A third of the way through, the fifth season of "Mad Men" is
shaping up as something of a slog. That's meant in the most
charitable of ways. Little has happened and most of the characters
have settled into a period of glum stasis. With few exceptions,
chief among them the boardroom mano a mano, the plotting has become
as muted as the sport coats have gotten loud.
The show's more character-driven than ever, as historical
referents, in the form of racial tensions and the crime boom
especially, rise to the forefront of and then recede. A discordant
hum of violence and disorder has played throughout -- whether
spectacular (the University of Texas sniper attack, the Chicago
student-nurses massacre, the Vietnam War) or quotidian (drunk
driving, thieving lawnmower boys) -- but it affects the characters
only indirectly. This use of history is rarely heavy-handed, but
neither is it terribly dramatic. What we are left with is people,
whom we have now known for some time and through time, living
through daily humiliations, frustrations, anxieties and, less
frequently, joys in the summer of 1966, in a world that feels sped
up and troublingly new.
Also in the background are the limitations of Sterling Draper
Cooper Pryce. Instead of liberation through entrepreneurialism, it
merely plods along. New clients aren't exactly beating down the
agency's doors and, by now, it appears that the shop isn't going to
ride a rapid wave to the top of the advertising world. The
realpolitik of the agency world means that Pete Campbell especially
is having trouble getting his due, but the problems aren't limited
to him. Roger Sterling by his own admission is now "professor
emeritus of accounts," left to teach Pryce how to trick the client
into surrendering RFP information. Pryce's go at bringing in a
client is thwarted, however, after a prostitute forgets a piece of
chewing gum in the Jaguar PR guy's "pubis" during a night out with
Roger, Pete and Don.
This is how suffering is dramatized in white, postwar America --
psychologically, existentially, a thousand paper cuts to the ego
and the cojones. Cosgrove's "The Man With the Miniature Orchestra,"
a bit of fiction within the fiction, is immediately recognizable as
part of the American genre of suburban ennui -- see also, Richard
Yates and the Johns Cheever and Updike. Sample line: "It might be
living in the country that is making him cry." As Cosgrove
narrates, we see Pete Campbell in his driver's ed class, the
culmination of his rejection of city life for "the country," with a
bruised face that draws into a wince while he watches the winsome
object of his affection get fondled by a track star who's more her
age. This sad scene gives way to an ironic rendition of "Ode to
Joy" over the closing credits.
Cosgrove's tale could easily describe Campbell, this season a
portrait of suburban angst as he suffers through a parade of
indignities and goes figuratively impotent. Last night alone, we
saw him unable to fix the sink in his Cos Cob home, unable to play
his Beethoven at the volume he wants because of his sleeping baby,
unable to hold his own in fisticuffs with Lane Pryce, and unable to
get the girl he wants. The girl he does get has to be paid for and
not just in dollars. After a visit to a brothel with the
prospective Jaguar client, he endures a lesson in morality from
none other than Don Draper ("the man," Campbell cracks, "who just
pulled his pants up to the world.")
Don's judgmental eyebrow-arching isn't as laughable as Pete, or
anyone, might expect, because the counsel is coming from an older
and wiser man who seems to have understood past mistakes. Last week
we watched Don more or less literally choke his libido to death.
This week he attempts to make Pete appreciate what he does have.
But reassurances about Trudy, the baby and the Connecticut home
fall on alienated ears. He sneers sarcastically, "I have
everything." But in his mind he doesn't.
This idea of having everything or having it all, of having taken
a couple armloads out of the boundless cornucopia that is
post-World War II America, with its rising middle class and
corporation-betrothed security, comes up frequently throughout "Mad
Men," always as a way of illustrating just how faulty and fraught
with disillusion that way of thinking is . The show is firm that
the gulf between possessions and happiness is yawning and seems to
have a lot to do with a not-particularly-subtle notion of
So suburban angst has always been present in "Mad Men" -- but
never more so than with Pete Campbell's portrayal this season.
Moving to Connecticut and having a baby hasn't done him any favors.
At the risk of reducing this to dichotomy, the characters who are
doing the best are those who either haven't left the city or have
returned. It's suggested that some of Don's newfound happiness
comes from the change of scenery. In whinging about a dinner party
with the Campbells and Cosgroves, he tells Megan, "Saturday night
in the suburbs -- you'll really want to blow your brains out."
Cosgrove, despite a forgettable wife and an unswanky address in
working-class Queens, appears happy. His sci-fi stories are doing
well enough to warrant interest from Farrar Straus and he refuses
to stop writing even after an order from Sterling. "When this job
is good," Sterling announces, "it satisfies every need." Coming
from the uber-arch Sterling, this is just about uninterpretable,
but that doesn't matter. Instead of heeding the boss, Cosgrove
chucks one nom de plume -- and genre -- for another and continues
on as Don Algonquin, writer of literary fiction.
Cosgrove and Campbell, rough peers in age and skillset, are
shaping up as two versions of the company man. Cosgrove is able to
sublimate the frustrations that come from the limitations of his
everyday life, translating the alienation and helplessness he sees
around him into science-fiction that sounds pretty much
allegorical. One particularly terrible-sounding story concerns a
robot driven to mass murder by the lack of control he feels.
Campbell, in contrast, pervs out, attempting to seduce the
innocent high-school senior who frets about missing church and the
Texas campus sniper. He fails. And he lashes out, verbally pushing
Pryce into a hilarious conference-room fistfight. He fails, again.
That he is bested by the tweedy bean-counting Brit is just a
pile-on in the not-so-slow disintegration of the account man, into,
as Pryce put it, "a grimy little pimp."