Mad Women (and Men)

Last Sunday was the season five finale of Mad Men. Well, that was quick. I guess when a season consists of only thirteen episodes, they’re always going to feel short. I’ve been intending to write a post about this much-anticipated (by me) season for a few weeks. If you aren’t completely caught up with Mad Men, please avert your eyes.

I have always admired the way that Mad Men handles controversial topics. When people complain that the characters are misogynist or racist, I feel like they’re missing the point. Instead of hitting the audience over the head with a “message,” the show presents the realities of 1960s society matter-of-factly. When these moments go by without comment from the characters, they become all the more jarring to a modern audience. Instead of being told how to feel, we must draw our only conclusions about the characters and the world in which they live.

Then season five happened. And for the first time, I felt that the show wasn’t living up to the standard set by four wonderful seasons. Instead of being given credit as an audience member, I was being led by the hand. And most importantly, I didn’t feel that unspoken moral compass that prevented me from being uncomfortable with the characters’ more questionable behavior.

In short, the ladies took a beating this season. Not literally, thank goodness, but they suffered almost every other indignity you can imagine. Life has never been easy for women in the Mad Men universe. Yet somehow they have always managed to be among the show’s most compelling characters, finding creative ways to get satisfaction in a man’s world. Because the show portrayed them as such well-rounded characters, I never felt protective of them, even in moments of blatant sexism.

That changed in Episode 11 when Joan was asked to prostitute herself in order to win a big account. It was a storyline so conspicuously sensational, with little of the emotional subtlety that I’ve come to expect from Mad Men. Then, in the very next episode, Lane Pryce’s suicide plays out in a similarly blunt manner. For the first time, when characters were being exploited on the show, I also felt that they were being exploited by the show. I was not being asked to draw my own conclusions about these horrible moments. Their purpose seemed to be shock value, and that did not sit well with me.

I have always said that Pete and Peggy are my favorite characters. Perhaps this stems from the scene between them in the season two finale. This season took both of their characters to a much darker place, and I found it hard to follow them. Even though Pete is a weasel, he fascinates me. He has always been ambitious, but also strangely naive. His key role in the “let’s make Joan a prostitute” scheme seemed to signal his complete turn to the dark side. Peggy is another character who started off with that naive ambition, but years with the Sterling Cooper crowd have hardened her almost beyond recognition. Still, I hated seeing Don throw money in her face. Yet again, the ladies take one for the team.

There are two seasons of Mad Men left. I can only hope that the next thirteen episodes are a return to form.

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