Mad Men took a little while to grow on me. Right from the beginning I recognized it as an extremely intelligent, well-made show. But while I respected the audacity of crafting a show around a group of pretty much entirely unlikable, despicable characters, I found that kept me at a distance from the show in those early days. (Click here for my review of Mad Men season one.)
(I suppose one might argue with my describing the ensemble as being comprised of entirely unlikable characters, but I stand by my assessment. The characters were well-rounded, but so filled with flaws that it was hard to find a character to root for. Even Peggy, who was perhaps the most endearing character introduced in that first season, was tremendously off-putting at times. Now please understand, this is not a criticism of Mad Men. Quite the contrary, the series’ eschewing of the usual TV need to make every lead character “nice” is a major aspect of the show’s brilliance. But it also was part of why it took a while for me to really fall in love with Mad Men, even as I was intellectually impressed by what I was watching.)
For me, it really wasn’t until season four that I began to truly LOVE Mad Men. I think it took that long for the characters to really grow on me. Whereas at first I found it hard to really care all that much about what happened to Don Draper and co., by that fourth season I was really hooked. It’s possible that the recently-concluded fifth season was the show’s strongest season yet. I certainly was captivated by the goings-on as I’d never been before.
I love the unpredictability of Mad Men. This is a show where I find it almost impossible to predict where it’s going next. Season five contained some bold narrative moves. (Beware spoilers as we proceed.) The demise of a major character was of course one shocking development (made all the more potent by the writers’ cleverly playing off of the parallels between that death and the season one death of another person in Don Draper’s life). But I was also surprised to see Peggy leaving the agency (a move I never expected to see), by Joan’s divorce, by the side-lining of Betty Draper and the tremendous prominence given to Megan, the new Mrs. Draper.
Speaking of new characters, I was worried at first by the introduction of Michael Ginsberg (played by Ben Feldman). When we first meet Ginsberg in the second episode of the season, I found him terribly annoying. I also worried that they were piling on the Jewish stereo-types a little too high. (In my opinion at least, that accent was a bit much.) But very quickly I felt that the writers and Mr. Feldman settled into a solid rhythm with the character. By the end of the season, Ginsberg got many of the show’s best moments, and the sci-fi version of his “origin” that he tells Peggy, late at night, was terribly powerful.
Although season five of Mad Men was filled with gripping drama, I particularly enjoyed just how funny it was. There were so many great moments throughout the season, such as Don and Harry’s conversation in Don’s car after their botched attempt to sign the Rolling Stones; Roger horrifying Joan by calling out “there’s my baby!” to her in front of the whole office (he’s referring to her, not her child which he secretly fathered); Pete and Lane’s fist-fight; and Peggy getting a nice wad of cash from Roger in exchange for her on-the-side work for him on Mohawk (and her silence).
Other great moments from the season? Megan signing “Zou Bisou Bisou;” Don’s first introduction to the Beatles with “Tomorrow never Knows;” the return of Paul as a Hare Krishna (and his terrible Star Trek script); Don and Joan’s playful banter at the bar, after posing as husband-and-wife to try out a jaguar; Roger’s acid trip, and of course the final moment of the season: well-dressed Don looking his James Bond best, walking away from the brightly-lit set of Megan’s advertising shoot into the darkness, while the iconic opening strains of the theme from You Only Live Twice play on the soundtrack. Genius.
I know it’ll be a long time until season six, but I can’t wait.