Although this post doesn’t reveal any major plot points of Mad Men season 5, events that transpired are mentioned, so consider this a very modest spoiler alert.
Season 5 of Mad Men just finished and, despite ending with a pair of rough, slightly disjointed episodes, completed what just might be the greatest single season of television ever aired, as its core characters all strove to become better versions of themselves and, in most cases, failed.
For me, Mad Men and The Wire share the title of “Greatest TV Show of All Time.” Mad Men is tops for the poetic forcefulness of its writing, moody, atmospheric directing and fascinatingly fetishistic portrayal of an era in America when we truly were on top of the world, yet we were never satisfied; The Wire is there for its masterful storytelling across dozens of characters and the dark, soul-crushing portrait of a broken early 21st century America. There is then a slight drop-off before Breaking Bad takes 2nd place and then a more precipitous cliff before a final grouping of other “great shows,” like The Simpsons in its prime, Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, Sports Night (soon to be remade for the third time as News Room), Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (not really), and others.
I get why some people are critical of Mad Men. It can be a very slow show, but the reward for that slow burn is something spectacular. I would also encourage anyone who dismissed the show after a few episodes of the first season to give it another shot, as the first half of season one is perhaps the slowest series of episodes in the show’s history and the ones that were most purely obsessed with indulging in the excess of 1960 Manhattan. As the characters grew, the show became simultaneously more funny and more dark as it built layer upon layer of character relationships and set in motion pieces of plot that, in some cases, have still been building through this last season.
The show can also sometimes be a bit blunt in driving home its thematic points on occasion, something The Wire is also guilty of. But its bluntness isn’t the ham-handed one-liners that so often end a Law & Order: SVU denouement, rather it is the melodrama of metaphor pushed a little bit too far, the self-reflective monologue that makes obvious what was implied but is still poetic and engaging in doing so.
Mad Men is a show that rewards repeat viewing and, so far, only Mad Men andThe Wire are shows that I will literally watch cover to cover as often as I can. Joan’s advice to Peggy in Season One that “men like scarves,” comes back around in Season 5 when she interviews with Ted Chaough. Roger’s desire to be a better person after he suffers a heart attack in Season 1 just might finally become manifest thanks to his Season 5 acid trips. Don’s pledge in Season 3 that “I promised myself I’d do this right one time,” as he offers his support to the epileptic brother of his current paramour, itself a reference to the indirect role he played in the death of his own half-brother in Season 1, echoes with dark irony by the end of Season 5.
But, despite the complexity of its storytelling, episodes of Mad Men can also be enjoyed independently and out of order, so long as you know the basic premise of the show, its character relationships, and the year in which its set. Most episodes, especially in the last two seasons, have been artful one-act plays and short stories with strong self-contained narratives even as they pushed the season’s arc forward. That’s a distinction that even The Wire can’t claim.
(And, as much as I love Breaking Bad in all of its harrowing glory, I find myself uninterested in re-watching it since so much of enjoying that show depends on the twists and turns in the action, how far Walt will go when his back is against the wall, and once they’ve taken place, there’s little need to go back. Mad Men and The Wire, with their immersive worlds and identifiable characters, keep pulling me back.)
I’m glad that the fragmentation of popular entertainment has allowed shows like this to exist, as I know there would not have been space on television for it a decade ago. If you’ve never watched Mad Men, give it a shot. I’d even say go ahead and skip Season 1 and start with Season 2 if you must. If you like Mad Men, watch it again from the beginning and I promise you’ll have a wholly new understanding of the show, its craft, and its quiet artistry.
Next week on The Satellite Show: a series of unrelated dramatic questions and doors opening and closing! And wine!