“Mad Men: Season 5”
With “Mad Men: Season 5,” series creator Matthew Weiner is grappling with the late-1960s rise of the counterculture, the Vietnam War, violence in the media, drugs, cults, suicide and the tragic consequences of gender inequality, but it is all filtered through the rapidly calcifying world view of Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Forced into celebrating his 40th birthday by his young, beautiful and increasingly eccentric new wife Megan (Jessica Pare), the master ad man is facing incursions into his turf by energetic underlings and is starting to notice that the culture he once mined for dollars is starting to tick him off. When Megan tries to turn Don onto the Beatles' “Revolver” by suggesting he play the lysergic coda “Tomorrow Never Knows,” he lasts about two minutes before the needle comes off the record. In this season, Don is a man out of time, isolated by a past he denies and a present he fails to understand, so naturally the future — exquisitely foreshadowed with Weiner's use of John Lennon's groundbreaking leap into psychedelia — is wearing him out.
And so is Megan, who maintains a hypnotic sexual hold on Don that borders on sadomasochistic. They get into some horrible arguments: one after Megan throws the aforementioned birthday party where she performs a sultry “Zou Bisou Bisou” in an instant classic scene, and a worse blowup on a road trip to check out client Howard Johnson's new location in upstate New York. Each time, they resolve their differences with anger-fueled, combustible sex. Megan understands how to control Don, who's shown in the past that he likes being bossed around in the bedroom, but as “Mad Men: Season 5” progresses and Megan becomes the latest dissatisfied Mrs. Draper, there is clearly a short fuse on this dynamite.
But Megan is not the only unknown variable in Don's life. Betty (January Jones), who increasingly sublimates her dissatisfaction with suburban life by eating too much, undergoes a health scare, and daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) is rebelling against both parents. At the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices, upstart ad man Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) is firing off the kind of genius ideas that used to come to Don easily, and mounting financial pressures force both Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) and Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) into individually harrowing circumstances.
Weiner wrote or co-wrote most of the Season 5 episodes, and while Draper's struggles with secrets and lies are the life blood of the show, the counterpoints to Draper's psychodrama are the transformation of Roger Sterling (played by the always-excellent John Slattery) into an LSD enthusiast and the twisting career arc of Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss). While it is always tempting to declare the most recent season of “Mad Men” the best, it seems as if Weiner is constantly stepping up his game. With two seasons left in its run, “Mad Men” is one of the few ongoing dramatic series with the arc and power of a great novel, and “Mad Men: Season 5” only inspires confidence that Weiner knows where this story is going.
— George Lang