The season finale of Mad Men‘s long-awaited fifth season was a levelling off. It was a reflection on the events of the preceding 12 episodes, a mourning for for the events of the previous episode, and a look forward to a future of repeating cycles. The fascinating thing about the characters on Mad Men is not that they do crazy or unexpected things, but that no matter how hard they try they succumb to the malaise of the American Dream.
It’s instructive to look at Pete’s journey through the season. Here’s a man who should be more than comfortable with his position, both at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and at home. He should be happy and content and feel accomplished, particularly for his age. Except he’s none of those things. He looks upon his success with disdain for the emptiness of it all. A marriage he has no heart in and a job where nobody truly respects his talent. Of course, he doesn’t help himself by wallowing, and instead of working on bettering himself he merely digs himself further and further into scumbaggery.
Looking back to Don the picture has become quite clear, as well. He wouldn’t like to admit it, but Megan’s mother was right. He’s a man who has ideas about what a perfect life should be and strives for that. His satisfaction with Megan only ever came when she met his idealized expectations of the young, sexy wife. Though he seemed happy, Megan’s outgoing personality and artistic dreams meant it was only a matter of time when the illusion of their ideal marriage broke down. It finally cracked in the finale.
Don did the nice thing by bolstering Megan’s self-esteem and getting her the acting job in a commercial, but there’s a dark side to his actions. Megan’s mother may have sounded cold, but she echoed the thoughts of Lane’s wife. These are people who have huge aspirations that stand a tiny chance of coming true, and if and when the dreams fail to materialize, they will be left broken. Lane took his own life; Megan’s future is up in the air. In the meantime, we watch as Don walks away from the artificiality of the commercial set and his marriage and into a bar. It’s not clear if he’ll act on the advances of the young lady at the bar, but the look on his face suggests that either way his mental state is back to where is was at the start of the first season.
But what to make of Don’s visions of his brother, Adam? And where does Peggy fit into all of this? Well, Adam is the reminder. He’s the image of what happens when Don chooses to cut somebody out. He’s the guilt Don feels when looking at how materially great his life has turned out. Peggy is sort of the opposite. Their relationship is perhaps the most honest and fulfilling one Don has ever had outside of Ann Draper. He was her mentor, and he raised her to the point of near-equal. Now she’s moved on, but they can sit next to each other as Casino Royale is about to screen and enjoy each other’s company, even if Don wishes he could keep her with him forever.
And maybe that’s the heart of Don’s problem, reflected in all these characters. He has ideas about success and who he wants to be, and while outwardly he seems to fit into those ideas nicely, inside he is struggling to maintain that delicate illusion. Ultimately, he can’t pull it together. Even when he succeeds beautifully, as with Peggy, he wishes he could just hold onto her. I don’t know where Mad Men will go next season in order to surprise us, but one thing is clear: the old cycles have truly begun again.