the people I know, including myself, got married on a whim. The truth is that at some point most people feel the urge to get married and then look around to see who is available. The notion that we all have a soul mate — and if we find and marry that person that life will be wonderful — is ludicrous. There is no grand scheme. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. When Draper married Megan, he was taking a shot at happiness. It looks like it isn’t going to work out. And life goes on.

I think the most annoying aspect of the Don/Megan marriage to many people was the idea that a man as smooth, attractive and intelligent as Draper would fall into the classic middle-aged man’s trap of marrying a much younger, less sophisticated woman (in contrast, it would have been shocking if Roger didn’t do this, but he did with the typical result). The reason for Don’s attraction to Megan is obvious. She is beautiful, easily impressed and worshipful. The trap is that all becomes very boring, very quickly. The only time the marriage worked is when she demonstrated a penchant for writing advertising copy. When he walked away from her and her misguided acting ambitions he was admitting that he needs a woman that is capable of challenging him. But for now he will have to make do with a couple of girls at the bar.

Draper’s work life seemed like an afterthought this season. He isn’t writing much and when he does he has to cheat to get the client to accept his idea over Ginsberg’s. It took Lane’s suicide to stir up the old fire and from the looks of the activity at the agency in the last episode, business is good. It will be interesting to see how this level of success sits with him. I suspect that it will cause a restlessness that will permeate the rest of the firm. Roger observed about Don, “You used to love the word no. No made you hard.” If that is true (and it obviously is) then what happens when the answer is almost always a yes? How much happiness is enough? As Don himself observed, there is never enough.

Ultimately, “Mad Med” works because it does an excellent job of detailing the capriciousness of life. I’ve discussed in detail before Don Draper’s need to control his environment, personally and professionally. He is a man that would steal another man’s identity to escape a childhood and a life that didn’t fit with his image of himself. But even with his obsessive need to control his environment, Draper’s life is a random mess. His drinking is often out of control. Even in the first year of his second marriage, he can barely contain the desire to prowl for other women. Like many men, his identity is defined by his career.

He has a firmer grasp on that but as he gets older he can hear the footsteps of younger, brighter men approaching from behind. He is no longer the golden boy. At some point in life we all look around and realize that our best days are behind us but we still have to get up every day and go through the motions. What other choice do we have unless we want to wind up like Lane? Don Draper is far too egotistical to take that route. But I suspect that his journey will get even darker as the natural forces of life close in on him while he continues the never ending search for … more.

Courtney Pomeroy (TwitterTwitterBlogBlog) – Joan Harris

Season five of “Mad Men” ended on a happy note for many of its female characters. Peggy got to ride on an airplane, and was tasked with naming a new ladies’ cigarette. Megan finally landed an acting job, even if she did have to stand on Don’s shoulders to do so. Betty got the satisfaction of feeling needed by her daughter. Sally … well, Sally is a teenager now. Actually, she doesn’t count, because she’s never happy. Remember Roger’s daughter in season one? That’s probably the direction she’s headed in.

And then there’s Joan. The single mother who slept her way into a partnership at a company where she deserved to come by that title honestly. A formerly carefree woman who has become world-weary after a failed marriage and, more recently, guilt about Lane’s suicide.

Lest we forget, Joan is 36 years old. That Xerox-copied version of her driver’s license posted on a cork board by a peeved-off Paul Kinsey in season two tells us that much. Peggy and Megan are still in their 20s, with plenty of time to achieve their greatest hopes and dreams. Betty, who is also in her 30s at this point, is right where women in the ’60s were expected to be at that age. Married with children and a huge house in the ‘burbs.

Joan doesn’t fit into either of those categories. She’s in the same boat as Don and Roger, who are struggling to maintain relevance in a world that is evolving into something very different than it was in their respective hey deys.

When Don and Joan were in a bar exchanging feelings about love and marriage earlier this season, they seemed more relaxed and happy than they had all season. And they weren’t seated in a mod spot filled with young, hip people, either. Their juke box tunes were Sinatra-esque, not at all resembling the The Rolling Stones or The Beatles.

No longer in her prime, Joan is probably thinking the same thing Roger wondered aloud to Don in one episode: “When is everything going to get back to normal?”

But a series of life-changing events have probably made that impossible for Mrs. Harris. I don’t think we’ll see the carefree girl we first met in season one again. But when the dust settles from the upheaval of having a baby, getting a divorce and coming by her SCDP partnership in a less-than-honest fashion, maybe we’ll find that Joan has become an even better version of the sexy, no-nonsense character we’ve come to love.

If there was one thing about the finale I really enjoyed, it was the image of the partners looking out at the view from the firm’s new second floor. Season five had an extremely depressing tone to it, but maybe Joan saw hope for herself on that Manhattan horizon.

Tyler Hannah – Pete Campbell

Viewers must be so used to the old “Mad Men” routine of starting a new firm after every season, that our illustrious season finale this year probably appeared blasé. To use a word that Colin used in his lead-in to last week’s entry, there are many aspects of “The Phantom” that were “cheap.” However, that being said, the fifth season finale was a solid episode that will carry its own weight in the annals of the series.

Cheap was the montage of each character while Nancy Sinatra’s rendition of “You Only Live Twice” played. Being in agreement with Colin, cheap also was Beth’s mental decline and memory demise. Perhaps “cheap” is being confused with “tidy” or “succinct.” In actuality, Weiner’s method of buttonholing (aka cheap) the events in the finale led to a logical and tightly-scripted end to season five. For example, the cheap end to Beth was a setup to Pete’s fight with her husband on the train. Pete’s ineffectual fight with the husband was a setup to securing his Manhattan apartment from Trudy. Thus, the promise of the Manhattan apartment leads us into season six.

Now on to the predictions for next season. Pete will acquire his downtown apartment and sink deeper into his depression because the inevitable carousing that his freedom will garner will not fulfill or satisfy him. Having shoved Megan into her burgeoning acting career, Don will fall from his perch of fidelity and begin having affairs, because, remember, he met Betty while she was a model on a photo shoot (perhaps Pete will invite Don over to his bachelor pad for a romping party or two). Megan will meet a handsome young actor who shares her passion for the arts and zeal for life, causing marital strife. Roger will usher in the late ’60s high on LSD and give up on what little interest he has left in being an ad man. Peggy will succeed in dubbing her new Virginia Slim cigarette and enjoy success in her new job, albeit that this prediction flies in the face of her experience in her Richmond hotel room. And lastly, Joan’s divorce will be finalized, and she, not Peggy, will be the face of the struggle for women’s rights.

Finally, in what is to be the ultimate entry for the first annual “Mad Men” project, I want to express my fondness for my assigned character. Colin assigned to me Pete’s character knowing full well that I despised and loathed him. Though my entries were sometimes scathing and chiding, I have come to like Pete. Pete has in him something that is in all of us, but, personally, I can find no better character than Pete with whom to share a defeatist, pessimistic, and down right bitter attitude. In essence, Pete became my surrogate, fictional mood-twin. He and I share negative personality attributes. Perhaps this project was not so much a dissection of a television drama, but a way to experience self-realizations and epiphanies … Nope. Colin was just more aware of my kinship to Pete than I was.

Cristina Moreno (TwitterTumblrWebsite) – Peggy Olson

It’s hard to write about Peggy Olson without identifying with her a little. She’s a young person who is still figuring things out. She’s socially awkward and almost always says the wrong thing. She’s clever and capable, but makes cringe-worthy mistakes. Her sense of style is … developing. She’s been involved in some unfortunate romantic entanglements. Peggy’s kind of a mess, but that’s what so beautiful about her, because even with all of her lovely faults, she perseveres. If you don’t know a Peggy Olson, it’s probably because you are a Peggy Olson.

Season five of “Mad Men” set up a series of challenges for Peggy — new campaigns, new coworkers, relationships and family drama. While it led to some changes for the character, there were times when the conflicts, particularly with respect to work, felt a little monotonous. But maybe that was the point. Life is constantly developing and evolving, but if you spend your time having the same arguments over and over again, something needs to be done.

In my weekly blurbs about Peggy, I found myself constantly wanting to write more and more about the nuances of each of her scenes, but now that it’s time for me to speak my mind about her evolution this season, I find I’m a little overwhelmed. There are far too many moments that I’ve scribbled notes about, times when I have laughed and cheered or felt so very sorry for Peggy. Instead of going back and pointing out everything that I’ve missed, I’ll try to focus on my overall positive and negative opinions of this season.

It’s hard for me to complain about a lack of development in Peggy’s story line when so much did happen for her, but it still felt like many things were lacking. The biggest problem I had with Peggy’s arc — and this speaks to the season as a whole — was that there were many missed opportunities. When Don’s new secretary was introduced, it seemed as if there would be an interesting dynamic between her and Peggy. They had the scene in Peggy’s apartment, with the purse and the thinly veiled prejudices, but that was it. It was never addressed again and instead of expanding on that relationship (and Dawn’s character), everything just went on as usual. Another relationship I thought would progress was the one between Peggy and Ginsberg. I am thoroughly grateful that Weiner & Co. didn’t go the obvious route and turn them into an office romance, but it felt unfulfilled. The similarities between the two were evident and I expected more scenes where they went back and forth on a creative level. Instead, Ginsberg just sort of steamrolled his way into the company and worked his magic on a number of campaigns. Stan warned Peggy at the beginning of the season that this would happen, and he was right, but the whole “Ginsberg takes over” thing, wasn’t as exciting or interesting as it could have been. And what was up with the late-night confession about being born in a concentration camp? It was a moment that could have revealed a trust between the characters, but instead it went nowhere.

Another thing I expected to see more of was Peggy’s relationship with Abe. I was so happy to see him in the premiere and while it seemed like maybe there would be more of a focus on the two of them, especially after they moved in together, nothing happened. Nothing was ever said or done about Peggy’s random tryst in the movie theater (and I still don’t understand where that decision came from or how it advanced the story in any way) and I thought something would come of Peggy’s mother’s comment about the relationship falling apart because they moved in together, but that didn’t happen, either. Not that I wanted it to — I just thought it would be a motivating factor to propel the storyline in a specific direction, but instead it was squandered.

There were some things about Peggy’s role in season five that I loved. Her relationship with Megan was one of my favorites, because there were so many fascinating elements involved. I enjoyed watching Peggy as she tried to balance some level of authority over Megan, while also mentoring her and fostering the creativity that she knew Megan was capable of. The scene in the premiere where Peggy helped Megan suss out the invitation list was a favorite of mine because it showcased a level of familiarity and camaraderie between the two. While I adore Megan and find her relationship with Don compelling, I almost wish she was just another copywriter in the department, because so much could have happened with Peggy and Megan taking on various campaigns together.

The most significant thread of Peggy’s narrative this season had to do with her relationship with Don and her place within Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. While conflicts with other coworkers did play a part in this, ultimately her main decision to move on was because of Don. Don, who believed in her, but ridiculed her. Don, who begged for her to join the firm, but repeatedly cast her aside. Don who often showed his respect and admiration for her, but then turned around and threw money in her face. Even if you discount all of the gender politics involved, which I’ve discussed ad nauseam throughout the season, the essence of their conflict had to do with Don taking Peggy for granted. Peggy idolized him in so many ways and has been privy to many of his internal struggles, which made his treatment of her that much harder to take. The moment when she’s looking frantically for a package of candy, because Don gave it to her and she thought it was good luck, was so telling. His approval and confidence in her means everything to Peggy. So much so, that she would have stayed at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce forever, because despite everything, she loves Don. Not in a romantic way, because that would be trivial, but in a deep and abiding way that you love someone who knows some of your darkest secrets and doesn’t treat you any differently for it. Don is her friend and her guide. He’s a brother and a father and teacher all mixed into one. But he betrayed her trust and humiliated her, and so she needed to go.

Without a doubt, my two favorite scenes of the entire season were the quitting scene and the one that followed, with her walking onto the elevator. The strength she had to stand her ground, when Don was breaking down in front of her, was beautiful. I was so inspired by her willingness to risk everything and leave, because taking that leap is probably the scariest thing you can ever do. As someone who has been through my own set of changes this year, I found this action moving and unbelievably brave. As she walked out with that smile on her face, it felt like there was a spark that was back in Peggy, something that had been missing for most of the season. A glimpse of potential and a new hope for everything her life can be.

When I look to the future of the show and Peggy’s place in it, I’m a little fearful that her character will disappear. My hope, of course, is for Peggy to rule the world with Ken Cosgrove (his standing ovation in Harry’s office is my third favorite Peggy-related scene of the season), but I’m not sure that will happen. How can the writers keep her involved when she’s at another firm? I don’t want a huge rivalry to play out, but I don’t see how else she can be tied in with the happenings at SCDP. There can only be so many scenes where she meets up with Don in a movie theater. In fact the shot of her in her hotel in the finale could very well have been her last. And while that would be heartbreaking because I would miss the heck out of her, it would also be OK. Because I would know that Peggy was still out there in the world, working to make her dreams come true. She has a lot more of a chance to succeed now that she’s outside of the SCDP bubble. The thought that it may have been her final scene made it a little bittersweet, but I won’t dwell on that. Instead, I’ll be spending the “Mad Men” hiatus imagining all of the adventures, both good and bad, that await her. Hey, Peggy. Don’t be a stranger.


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