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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mad Men continues evolution as another year comes to an end

AMC's Mad Men characters have undergone quite a bit of change throughout the fifth season. Society around them continues to evolve at a rapid pace, and as one era ends, another moves forward. This can be unsettling to many, as the series embraces this new world order, as well as the differing reactions the characters have to it, with realism and skill. "The Phantom," this week's season finale, is a superb example of this, enhanced by the artistic, beautiful image of the five partners in their new, empty office space.

Lane's (Jared Harris) suicide still haunts, but the firm moves on without him. He helped them get the ball rolling, but is not necessary for the future of the company. The things he tries to promote, not always successfully, such as financial stability and caution, fall to the wayside as the other partners think about expanding their offices. And why not? They've made a lot of money, and things are looking up. Plus, Lane's insurance policy provides an influx of cash.

How long will this last? Only Joan (Christina Hendricks) voices any concern, but this quickly falls to the wayside. Everything is fleeting, and they've all lived through the volatility of their industry. They would do well to remember those lessons, and the hardships of the lean times, as they move forward.

Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is not remotely the same company it is when season five begins. A lot happens. They are now integrated. They have a female partner. Said partner, Joan, sells her morality and her body to satisfy her ambition and to prove her loyalty. Roger (John Slatterly) tries to find inner peace, and does briefly, before collapses in on himself again. Bert (Robert Morse) shows signs of his aging, and the loss of his firmly held beliefs. Don (Jon Hamm) deals with the absence of his drive and talent. Employees come and go. Old friends are looked in on. And the business grows, but at what cost?

Does Don feel guilty for his role in Lane's passing? After all, it is not long after Don confronts and fires Lane for his embezzlement that Lane ends his life. There is definitely a connection, and Don realizes this. However, not being pulled down too much by grief and regret is not something for Don to be ashamed of. After all, Don is kinder than he has to be to Lane, and he does not expose Lane's wrongdoing to the other partners. Whatever Lane's wife (Embeth Davidtz) may say, Don shouldn't take the blame personally, and I don't think that he does.

Instead, Don has his toothache to worry about. Yes, the physical ailment is real, and may even be the reason that Don hallucinates his departed brother (Jay Paulson). But the underlying cause of the uneasy feelings stem from the rocky place his marriage with Megan (Jessica Paré) currently is in. Megan wants to be an actress, but Don is afraid that Megan's professional life may drive a wedge between them, taking her far away. These feelings are not without merit, but that doesn't mean that Don should hold her back. He realizes this, and is willing to let her go so that she can follow her dreams.

Will Megan keep returning to Don's arms as she promises, now that she is building a life apart from him? The question as to whether the character will return next season remains unanswered, and it seems like Don is contemplating life without her as "The Phantom" comes to an end. It could honestly go either way, as Mad Men has proven unpredictable. What is certain is that Megan isn't content to be a housewife, and Don truly loves her enough to want what is best for her, irregardless of the cost to himself. That alone shows major positive development for him. He may lose her, but he has a better self to compensate.

It is Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) that helps Don make this decision in "The Phantom." Peggy has long been Don's protege, and he does not take the news of her striking out on her own very well. But encountering her in a movie theater, things are good between them. Don is proud of the successful woman that she has become, and she is grateful for his help, though determined to now spread her wings outside of his influence, a logical next step.

If Peggy returns to the firm, and hopefully she will, the dynamic will be drastically different. They may even have to make her a partner to entice her back into the fold. It's also possible that Peggy will return defeated, though that is less likely, and not a happy possibility.

Though Don is probably thinking more about Megan than Peggy during their conversation, as the parallels between the two stories are obvious and intelligent. Don may say things that Peggy takes as applying to her, but his main concern is Megan.

Interestingly, Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) begins Mad Men wanting to be just like Don, the big man on campus. By season five, Peter has gotten his wish. He lives with a beautiful wife (Alison Brie) he doesn't really love in the suburbs, and fools around with an unavailable woman (Alexis Bledel, Gilmore Girls). This is exactly Don's past, golden on the outside, rotten within. Pete is dissatisfied and frustrated, not sure what will fill the hole that he feels. A great lesson can come from the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for." Don found an escape from the prison; will Pete?

There will be much speculation about season six, but the truth is, there aren't a lot of clues as to the direction that Mad Men is heading in "The Phantom." It has always been a show full of twists, which usually seem natural when they occur, but are hard to see coming. Rather than characters always forcing change because of their actions, many of the stories are driven by outside events, and explore how the characters deal with these growing pains. With only two seasons left, there is not yet a sign of any slow down, and it should remain a fantastic ride through the end!

Mad Men will return to AMC next year.

If you like my reviews, please follow me on Twitter! Please click here to catch up on Mad Men with streaming episodes and DVDs. Article first published as Mad Men continues evolution as another year comes to an end on TheTVKing.

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