Thursday, 14 June 2012

Happiness is not an option

Eighteen months is a long time to wait between seasons of a TV show. As viewers found when 24 took an extended hiatus, off the back of the writers’ strike, it can be hard for a well-loved property to regain its mojo after too long off the air. So I know I wasn’t alone in worrying that Mad Men could have lost its edge, after extensive contract wrangling saw Matthew Weiner’s ratings-winner drop off the radar for a year and a half.

Thankfully, those fears proved unfounded, as the recently concluded season five showed that the glamorous but hollow world of Cooper Sterling Draper Pryce is still as perfectly constructed and aesthetically bewitching as Joan’s formidable décolletage.

Its critics may carp that not a lot happens in any given episode, but only because we’re so used to season-long narrative arcs, packed with incident and excitement in other, lesser shows. In fact, every episode of our latest saunter down Madison Avenue, was rich with layers, subtext and seemingly inscrutable motivations.

If anything, the theme for the season seemed to be the joy and pain of growing up. Roger finally realised the true meaning of maturity, as he separated from his avaricious trophy wife and came to terms with fifty-something bachelorhood. He even seemed surprisingly content to sit back and let Pete Campbell step into his executive loafers as the head of accounts. As Roger explained, when handing over a set of skis to his one-time protégé, he’s happy to relax and watch the money roll in while Pete devotes his life to sucking up to unworthy clients.

Don, on the other hand, found maturity a little harder to contend with. As his daughter Sally crashed headlong into the painful petulance of adolescence, his young trophy wife ably demonstrated that she was much more than a pretty face and abundance of teeth. Upsetting the preconceptions of audiences and CSDP employees alike, she proved to be a surprisingly adept creative force, even surpassing Peggy by landing the Heinz beans account in a tag-team pitch with Don over dinner.

But happiness in Mad Men is as fleeting as a 30-second TV spot. So the sting in the tail came when Megan announced that she didn’t love advertising the way Don did. As she threw herself into countless auditions, in search of that elusive big break, Don begrudgingly acknowledged that his love of the industry was as transient as his passion for anything else in his life. A sense of going through the motions, in lieu of any real passion, came out again as Don felt increasingly threatened by Ginsberg, the erratic but prodigious young copywriter hired by Peggy. Fearful of being usurped by a generation from which he was feeling increasingly disconnected, he was reduced to sabotaging better concepts, simply to stay in the game.

Having scowled his way through a landmark birthday party, Don spent the most of the season struggling to understand the generation biting their thumbs at him from the right side of forty. This conflict seemed to culminate in an aborted attempt to sit through The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows, from the Revolver album. The music rights to that one track might have cost the show’s makers quarter of a million dollars, but it was worth every penny for the scene’s eloquently wordless encapsulation of Don’s dwindling grasp on the zeitgeist. He may have no trouble understanding what makes men and women tick, since that was always his stock-in-trade, but the younger generation may well prove to be his undoing.

She may have been sidelined since her divorce from Don, but Betty experienced her own growing pains this season, only hers were physical rather than age-related. Resigned to her role as decorative politician's wife, Betty's been hitting the whipped cream with a vengeance, even scarfing down Sally's leftover sundae when nobody was looking. January Jones gets a lot of stick for her curiously immobile performance, and the convincing but restrictive prosthetics certainly didn't help matters. But despite her supposed shortcomings as an actress, she still managed to add some extra layers (literal as well as figurative) to a woman who, until recently, was as cold as a penguin's mimsy. Suggesting that she's just as out of touch with sixties youth as her ex-husband, she seemed unable to connect with Sally until the day her daughter rather graphically "became a woman." 

What’s been most remarkable about Mad Men, and this season in particular, is how the writers have utilised a broad range of cultural touchpoints from the era and seamlessly integrated them into the narrative of the show. Rather than taking a contrived Forrest Gump approach, where the characters are little more than tour guides to lead us through the mists of time, here the significant events are pushed to the background, and used as context to explore the complexities of the characters’ relationships.

A great example of this was the Richard Speck murders, which provided the historical setting for an exploration of fear, both real and imagined. The case itself involved the rape and murder of eight student nurses, with a ninth avoiding a similar fate by hiding under the bed. As news of this horrifying crime broke across the TV screens and newspapers of 1966, its significance became something of a motif for father and daughter, as Don and Sally confronted their own night terrors in different ways.

Feverish and hallucinating, Don imagined himself strangling the ghost of a one-time fuck buddy, pushing her corpse under the bed in a half-hearted attempt to hide his transgressions. Despite the sudden and shocking violence, this was Don trying to do the right thing; using brute force in an attempt to recommit to the concept of commitment. Meanwhile, his daughter Sally ignored instructions not to read about the Speck murders, and reached out to her step-grandmother for comfort. With a carving knife resting on a sofa cushion, just in case, the old woman gave the girl a sleeping pill. When we next saw Sally, she was cocooned beneath the sofa, safe and sound in her pharmaceutically enabled slumber.  

Continuing the theme, this particularly eventful night also saw two other female characters confront their own nocturnal anxieties. Peggy invited Don’s new black receptionist to spend the night at her apartment, but had to think twice about leaving her handbag in full view of a woman she’d been socially conditioned to fear. Joan, on the other hand, finally found the confidence to spend the night alone, before telling her husband that their marriage was ending over a cup of coffee. 

As always, with Mad Men, the show’s money shots tend to be quiet moments of brilliance. Snippets of dialogue, aborted ad concepts, or beats of silent understanding between two characters, that manage to transcend the period setting and achieve a timeless resonance. Anyone working in advertising today will have winced with uncomfortable familiarity as the Heinz client barked at Peggy: “Stop writing down what I ask, and start trying to figure out what I want.”

Even Pete Campbell, the closest Mad Men has to a villain, achieved his own stand-out moment this season, with his sophisticated handling of Megan’s father’s interrogation: “You’re an accounts man. So, what exactly do you do all day?” With unflappable confidence, Pete proceeded to charm the crabby Canadian by praising his scientific accomplishments, only to then pause and announce to the newly enchanted old man, “That’s what I do all day.” 

Five years in, and a thousand obtuse exchanges later, Weiner has at long last revealed the real meaning at the heart of his extraordinarily detailed show. It came in the form of a heated pitch to the management team of Dow Chemicals, as Don made a play for their account, even though they were happy with their existing agency and a fifty percent market share:

"Happy with 50%? You're on top and you don't have enough. You're happy because you're successful, for now. But what is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness. I won't settle for 50% of anything. I want 100%. You're not happy with anything. You don't want most of it. You want all of it."

That's the conundrum that drives these Mad Men and women. They spend their days (plus nights and weekends) trying to project unrealised wants and needs onto the populace at large. The irony, of course, is that they have no idea what they really want from their own lives. Equality, love, happiness - who knows? Because even when they do achieve the seemingly unattainable object of their desire, it's always fleeting and insufficient.

The only drawback with Mad Men, is that an entire season can be greedily consumed in under a week. Which then leaves the best part of a year until we once again get to pull up a barstool alongside Don and co. So thank goodness that we’ve got the 'Season one-to-four' boxset, with five due for release before Christmas. To paraphrase the winning Jaguar campaign, Mad Men on DVD is beauty you can truly own.

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