First up a disclaimer. I did not follow my own advice for how to watch Mad Men. I’ve always said that Mad Men is something that you have to just commit to, watch it through steadily (either week by week or in a box set catch up) and it will reward you with gradual and elegant developments of plot, characters and relationships. Unfortunately I watched this season in 3 chunks – 3 episodes, then a month gap, another 3 episodes, then a gap of about 6 months before a marathon of the last 7 episodes over a couple of days. And each time I came back to it I really struggled to reconnect with everything.
However even with that excuse, I do think this season lacked the arc and elegance of earlier seasons. I re-read my review of Season 4 before writing this review and it made me feel even more disappointed about Season 5. Maybe there’s a similar rule for Mad Men seasons as there is for Star Trek films, the even ones are a bit mediocre.
The key example of this from the second half of the season were Lane and Joan’s stories. I really like both these characters and have enjoyed their development over the years, and both had major events in their lives play out towards the end of season 5 (avoiding spoiling any details). However both stories were completely undermined by a lack of screen time in the middle of the season which not only meant I missed them from those episodes, but meant there were no hints at what might lead them to make the decisions they did, leaving my first instinct to question whether it was in character for them to take those paths. It made it hard to empathise and also harder to fully see the impacts of their choices on themselves and those around them. In normal series the stories would have still been considered slow probably, but I don’t watch Mad Men to be like other series.
Maybe those two storylines were just victims of where I broke the season up, other stories were given more time and unfolded in more traditional Mad Men style. I still don’t like Pete, but he’s a great character; he never seems to completely grow up, always complaining about the unfairness of life and managing to alienate absolutely everyone around him. Peggy also continues her fantastic story arc, and unlike Joan and Lane she gets enough screen time that you can see issues developing and bubbling in the background, leaving every action, every sentence entirely predictable and deeply satisfying.
And then we come to Don. One of the things that made me saddest re-reading the season 4 review was how positive I felt about Don and Megan’s relationship, the way that Don had found happiness and would let himself be happy. But as Peggy tells him, he really doesn’t see when things are good and he starts to revert to his usual boorish self. I’ve never liked him, but I hoped that there was light at the end of the tunnel for him and maybe he could become a better person. But he seemingly can’t, and he brings the worst out in those around him.
Mad Men continues to be an acquired taste and almost an exercise in how slow something can go before it stops entirely. That means that having got as far as season 5 I’m not going to let one slightly disappointing season deter me from watching more, particularly as I hold myself at least partly to blame due to the erratic viewing pattern. Given where all the characters find themselves, in fact I think I’m looking forward to season 6 more than ever.