Spoilers abound, so beware.
13 episodes, AMC (March - June 2012)
Every show around has fans who think that it's the greatest thing ever. I'm sure there are a bunch of people out there who think television has really reached a creative peak with NCIS: Los Angeles, you know? But, honest to God, isn't Mad Men just the best series around? Season five was a long time coming, and finally arrived with this overt sense of direction. It's always been a show that was keenly aware of its own identity and the stories it wanted to tell, but the amount of levels and areas of ambiguity that crept into every corner this year blew my mind. Stringing together a bunch of superlatives sometimes reads as needlessly elaborate, but Mad Men is a series that absolutely warrants that level of praise. There's nothing else like it around, and five years in still manages to raise complex moral dilemmas and add new shading to its wonderful ensemble.
I don't know if it's because I've been reviewing it, and therefore have gotten a little more involved with the fanbase than ever before, but every storyline this season spurred varying reactions and opinions. I don't even know if it was intentional, but there was this constant reinforcement of characters doing things that we as an audience should question and analyze. Few episodes went by where people weren't collectively debating the reasoning for, say, Joan prostituting herself, or Pete's affair. Everything had variables, every song choice meant something, every line of dialogue paid off in the long-term, themes ran through alternate stories. Matthew Weiner's ability to obsessively assemble all of this complexity is a work of wonder.
While Mad Men has always been pretty soapy in a narrative sense, there was a real sense of foreboding doom lingering over everybody this year, tying together every character with the feeling that the ground was about to disappear from underneath them. The season opened with a lot of discussion about age, and the sense that the best years of these people's lives were past them, and that they were growing ignorant of cultural change and shifts in the world. Then there were those pangs of depression and fatigue, each character questioning their roles. Don lost his sparkle at work, and tried so damn hard to make his new marriage a success, despite the frenetic quality of his relationship with Megan. Peggy lost focus and felt undermined, Betty used food as an outlet for her depression, Pete bathed in inner turmoil and chased after things that could never be truly tangible. Joan's picture-perfect existence crumbled, and her victories at work were hollow and ugly. Megan bounced around from wife to copywriter to actress, with intermittent happiness. Lane, of course, was crying out for some kind of gift from the universe, only to wind up losing everything and ending it all soon after.
While these people's lives were filled with so much misery, the show remains ridiculously absorbing and entertaining as a piece of television, cementing it as one of the finest series in television history. To be fair, a vocal minority seemed to dislike this season, but I never really saw the badness. While I grew to dislike Megan as a character, I never thought she dominated the show like so many people complained she did, and while I ran into the ground my belief that certain metaphors and lines of dialogue were a little heavy-handed, it's a grasping-at-straws criticism on my part that didn't at all dent my enjoyment of the show itself.
Matthew Weiner is a creative genius with unparalleled control over his fictional world, and a man who entirely deserves the trust that is placed in his hands. His ability to create work of artistic genius is inspiring, ambitious and worthy of all the praise leveled at him. Every scene sparkles with feeling, anchored by characters that rank up there among the most fascinating I've seen on television. And we have to wait for a whole year to get more episodes? Yeesh! A+
Favorite Episode Seriously? I loved the dark themes of longing and self-disgust that engulfed Pete in Signal 30 (5.5), the three-story poetry of Far Away Places (5.6), the polarizing horror of The Other Woman (5.11), as well as the dirty Manhattan disappointments of At the Codfish Ball (5.7). But every episode is better than anything else on television.