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Toxic Fog

Mad Men's bleak fifth season

It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on a white rug; eventually someone’s going to have to step on it. There it was, virginal and gleaming, in the premiere of Mad Men‘s just-ended fifth season, the perfect space-age complement to Don and Megan’s go-go newlywed dream. But only a narcissist or a space cadet would invest in something so ostentatious and impractical. It turns out Don wasn’t upset about his birthday party because he was getting older — after all, Dick Whitman had already exited his 30s months before. What really rankled was the thought of all those work people, with their grubby loafers and dangling cigarettes and messy appetites, leaving permanent marks all over his perfectly alabaster metaphor. Sure, Don and Megan got a temporary kick from the filth — an aborted scrubbing took a curiously carnal turn — but not even the ministrations of “the girl” (never seen, presumably with bucket in hand) could erase the stain. Just a few months after leaving the balcony doors thrown open all night, the apartment full of fun and French nonsense, Megan was anxiously slamming the windows shut as a toxic cloud menaced the city. In mid-’60s New York, nothing stays clean for long.

All told, it was a dreamy, dispiriting season of Mad Men, one that muddied everything that crossed its path, from lecherous Jaguar executives to the previously squeaky fan fiction of Ken “Dave Algonquin” Cosgrove. Unlike years past, there were no fleeting splashes of California sunshine. The dominant sensation was one of menace: murderers on the loose, bodies under the bed, a car crash — or a driver as bad as Pete Campbell — lurking around every corner. Even sex got sticky, with chewing gum on the pubis as evidence of the high price of bad business.

Yet this creeping dread remained stubbornly shapeless, as much a phantom as Megan’s dreams of success or Don’s visions of his rope-burned brother. The expected collision with the social upheaval occurring in the streets — as prefaced by the premiere’s ripped-from-the-sepia-stained-headlines opening scene, in which jocky jokers at a rival agency dropped water bombs on the civil rights protesters below — never materialized. (Dawn, the African American secretary hired by the firm as a token of progressivism, ended up being just that.) And even the simmering culture clash that seemed so threatening at the start vanished midway through the season in a puff of backstage reefer smoke. By the time we reached the finale, Michael Ginsberg, whose oddball energy had, for a time, made Don appear older than Bert Cooper’s castrationist, was reduced to sputtering impotently at dissatisfied clients, his ill-fitting, mustard-spattered suit reminiscent of an ornery senior citizen, not a world-beating Martian. And Megan, whose youth and beauty once made her seem invulnerable, is, at the end, no different than the cynical smirkers she mocked in the premiere, trading smiles for favors from her doting, doubting husband. Our unhappy heroes could try barricading themselves in their offices or, like Don, loll about on “love leave,” but there was ultimately no escaping the emptiness that lurked within each and every one of them. The horror movie vibe was very real, but it turned out the call was coming from inside the house all along.

The cruel irony of the season was that the skyscraping offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce couldn’t provide safety for anyone. What once seemed the last bastion of the old order — where men could be men and women could answer their phones — went totally topsy-turvy. The poison cloud may not have penetrated the windows — despite heaps of fan trolling by showrunner Matt Weiner, nothing managed to crack those giant panes — but the agency’s commercial instincts curdled from the lack of fresh air. It soon became apparent that within those orderly midtown walls, everything and everyone had a price — if no longer a Pryce — ranging from the definitely not cheap (Topaz panty hose) to something you can’t afford (Joan’s dignity). While everyone fell over each other trying to suck up to the non-functioning exhaust pipe of Jaguar, a car company whose cars didn’t work, Roger Sterling danced around the office subcontracting extra labor and dropping Franklins like he was auditioning for a Fat Joe video. (The most respect he ever showed Peggy was when she picked his pocket more thoroughly than last season’s mugger.) Pete bought Harry’s office, Harry bought off poor, portly Paul Kinsey for a measly $500 (turns out a ticket to La La Land is worth more than nirvana), and, in a twist that would seem outlandish in one of his sci-fi stories, Kenny Cosgrove pulled back his good-guy mask to reveal the calculating, father-in-law-slaying corpo-bot hidden below. SCDP at times appeared less like an ad agency and more like the rogue treasury department of Absurdistan. It was capitalism as Kabuki theater (something Japanophile Bert would no doubt appreciate).

In the midst of such monied madness, Lane never had a chance. He may have temporarily bested Pete in the Marquess of Queensberry, but he was no match for the little twerp when it came to good old Adam Smith. They each were formed by horrible fathers, but as any good venture capitalist would tell you, a man on the rise never lets a little sentimentality get in the way of a profit. So while Lane gave back the recovered wallet but held on to a cheesecake photo of another man’s girl, Pete pimped out a married woman in exchange for big business. On Sunday the widow Pryce called her late husband “weak,” but it’s hardly a sin to be a romantic. The problem wasn’t that Lane failed to share Pete’s bloodthirsty business appetite, it was that, as evidenced by his chaste courtship of Jaguar, he desperately hungered for it. His impossible desire to evolve into a leering, swaggering American was the sticky wicket that proved to be his downfall. Of course it had to be Don, a fellow who knows a thing or two about reinvention, who finally confronted Lane about forging checks his pale English arse couldn’t cash. A company man to the end, his suicide note was a resignation letter.

In retrospect, it wasn’t Don’s inability to bliss out to The Beatles that made him appear so out of touch this year, it was the residual flickering of his humanity. With a laissez-faire streak that would have impressed even that horndogging Marxist Emile Calvet, Don tried to stake out a moral high ground, forcing everyone else to do his dirt for him, whether it was making Peggy and Ginzo burn the midnight oil, tut-tutting Pete and Roger at the cathouse, or conveniently walking out of the meeting that turned Joan into a partner in exchange for turning tricks. But when the hooker’s son finally realized everyone around him was hustling harder than Gypsy Rose Lee, he tore into Dow Chemical like Betty devouring a box of Bugles, startling the suits and maybe even himself. “I’ll buy you a drink if you wipe the blood off your mouth,” Roger joked when it was over. But Don baring his fangs came with heavy-handed reminders of the cost of such savagery: He lost his tooth and Lane lost his life. (And while Don was big-game hunting and Lane was swinging, Sally and Glen were touring the Natural History museum, feeling out each other’s burgeoning feelings while staring at wild animals through a thick pane of safety glass. Eventually, even this was interrupted by the inevitability of blood and nature.)

The losses may not have ended there. Once she spat out a successful career in advertising as if it were a mouthful of orange sherbet, Megan seemed primed to continue her guileless ascent into super-stardom. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Tonys: Megan’s youthful confidence gave way to childish self-doubt and pouting. Her desire to act suddenly seemed less about artistic purity — something Don sneered at in the first place — and more about pleasing her deluded father and spiting her doubtful mother. By the time she was drunk and writhing on the bed, offering her body to Don because it’s the “only thing” she’s good for, she seemed aged beyond her years.

Megan’s brush with the abyss mirrored Pete’s, who only realized the folly of his fling with Beth after she’d had it conveniently zapped from her cerebral cortex. Both Pete and Megan had been pursuing hopeless fantasies, but Pete alone, with the perspective of hundreds of humiliating train rides, realizes such behavior is merely a “temporary bandage on a permanent wound.” Megan maintains her fiction by doing the one thing she swore she’d never do and putting her dreams on the open market. What Don saw in his wife’s audition reel was an innocent sweetness that had already vanished; it was an intentional callback to Season 1′s finale, “The Wheel,” with the “pain of an old wound” replaced with the agony of a fresh one.

In the end, Don arranged her fantasy; even better than a ballerina, Megan got to be a princess. But becoming another transaction on the business ledger cheapened the relationship, perhaps irrevocably. Psychotherapy 101 teaches you that the objective in life isn’t to fill the internal void — with liquor, with sex, with money, or with work. It’s to learn how to live with it. But that goal seems further away than ever. Don can see the hollowness of Megan’s choices but not his own. “You get hungry even though you’ve just eaten,” Don snarled a few weeks ago to the napalm merchants at Dow. Happiness is nothing but “a moment before you need more happiness.” Some viewers seem to think the sultry blonde’s question that ended the season — “Are you alone?” — was some kind of cliffhanger. But how can it be when we’ve just been pummeled with 13 hours prepping us for the obvious answer?

The capitalistic tentacles that wrapped their way around everything in the agency also made their way to the writer’s room. The hall of fame run of “Signal 30,” “Far Away Places,” and “At the Codfish Ball” were breathtaking in their interiority, more interested in cinematic formalism than tired TV soap operatics. Seeing an already great television show transcend its medium was as unsettling and thrilling as uncorking a bottle of vodka and hearing a marching band pour out. But, as latent hippie Roger Sterling can tell you, enlightenment eventually wears off. One got the sense that when the home stretch of the season appeared suddenly on the horizon, breaking through Weiner’s unhurried meditations on emergencies, the showrunner felt the sudden necessity of “plot” to be as vulgar as Don found Jaguar’s indecent proposal. Lane’s pivot from embezzlement to suicide seemed rushed and the machinations that led to Joan becoming a partner were as clumsy as Don’s attempt at stopping them. But Weiner has never been above a little meta sleight of hand — in fact, he may have overindulged this season, between the introduction of a harried, interestingly dressed Jew who writes all of Don’s best material to casting his own son as the post-suicide embodiment of youthful freedom and escape — and so perhaps all he was doing was waving the white flag of artistic surrender. The audience demanded a grisly payoff for all those frightful hours of buildup, a gruesome glimpse of Lane’s bloated corpse, and they wanted the overdue return of O.G. Don Draper, the adulterous, booze-swilling cad. And after weeks of feints and foreplay, Weiner grudgingly gave us both; a whore no better than the rest.

Only indefatigable Peggy managed to escape the office and its cycle of compromise and despair. She didn’t flinch when Don literally threw money at her face, and when he asked her to name her price she refused to play coy like Joan. She merely walked away. (It’s a credit to Weiner’s relative restraint that she didn’t start screaming “They’re dead! All my friends are dead!” when she finally hit Sixth Avenue.) In “The Phantom,” the two meet again in the movie theater, this time as peers, but the respectful coolness suggests they’ll never exactly be friends. “Add me to your call list,” Peggy implores, with all the warmth of a punch card computer. As heartening as it is to see Peggy finally flourish on her own, it’s equally depressing to hear Don’s view of interpersonal relations, now pitched somewhere between early Sting and the earlier Hobo Code: “When you help someone, they succeed and move on.” And despite Peggy’s defiance of Emile’s arch prediction for all “little girls” — she flew away, all right, but didn’t need to spread her legs to do so — it’s hard not to shake the feeling that her reprieve from Mad Men‘s doomy gloom is only temporary. Alone in her hotel room on a glamorous business trip to Richmond, Virginia (motto: “Sic Itur Ad Astra/Thus do we reach the stars”), she peeks out the window. Her only view: a couple of mangy mutts humping deliriously. Inside, she’s curled up comfortably beneath the sheets, a bottle of brown liquor by the bed, but outside animal instincts still rage, the only options being getting fucked or getting fucked over. And that window won’t hold forever.

Has a great show ever given us a more depressing season? After considering it for a few days, I no longer want to argue with critics who found Sunday’s finale to be a letdown. Everything these people touch is destined to disappoint, from Roger’s skirt-chasing and acid-dropping to that once bright and unspoiled white rug. It’s hard to imagine Weiner improving things next year; 1968 was when the idyllic promise of flower power died messily in front of the real power of guns and authority. I’d weep for the future, but we are the future. It can’t be a coincidence that Weiner left it to the show’s youngest main character to spell it out. “How was the city?” Glen Bishop asked Sally after the glamorous Codfish Ball. “Dirty,” she replied.

Cut to black.

Filed Under: Advertising, Characters, Don Draper, Future, Mad Men, Music, Rap, Series, The Future, TV

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald