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AMC’s Mad Men has already made the leap from one of the best shows currently playing on television to one of the best television shows full stop. It seems unlikely that its fifth season, which finally rolled out nearly two years after the fourth season ended due to contract disputes, could possibly be the best the already incredible series has managed. The rules of diminishing returns usually state that even a good show doesn’t usually maintain or even improve upon expectations, especially not a show with such a steadfast commitment to staying away from genre conventions and most forms of narrative stagnation. Yet, season five gives season four a serious run for its money in terms of episode-to-episode quality. This might have something to do with series creator Matthew Weiner taking an even stronger writing role than previous years, along with Weiner’s focus on standalone episode themes within the larger canvas of the season. This year also saw the writers pulling focus away from certain characters in a given episode, possibly spurred by the outrageous success of season four’s The Suitcase, which shifted attention towards Peggy and Don over all the other characters for the sake of the stand-alone.

 Mad Men: Season Five
For the sake of time, I’m now going to briefly cover six season five episodes that stand above even the high bar set by the season as a whole.

Spoilers abound

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Episode 3: Tea Leaves (written by Weiner and Erin Levy, directed by Jon Hamm):
Following a strong, two episode long season opener that set up the changes to the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce staff since we last saw them, Tea Leaves shifts focus over to the series’ most reviled regular character, Betty. Actress January Jones was actually pregnant during the fifth season’s production. To cover this, Jones was handed a fat suit and her character given a new problem with overeating. She was also given a much smaller role in the season, under the excuse that Don was now remarried and not paying nearly as much attention to her. It’s arguable that Betty had been written into such a corner (even I’ve given up on defending her as a victim of Don’s behaviour at this point) that she would’ve been given a smaller role, even without the real-life pregnancy, but the treatment here is a prime example of how professional and smart the Mad Men staff is. Dealing with actress pregnancies is a long-standing television tradition and I’m not sure anyone has ever found a better or more appropriate thematic reason for covering up a preggo-belly. Besides introducing the weight gain and neuroses that accompany it, this episode gives us a firm, believable reason to pity her with a cancer scare that doesn’t feel like the cheap gimmick it usually is. Rather than a ‘gotcha’ moment playing out as the end credits prepare to role, the cancer card is played as a natural means to force the character to deal with her problems. The brief dream sequence is a little much, but the episode is brimming with subtle motif repetitions that create a balance between the Draper and Francis households (Betty having trouble zipping a dress contrasted with Megan zipping a smaller dress trouble-free, Don and Betty both refusing to get out of bed and see their significant others’ friends at different intervals).

 Mad Men: Season Five
Episode 4: Mystery Date (written by Weiner and Victor Levin, directed by Matt Shakman):
The writers recalibrate focus onto Don with Mystery Date (written by Matthew Weiner and Victor Levin, directed by Matt Shakman), which puts the character through a nightmarish, dream-logic hell after a relatively normal day at the office. The obvious theme here is violence, more specifically violence against women. The theme is epitomized in the historical subtext – real-life mass murderer Richard Speck’s Chicago-based nurse killings. Speck’s crimes are obsessed over by the firm’s staff, who manage to work themselves into a tizzy over the situation. With the crimes in mind, Don is overwhelmed by a high fever and returns home where he is approached by a former fling that won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He is eventually driven to violently strangling the woman to death in a sequence that heavily recalls the work of Brian De Palma – a director often accused of reveling in misogynistic subject matter. The murder is revealed to be a fever-dream, to the equal chagrin and relief of series fans. Some viewers, myself included, found the sequence in keeping with the show’s storytelling practices while others found the obvious symbolism (that of Don murdering his past infidelities in order to maintain his genuine relationship with his current wife, Megan) too heavy-handed and the dream reveal a cheap ploy. Given the even more hallucinatory qualities of episode six, Far Away Places (see below) and the season’s penchant for telling stories out of order for the sake of a good reveal, I’d like to think some of the detractors will come around when re-watching the season on home video. The episode themes are explored with more historical pertinence between Peggy (who is introduced in the episode via a hilarious interaction with Roger) and Don’s new African-American secretary, Dawn, who spend an awkward evening together to protect Dawn from race riots in Harlem.

Episode 5: Far Away Places (written by Weiner and Semi Chellas, directed by Scott Hornbacher):
Mad Men often puddle jumps between interlacing character stories, but the writers rarely take an anthology approach. Some fans and critics have compared the episode’s use of time displacement structure to Tarantino movies, but Weiner points to the French New Wave films (specifically Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir, which I’ve never seen) that also inspired Tarantino. Mad Men has always had a period-appropriate European flavour, but rarely is it so blatantly expressed. Of course, the excuse is afforded now that Don isn’t part of a nuclear family and the creators can explore the vaguer dissatisfactions of upper-class single life. Peggy gets her biggest story piece at this early point in the season and is given the chance to go full-on ‘Don Draper Jr.’ The impression backfires, reminding her and us that advertising is still a man’s world. Roger and Jane’s trippy trip is the episode’s and possibly season’s most surprising vignette. Weirdness aside, it perfectly matches the romantic ennui of so many French art films from the era. As a standalone piece, it’s sort of an Italian Neorealist meets La Nouvelle Vague salad. Don and Megan’s story is a pure Jean-Luc Goddard angst-festival, complete with all the oozing contempt fixings. Cinematic homage aside, Far Away Places is also a clear turning point for many of the characters, leading Peggy, Roger, Don, and Megan down a series of paths that will define them and their relationships for the rest of the season.

 Mad Men: Season Five
Episode 9: Dark Shadows (written by Erin Levy, directed by Scott Hornbacher):
Named for Dan Curtis’ vampire soap opera (which was adapted by Tim Burton into a movie, which was released in theaters the same weekend the episode aired), Dark Shadows’ rather obvious episode theme is jealousy. This theme leads characters down some discouraging paths that some fans and critics have said brought down the quality of the season. I agree that the character turns are frustrating, but would argue that the episode starts up a pressing momentum that leads up to the season finale. It’s the final break to breath before the emotionally draining episodes that follow. The A-story represents a somewhat annoying back-slide for Betty, who returns to her petty ways as she tries in vain to turn Sally against Don and her pretty, young, new step-mommy/BFF, Megan, but I personally appreciate the spot Sally finds herself in the end. Sally continues to grow into a character interesting enough to rival the show’s adults and her reaction to her mother’s behavior is a major turning point. The viewer is left to either revel in the realization that Sally is mature enough to beat Betty at her own game, or despair at the realization that Sally is now just as mean-spirited as her childish mother. B-stories begin with Don pulling rank and ignoring one of young office all-star Michael Ginsberg’s (Ben Feldman) ideas for the Sno Ball account. This is a brand of weakness we’re not used to seeing from Don and an important piece of the season’s greater theme of Don fighting his growing cultural irrelevance.

Episode 11: The Other Woman (written by Semi Chellas and Weiner, directed by Phil Abraham):
Every year, I bemoan the Mad Men writers for not giving Joan enough screen-time. I even feared she was leaving the show, following the events of the third season. She’s never been a full lead character, but even with a peripheral treatment, she mixes perfectly well with the leads ( especially Don and Peggy). She’s given quite a bit of additional coverage throughout season five, but The Other Woman is more about her and her place in the series than anything else (it’s not exactly a stand-alone episode in these terms, however, a lot of the groundwork for the heartbreaking place it takes her and Don is laid in the previous episode, Christmas Waltz). The theme here is that of a woman’s place in the professional workplace, which has been an ongoing theme for both Joan and Peggy throughout the series and the writers take this theme to one of the darkest places possible here – prostitution. Yet, it’s never that simple with Mad Men, is it? The Other Woman makes for an extremely challenging critical parsing, because it pits controversial feminist arguments against the stark truth of the era’s sexual politics. Every character sloshes around in moral ambiguity until they’re dripping and sticky, and it’s very hard to take – yet never short of riveting. Meanwhile, the theme applies less literally to Peggy, the episode’s B-story star, who finds the courage to finally leave the firm or, more specifically, leave her mentor, Don. Peggy’s departure seems kind of abrupt the first time around, but there are clues to this turn peppered throughout the season. It’s also difficult to deal with the dual tragedies emotionally (Don’s goodbye to Peggy left me melancholy for days), both of which end as celebrations.

In any other case, this would be the absolute most emotionally overwhelming episode of the season…however, there is the matter of the penultimate episode…

 Mad Men: Season Five
Episode 12: Commissions and Fees (written by Andre & Maria Jacquemetton, directed by Christopher Manley)
The season finale, The Phantom is a solid wrap-up that appears to be leading to interesting new places, but it’s really more of a palate-cleansing eulogy following the real climax – a gut-wrenching slice of hell entitled Commissions and Fees. This episode is so harrowing that I didn’t even want to revisit it. I revisit shit like Requiem for a Dream, Schindler’s List, and Cannibal Holocaust with less trepidation than this episode. Weiner had dropped huge hints that someone major would die in season five. It’s a pretty cheap ploy, but no one ever accused Mad Men of not being a little cheap, sometimes. And the ploy worked to slather the entire run with gloom and suspense. With this knowledge in mind, the viewer worries more about Betty’s cancer scare, Don’s drunk driving, and Megan’s disappearance with unknown youths. Again, only in watching the season again do I notice exactly how many hints are dropped concerning Lane’s eventual fate throughout the previous 11 episodes. With clear eyes looking back his doom is nothing short of inevitable, especially following episode 10, Christmas Waltz.

 Mad Men: Season Five

Video


This is my fifth season review of Mad Men on Blu-ray and I’m sorely tempted to just cut and paste my video review from last year. But, despite things looking generally quite similar, I did learn that the series’ creators have changed the way they do things in post, from standard Super 35 to ProRes 4:4:4, which supposedly works better for 1080p broadcast, particularly for colour (35mm film is still listed as the source format). At first, I was unimpressed and thought this release had a little more in terms of sharpening effects here than previous seasons, but, looking at screen-caps from the older releases, I realize this isn’t really true. There are sharpening effects and minor edge enhancement (mostly in wider shots), but these are such small side effects of what amounts to a generally gorgeous, filmic collection of episodes. Textures and finer elements are kept in check by the show’s set-in-stone, softer, glowing qualities, while complex and colourful patterns are busy without a lot of blooming or moiré effects. The fine grain dances a bit excessively at times, especially over the white and lighter blue backdrops, but do create a minor issue with some of the flesh tones, where a bit of noise smudges things up a bit. I also caught a few more of the bleeding reds that plague every series release (also usually when set against white backdrops), but, once again, there’s very, very little to complain about. The series’ trademarked warm-tinted palette is still firmly set in place, but there are a few starker and cool compositions. Once again one of the more endearing colour elements comes from the extreme production design of Roger’s office, which is more or less black and white except for the characters that populate it. Usually, these characters are Don or Roger himself, who dress in grey shades, but Joan and her warm wardrobe really pop in this particular arena. I’m also always fond of how deeply black the show’s cinematographers achieve facial shadows without damaging the hue integrity of flesh.

 Mad Men: Season Five

Audio


Again, I was tempted to copy/paste my review from last year, but I actually think this season is aurally busier or at least a little wider than the previous seasons. There just seems to be more stuff going on in the stereo and surround channels this year. This is most obvious when scenes are set at the office, where ringing phones, pounding typewriters, and muttering employees absolutely must sound louder than previous release. I know I’m not hearing things. But still, Mad Men continues to not be an action-based series and doesn’t feature a lot of aggressive surround sound elements. The sound designers regularly go out of their way to create a subtle and cool aural environment. This will be disappointing of folks looking to work out their top-of-the-line sound systems, but no big deal for anyone with realistic expectations for this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track.  The track does buzz with the aforementioned office work, street noise, and at its best, the echo of voices around an indoor pool, but there aren’t any outstanding blasts or booms to rock the subwoofer. Sometimes, the dialogue track is a little uneven and suffers from obvious post-production tampering, but there’s never a point in which the dialogue becomes hard to understand or distorted. Roger’s big LSD trip during Far Away Places is an aural standout, because it gives the show’s sound designers a little more to do stylistically, like blending the melodies of two different songs, playing out an invisible World Series in sound only, and representing the sound of smoking with an abrupt accordion zip. Every season seems to have more non-score music than the last and, this time, the creators aim for the stars, including musicians playing on-screen (‘Zou Bisou Bisou!’), musicians playing off-screen, classical music blaring through an on-screen credenza, and the consistently solid treatment of classic studio-recorded era pop music playing above all other sound.

Note: My check discs did have issues with skipping, which effected the audio timing quite a bit. I assume these problems have been resolved for the final release, but would be curious if anyone else had any trouble, specifically with episodes 11 and 12.

 Mad Men: Season Five

Extras


The extras sort of begin on disc one when you hit play and some bald guy from Canadian Club alcohol gives you a lesson in mixing drinks between ads. It’s a little weird. The real extras begin with a series of commentary tracks, two per episode. The commentaries break down as follows –

Disc one:
A Little Kiss Parts 1 and 2:
  • Creator Matthew Weiner and director Jennifer Getzinger
  • Actors Jon Hamm and Jessica Paré

Tea Leaves:
  • Weiner, actor/director Jon Hamm and writer/producer Erin Levy
  • Actors January Jones and Christopher Stanley

Mystery Date:
  • Weiner and producer/writer Victor Levin
  • Actors Christina Hendricks and Jay Ferguson

Signal 30:
  • Weiner and actor/director John Slattery
  • Actors Vincent Kartheiser and Aaron Staton[/I]


Disc two:
Far Away Places:
  • Producer/director Scott Hornbacher and production designer Dan Bishop
  • Weiner and actors John Slattery, Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm

At the Codfish Ball:
  • Weiner and writer Jonathan Igla
  • Actors Janie Bryant, David Carbonara and Kienan Shipka

Lady Lazarus:
  • Weiner and cinematographer Phil Abraham
  • Actors Vincent Kartheiser, Alexis Bledel and Elisabeth Moss

Dark Shadows:
  • Weiner and writer/producer Erin Levy
  • Actors Kiernan Shipka, Ben Feldman and Jessica Paré


Disc three:
Christmas Waltz:
  • Weiner and director Michael Uppendahl
  • Actors Rich Sommer, Michael Gladis, and Jared Harris

The Other Woman
  • Weiner and writer/producer Semi Chellas
  • Actors Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, and Jon Hamm

Commissions and Fees
  • Weiner and writers Andre & Maria Jacquemetton
  • Actors Christopher Manley and Jared Harris

The Phantom
  • Weiner and writer Jonathan Igla
  • Actors Jessica Paré and Julia Ormond


 Mad Men: Season Five
The only other disc one extras are Mad Men Say the Darndest Things (16:40, HD), a roundtable with series producer Semi Chellas, staff writer Jonathan Igla, and co-producer/writer Erin Levy discussing the show’s dialogue, complete with choice cuts of said dialogue, and a series of Lionsgate trailers.

Disc two’s other extras begin with What is There to Love if Not the Enigma? (17:10, HD), a look at the art of Greek/Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, whose surrealist art inspired the season’s teaser poster, hosted by Professor of 20th Century European and American Art at Hunter College Emily Braun and assistant professor of Italian studies and art history at New York University Ara Merjian. The Party of the Century (23:10, HD) is a historical look at Truman Capote (who had just published ‘In Cold Blood’) and his famed ‘Black and White Ball’ of 1966, hosted by author Deborah Davis and bandleader Peter Duchins. Scoring Mad Men: Themes of Season 5 (28:00, HD) looks at the musical process with composer David Carbonara, arranger Geoff Stradling, and sound engineer James T. Hill. Despite the title, there’s actually plenty of focus on the previous seasons’ music as well.

Disc three’s other extras begin with Scoring Mad Men: Inside a Session (21:10, HD), a look at the production process with Carbonara, Stradling, Hill, and music editor Jenny Barak. The process is familiar (computer mock-up from rough cuts, sent to an arranger who preps it for the live musicians, who are then recorded and remixed), but it’s nice to get even more focus on Carbonara’s unique, moody music, as it usually disappears into the ambience of the story. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 (5:20, HD) is a brief, Powerpoint presentation-like (typo-filled) historical lesson on the advent of Daylight Savings time, which spans from Benjamin Franklin up to the Uniform Time Act and the present day. The extras end with a Newsweek Magazine cover gallery (including a list of top stories) for the year 1966.

 Mad Men: Season Five

Overall


There are a few bumps in the road – Pete’s affair is a little dull, some of the metaphors are overstated – but I seriously think that season five may be Mad Men at its very best. Of course, there’s no reason for new viewers to pop in at this point (they won’t have the proper context), but there are four other seasons out there on DVD, Blu-ray, iTunes, and even Netflix streaming. The reasons for not getting on the bandwagon at this point are severely diminished. Fans have three of the best-looking, best-sounding discs in the series collection to look forward to here.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD Special Edition resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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