NOTE: If you haven’t watched Season 5 of Mad Men, you shouldn’t read this.

I haven’t screened many films of late, but in a sense, I’ve been watching—or rewatching—one movie with more than 50 acts. I’ve gone back through all five seasons of Mad Men and in many cases, it felt like I was seeing an episode for the first time. A show that moves as slowly as it does wouldn’t seem to support multiple views, but in fact, Mad Men’s fierce commitment to detail makes revisiting it as pleasurable as thumbing through a favorite novel to locate that one sentence that stays on your mind.

The two biggest complaints about the fifth season have involved a lack of subtlety and a pumped-up sense of drama. Critics (and now, being a Mad Men critic is akin to chronicling LeBron James. Everybody has a take) have complained that where the show once luxuriated in the dreary ordinariness of the everyday, it seems to have morphed into something more sensationalized, culminating with Lane Pryce pulling a Henry Blake.

In the season finale, “The Phantom,” the grousing was about a speech that Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, never better) gives to his lover Beth, who has just lost her short-term memory due to electroshock therapy. (Okay, that sentence felt as ridiculous to write as it reads.) Campbell builds a narrative, telling the story of his and Beth’s affair and the source of his own estrangement from his wife, Trudy, from the distance of the third person and growing ever sadder as he speaks. To some, it was the equivalent of showrunner Matthew Weiner shouting the season’s theme (Happiness is Elusive) from the top of the Chrysler Building.

The speech didn’t bother me. Nor did Don’s dead brother telling Don while he is in the dentist’s chair that it’s Don’s soul, not his tooth, that’s rotten. Nor am I annoyed, as some are, by the cinematic touches that become more prevalent this season. “The Phantom” had two shots that are destined to become part of show’s iconography: One featuring the five (surviving) partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce standing like the Magnificent Seven before the windows of the firm’s new office space and the other was a long, tracking shot of Don (Jon Hamm) walking away from wife Megan’s commercial shoot through a dark soundstage. As his dream life with Megan recedes, growing smaller and smaller, the orchestral swells of “You Only Live Twice” are heard—a full-on embrace of the show’s duality theme.

Not subtle. No. In Mad Men terms, that’s a freight train. Still, for me, as an avid fan of the show, it strikes me as perhaps its most stirring moment. When I think back on the fifth season, that will be the image to which I’ll first return.

I used to believe that Mad Men was a show, much like a Cheever or Updike story, about upper-middle-class dissatisfaction, about the gulf between society’s expectations and personal choice, with Don and Betty’s marriage being the ultimate example. Now, however, I see it more plainly—it really is just a show about advertising. About packaging and images. About slick surfaces and the lies beneath. And about the illusion of control. And, finally, it’s about television—or cinema, if you like.

Don Draper is the personification of all of those themes. He refashioned himself into a product, one he sells every day, one that requires ironlike discipline to maintain. The greatness of the show lies in the fact that both he and we know that it is a fabrication, yet, its one that we, as viewers, have a vested interest in preserving. Cheers were heard, I am sure, across America when Draper, after the soundstage moment, parked himself at a bar, ordered an old fashioned, and appeared to  re-hang an “Open for Business” sign on his forehead. Don the Cad is back. And oddly enough, we couldn’t be happier. (This is our duality; it’s what keeps us watching. Weiner learned that on The Sopranos, which forced viewers to confront the pleasure they took in seeing Tony take care of business.)

While Megan was conjuring up a fantasy life of her own (a Beauty and the Beast-themed shoe commercial), Don was retreating to his, to where he is master of his domain. On one level, Mad Men can be viewed as a world in which highly self-aware characters are charged with developing elaborate fantasy lives for consumers and themselves. (This season’s “The Other Woman” made this nexus explicit.)  Don lives a cinematic life, both externally and internally. To put it more simply, Don knows he is in a TV series starring himself. That’s his view of reality, a drama in which “Don Draper” (not Dick Whitman) holds the central role. (As an aside: Note how Don isolates his feelings about Megan by watching her screen test on film.) In this internal drama of Don’s, Adam Whitman reappeared, literally a ghost for him from seasons past. One thing critics missed about the Adam/dentist scene is that the vision Don has is a projection of his own guilt. There’s nothing subtle about guilt. And self-indictments are typically on the nose.

Pete Campbell, as we know, views his world the same way. (It’s no coincidence that both Pete and Kenny Cosgrove both had aspirations to be fiction writers. “She has an artistic temperament but she is not an artist,” Megan’s mother says of her. Advertising is filled with people like this. As are, I might add, newsrooms.) It was second nature for him to convert his life into a third-person narrative for Beth because he thinks of his life in those terms every day. Observers have long noted that Pete has, since the show premiered, appears to be an imitation human. He has no real instinct for authenticity. His behavior is all learned. In other words, he’s a product.

Pete and Don are meant to be funhouse mirror images of each other. Pete’s trailing Don’s life by about five years. But you could go on and on. Peggy Olson reinvented herself at Sterling Cooper. Joan’s whole persona is a fusion of competence and Marilyn Monroe boop-boop-be-doop. When Don advised Lane to change his life after his embezzlement, it’s because that option has been so readily available for so many. (It wasn’t for Lane, sadly.) Most of Don’s troubles (and Pete or Roger’s for that matter) are linked to a need for attention, a need to inject drama into a humdrum life, as one might do if one held the view that such drama is necessary component of existence.  Who would hold a view like that? Someone, like Don, who believes his entire life is a weekly television series or a movie–complete with its own theme song:

You Only Live Twice or so it seems, 
One life for yourself and one for your dreams. 
You drift through the years and life seems tame, 
Till one dream appears and love is its name. 

And love is a stranger who’ll beckon you on, 
Don’t think of the danger or the stranger is gone. 

This dream is for you, so pay the price. 
Make one dream come true, you only live twice. 

And love is a stranger who’ll beckon you on, 
Don’t think of the danger or the stranger is gone. 

Advertisements