Toward a grand unified theory of “Mad Men”
I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
I guess some people never change. Or, they quickly change and then quickly change back. —Homer Simpson
Forgive the pompousness of the title; I’m still trying to make sense of the fifth season of “Mad Men.” I’ve been trying to figure out if Matthew Weiner is trying to set up a parable about consumerism, an allegorical tale or just telling a good story. There’s nothing to say it can’t be more than one of those options, of course, but every time you think it might just be a good story, Weiner (as creator I’m assuming most of the decisions are his) pulls out a big hammer with “THEME” written on it in capital letters and proceeds to hit the viewer over the head with it1.
That theme seems to be happiness, and the pursuit thereof. Halfway through the season, I thought the message was going to be that you have to find what makes you happy instead of what should make you happy. After all, Don was miserable with Betty, miserable while single and seemed genuinely happy with Megan.
Then he left her in the parking lot of a Howard Johnson’s. And cocked his eye wolfishly at a pretty woman while Megan finally got an acting gig.
And Roger, after his acid trip, seemed at peace with his second divorce and his dotage at the office.
Then his enlightenment wore off.
No, the theme seemed somewhat bleaker than my original guess. By the end, it seemed like the show was saying that all attempts to become happy are doomed.
Betty is still unhappy and unfulfilled. Henry backed the wrong horse. Megan had to hear a lecture about not getting what you want from her horrid mother.
And Pete Campbell became the world’s punching bag2. I’d be surprised if Pete is ever happy, though. Where as Roger is cheerfully amoral, Pete is the humorless id of the show, grasping, ambitious, willing to do nearly anything.
It was another example of Weiner highlighting (over highlighting, perhaps?) the theme with dialogue was when Rebecca Pryce told Don that he and the other partners had no right to fill a man like Lane with ambition. But in season 3, we see Lane as a middle manager filled with quiet desperation. He wasn’t ambitious, but he wasn’t happy, either.
There seems to be hope for Peggy, even if she is morphing into Don. So perhaps the message of this season is that it isn’t advertising and consumer culture that leaves us empty and unhappy, but Sterling Cooper itself3.
It’s not your tooth that’s rotten? Really? An apt statement, perhaps, but also a bit on the nose↩
A million dollar idea: a [speedbag](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punching_bag#Types_of_bag) with Pete Campbell’s face printed on it.↩
I resisted—if only just—making the claim that SCDP is purgatory and Bert Cooper is the devil, because it seems [so implausible](http://www.losttvfans.com/page/Purgatory). [Doesn’t it?](http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/whats-alan-watching/posts/review-community-curriculum-unavailable-crazy-town-banana-pants)↩