I had a friend in university who wanted to be a writer. His eventual degree was in English (I don't remember which area he concentrated on). He did all the right things to become a writer. He wrote stories and plays; he was a consistent member of a writer's group. It was his passion. There was only one problem: The things he was really good at, his greatest skills, had nothing to do with writing. Economics and Math were his strengths, ironically, the areas he had no passion for. (He took a course on each subject in his first year and received very good marks – he never took another class in those fields.) Now the thing he had nothing but passion for? He was okay at it; but if I'm being honest, he was missing three key ingredients to be a great, or even good writer: sweat, skill and imagination.
One of the main themes of the just-wrapped Season Five of Matthew Weiner's Mad Men was about examining characters who pursued their passion at the expense of their skills. There were other ideas percolating away below the surface, but this was the major thrust that Weiner pursued in what I think is the strongest season in the series since the first. In the show, it wasn't always career choices; sometimes it was cringe-worthy wrong personal decisions that more than one character made which often led to disaster, or at the very least, a life-changing experience. Though I will occasionally discuss individual episodes (especially those that were great or bad), I'm more interested here in dissecting how Weiner developed his season-long theme through individual characters.
As the season begins, mid-1966, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is now happily married to Megan (Jessica Paré) – he was only just engaged to her at the end of Season Four. His happiness at finally having an optimistic, youthful, enthusiastic wife has changed him. Gone is the dour, guilt-tripping Betty (in fact, so gone that January Jones as Betty only appears in a handful of episodes this season). Also gone (or at best, temporarily set aside) is Don's obsessive wandering eye, because he's found someone who accepts him on his own terms. We learn early on that she has been told his “big secret” – that he's Dick Whitman, not Don Draper – and she could care less. Through the force of her will she breaks through his barriers and pushes him into the real 1960s. Or at least she tries. (Her throwing a surprise birthday party for him and then sensually singing the song “Zou Bisou Bisou” to him in front of all the guests (see it here) was a first-episode highlight – killer line: Roger Sterling to wife Jane, “Why don’t you sing to me like that?” Jane to Roger: “Why don’t you look like [Don]?”)
|Megan (Jessica Paré) singing "Zou Bisou Bisou"|
Ironically, throughout the season, his strongest female relationships are not with Megan, but with Joan and Peggy. Two moments during the season are completely heart-wrenching. In the fine episode, “Christmas Waltz,” Joan (Christina Hendricks) confides in Don that her husband has filed for divorce. Don, in a gallant gesture, takes her out to a bar to talk and drink. In a long sequence, they discuss life and the consequences of the passing of time (this latter issue is dealt with mostly non-verbally). The conversation is melancholic, but in a way that is filled to bursting with genuine feeling. It's not sexual tension that Joan and Don have (I've never believed that's what Don and Joan really share); rather it is a mature, adult relationship between two people who admire and respect each other.
|Don (Jon Hamm) kissing Peggy's hand|
Megan is the wild card this season. Her eternal optimism flies in the face of the cynicism that holds sway at the ad agency. Many fans of the show grew to loathe her character because Mad Men spent so much time on her. In some ways, it was as if Weiner himself, like Don, had become drunk on Megan (or perhaps the actress), and as a result other characters were pushed aside. Did Weiner get as wrapped up in her character as Don did? Not sure, but it was not until the aforementioned “Lady Lazarus” did I finally join the club in thinking, “too much Megan.” For the first half of the season all we see is that she was just so nice. And I think that was what most people hated about her. Nobody's that nice! No matter how angry Don got at her, she managed to continually allay his angers/fears/self-doubts. She was a fairy princess in some ways, but I found her a wonderful tonic after four seasons of foul, unhappy people tearing each other apart. What does become apparent as the season moves along is that, though her optimism is not put on, there are damaged recesses in her character that only gradually become apparent. Her cold and aloof parents (Julia Ormand and Ronald Guttman) visit finally in a sad (in a good way) episode called “At the Codfish Ball.” In her encounters with them, we see where her optimism comes from (namely, you can see she grew up thinking she would be damned if she was going to let their negativity drag her down!), and what she also finds so appealing about Don. Don's darkness is attractive to someone who grew up with a brooding father and brittle mother. In Don, it's her chance to “fix” someone like them. And for the most part she seems to succeed. Since he loves having her around him, Don, as a proud husband, gives her a job with Peggy at the ad agency.
|Christina Hendricks as Joan|
As the season progresses, it's pretty clear Megan might not have much talent as an actress. As her mother says to her at one point in one of the many too on-the-nose moments in the infuriating and disappointing season finale, “The Phantom,” she has artistic sensibilities without artistic abilities. It's a horrible thing to say (and she says much worse to her daughter later), but there's much truth there. Megan, in her darkest moment, begins to think the same thing, so she begs Don to get her an audition for a TV commercial for one of the ad agency's clients. At the end of the season finale, he does so, but the final seconds of “The Phantom” suggests her passion and his decision to help her fulfil it (he does it because he loves her) will have relationship-destroying consequences. Season six will tell the tale.
The most devastating character arc this season is undoubtedly Lane Pryce (Jared Harris). Like Megan, he is too nice, but his friendliness does not come from a natural place; it's from his British reserve. His accommodating nature and willingness to be seen as “good” ultimately leads to his destruction. Hints are dropped early in the season when he finds a woman's wallet. Inside the wallet is a picture of the attractive young woman who owns it. He contacts her and tries to convince her to come to the office to pick it up. He's smitten by her, based on absolutely nothing but a picture. Lane has lived his whole life trying to make others happy (his father, his wife, his child, and finally his partners at the ad agency) that he has forgotten to please himself. So when he finally attempts to do so, it blows up in his face. As he almost pleads with the unseen young woman to come in so he can meet her in person, you can hear in her voice on the phone that she is creeped out by his neediness. As a result, she sends her boyfriend down to pick up the wallet. But Lane keeps the photo. It is a photo that will still be in his wallet when his affects are given to his wife after he kills himself. The young woman is unattainable, but he still can't let it go. His resentment towards all the people in his life reaches a boiling point when he attracts the first feelers for the agency from the people behind Jaguar, but he has no skills to close the deal, so Pete and Don are brought in. His failure to close, or even do anything other than fund the agency, is something he cannot even tell his wife. He suggests to her – up to the moment he takes his own life – that the whole deal went through because of him.
|Jared Harris as Lane Pryce|
His fraud is uncovered by Don when Cooper (Robert Morse) accidentally finds the cancelled forged cheque and upbraids Don for signing it. After confronting him, Don demands Lane’s resignation (Don will say nothing to the partners and cover the lost money). What Don can't see (it's just business to him) is that Lane is coming apart at the seams. All he can see is someone he can no longer trust. He's not really callous – he's justified in his actions – but he's blind to Lane's distress. And Lane's personal humiliation leads him to his suicide. As a viewer, my guts were torn apart as I watched Lane head to the only conclusion possible. His first attempt to kill himself is blackly comic. As a reward for his “success,” his wife surprises him with a Jaguar of his own. But this only compounds his isolation. Early in the season, it has been established that in the 1960s, Jaguars were an unreliable car that often would not start. That night, as his wife sleeps, he goes down to the car to kill himself. He stuffs rags in the exhaust, seals the windows and tries, repeatedly, to start the car. It won’t start. I laughed out loud at this latest failure, but that laugh soon got caught in my throat. He leaves the car, let's himself into his office at night and hangs himself with a cord on the back of the door. He is found the next day by Joan. When Don and others cut him down I thought I was going to be sick. Here was a character I really liked, and followed his ups and downs for three years, and now he was dead. Dead in an undignified manner. (My God, they sure didn't save the viewer either. Lane was purple and slightly bloated with blood oozing from the cord around his neck. It was a horrifying end and it hurt.) Lane always put on a front and pretended he was someone he was not capable of being. His widow spits at Don when he drops by to pay condolences and repay the $50,000 Lane loaned to the company as a start up (money, if he had it when the tax man came calling, would have prevented his death). “You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition,” she tells him. The song over the closing credits, a little-known Lovin' Spoonful track called “Butchie's Tune,” offers a perfect summary of what Lane's passing means (to Lane, anyway):
Please don't stick around to see when I'm feeling low
Don't pass the cards to me to deal the crushing blow
I'll even close the door so you won't see me go
When I'm leaving, gone today
I'm on my way.
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) is another issue. He is ambitious and has had much success in business, but there's emptiness at his core that he has no idea how to fill it. His wife, Trudy, their child, and their lovely suburban home do not begin to help. Throughout the season, he constantly tries to fill the emptiness with pointless flirtations, especially with a too-young-for-him girl he meets at a driving class (Pete had never got his driving license), but also a pathetic attempt at dominance/submission games with a prostitute, and finally an affair with the neglected wife of a man he meets on the commuter train. What he fails to see is he's just as neglectful of his wife. He thinks he can bring meaning to his life in an unlikely and guaranteed-to-fail affair with another frustrated (and as we learn in “The Phantom,” mentally fragile) spouse. Remarkably, by season's end, you have a small measure of sympathy for beady-eyed Pete.
|Roger Sterling ( John Slattery) on acid|
Joan is probably the most pragmatic character on this show. Her husband's left her (in a pathetic attempt to find his own meaning, he re-enlists as an army surgeon stationed in Vietnam), she has a baby to look after, an irritating mother and a job that she clearly sees has an end (she knows her physical attributes will fade and her ability to use them to achieve her ends will vanish). In the other fine episode “The Other Woman,” Pete Campbell tells her that the man who can give the nod to the agency for the Jaguar account fancies her; in fact, fancies her in a more than “I want to take her out on a date” way. He bluntly tells Pete, “If you want the contract I sleep with Joan.” Joan, of course, refuses the request even after Pete offers a sum of money (Pete the pimp). He brings the issue up to the partners and only Don, disgusted by what it means, leaves. The other partners, including Roger (whom she had a long-term sexual relationship with in the past) and Lane (who has always fancied Joan, but because of his money crisis ignores his friendship with her) all agree to put the offer to her again. Joan finds out both Roger and Lane support the idea, so she makes them an offer they cannot refuse: minority, non-silent partner in the agency – non-negotiable. In a terrific piece of film-making, Don comes to her apartment, which we think is happening before she goes on her “date,” to tell her she doesn't have to go. She's pleased that he voted against it (she thought otherwise until that moment). What we don't know until a bit later is that Don coming to her apartment is a flash-forward. She has already returned from her “date.” But the sad smile she gives Don tells her that she knows she still has one ally she can trust. She knows exactly what she's done, but looking at her prospects as a single mother in 1960s America, she reaches for a brass ring that can and will bring both her and her child security in the years ahead. What she has to do is degrading, but by doing so it has given her a chance she might not have had as the years went by.
Throughout the season, other characters have similar epiphanies and disasters in equal measure. They include Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) who was a pipe-smoking civil rights do-gooder, and is now (in a brief return) a Hare Krishna who's written a Star Trek spec script that he wants Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) to get to NBC – he is thus far ill-equipped for anything he has filled his life with. The people on this season of Mad Men are at a dark crossroads that was indicative of the rapid changes streaming through the 1960s. People were desperate to find their place in a world coming unravelled with war, drugs, protests, riots, free love and assassinations. Their dreams and ambitions may be, in hindsight of the 21st century, delusional or worse, but with the world that was in front of them at the time nobody knew what was going to happen next. The people of Mad Men, in this season anyway, became an exceptional microcosm of what was happening during that troubling, (emotionally and physically) violent decade.
And finally, I often wonder if my friend ever achieved his goals; or whether, like Joan, he took a more pragmatic road when his dreams and passions never worked out. I doubt I will ever know.
– David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.