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3 YEARS

'Mad Men' Spoiled Bastard: Ep. 5: 'Signal 30'

Trying to recalibrate expectations on a series that is signaling its changes

Mad Men Jon Hamm Plaid Jacket - H 2012
Michael Yarish/AMC

From a critical perspective, it’s very difficult being any great series in its fifth season. It just is. There’s always a little fatigue, viewers are all in, thus more tolerant of lapses, and the necessity of change – characters growing, times changing, situations reversing themselves or disappearing altogether – create the sense that the series isn’t like it used to be.

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I think that’s happening to Mad Men right now. And after being disappointed in “Mystery Date” last week, I realized in the middle of “Signal 30” that I needed to recalibrate my expectations. Partly this has to do with the incredibly difficult challenge the series faces now that the underlying “B” storyline – change in society – has squared up with the necessary changes of the characters. Part of Mad Men’s brilliance was in the concept – a world we hadn’t seen on television (as a premise) and one that was executed with exceptional control. Since Mad Men started in 1960 – which was still culturally the 1950s – all the incremental changes going forward would be wonderful to behold and they have been, particularly the limited number of jokes or sight gags about changing values, technology, the protection of children, etc. My worry was that when the series met the 1960s proper, and by that I mean our collective view of “The Sixties” whether we lived them or not, it was going to rattle the series and possibly upset its genius. After all, nothing is a bigger cliché on the big or small screen than “The Sixties.” How writers have handled societal changes like racism and sexism and the counterculture and the gigantic divide between parents and their children has progressed from insightful to insipid, pushed by the sheer volume of accounts, both fiction and non-fiction, about the times. There have been enough clichés – those spoken, those seen – to fill the biggest of generation gaps.

And so I worried that when Mad Men hit 1965 and beyond, it would be an uphill battle to illuminate those issues freshly. I still worry – and probably will each week.

Beyond that, there was the aforementioned worry about maintaining greatness for so long, particularly as one of the most acclaimed – and thus studied – series on television. That certainly didn’t help The Wire in Season 5. There will always be nitpicking when the bar abuts the roof.

So I’m recalibrating to allow Mad Men some room in handling change. Because I loved so much of “Signal 30” but was disappointed as well.

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Let’s start there: The episode was a little too obvious for my particular Mad Men tastes. The episode's themes were too apparent – something that has happened in each episode, although the two-hour opener was the most subtle of this new batch (more on that momentarily). I have nothing against allowing Jon Hamm or John Slattery to direct episodes, because alone they’re fine episodes, but they do call attention to themselves and are noticeably apart from the “traditional” Mad Men look. The Chinese water-torture dripping scenes were too much when used as an exclamation point to close the episode. And the fight between Lane and Pete – yes I know lots of people loved it – was funny, sure, but seemed too stagey by half. I know Lane’s from England, but who really fights like that? Probably not anyone in the 40 or 50 years prior to Lane’s challenge.

And are we to assume that Megan is so dim-witted that she’d shout out Ken’s wife’s name after hearing/remembering it?

None of that ruined the rest of the episode for me, but it’s certainly worth noting. Since the premiere – “A Little Kiss” – was two episodes, the third episode was “Tea Leaves,” aka the “Fat Betty” episode where a shocking, outsized visual element was used (not to mention the introduction of Ginsberg, who is quite the presence); Episode 4, “Mystery Date” had all the overt horror-story elements I complained about last week, plus the cheat-dream where Don chokes Andrea to death – another outsized scene – and finally we have the Lane-Pete brawl in Ep. 5, “Signal 30.”

Yes, you have my attention. My eyebrows are sufficiently raised in semi-shock.

Whatever happened to the Mad Men episodes where nothing that obvious ever happened – sometimes for 10 or 11 of the 13 episodes?

When a series is that subtle – and Mad Men is arguably the most subtle, least action-oriented great series of the last decade or more – then scenes like the lawn mower incident (“Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency’) in Season 3, or even the shock of starting a new agency (“Sit Down, Have A Seat”) also in Season 3, ring more true. One of my favorite episodes/arcs on Mad Men was “The Jet Set” in Season 2, because it was so completely unexpected and different – but it never shouted to the viewer or called attention to itself in an overtly-obvious way. It’s like that beautiful scene in “The Mountain King” (also Season 2, part of the arc) where Don/Dick Whitman walks into the Pacific Ocean like a baptismal. Those scenes work because they are the shock of the rare. There are plenty of others – from Greg raping Joan to Adam’s suicide to Betty finding out about Dick Whitman – all stunning moments that never needed any more gilding.

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Now think about “A Little Kiss” – the two-hour premiere this year that was so fantastic. First, it looks different because the year, the styles, the people are all different. And at the party, Megan signing to Don could very well be the most outrageous thing on Mad Men since the lawn mower incident. I still love the scene, but there’s a hey-look-at-this tinge to it (your wife throws a surprise party for you with a live band that she actually joins for a song and performs it in dramatically sultry way – that’s showy, yes?).

My worry is what’s happened since that scene – something outsized in every episode this season. It could be that the times are more provocative – nurse murders, crazy snipers, riots in the streets, protests, whatever – and Mad Men needs to quicken its pulse and to become a more wide-eyed series to capture the era. I don’t know. It could be that by Season 5 there’s less building toward the drama and more experiencing it.

Whatever the cause, I'm sensing something different about Mad Men

I certainly haven’t lost faith because the rest of “Signal 30” kept solid themes afloat – Pete’s increasing unhappiness, his boxing opponent’s similar unhappiness manifested in a mid-life drift, contrasted nicely (if possibly temporarily) by Don’s (mostly) positive and calm happiness; Peggy’s success, Roger’s feelings of uselessness, etc. All of the inner-themes that move this series were there,if connected a little too neatly for me. Plus a wonderful new focus on Ken’s hidden life (easily my favorite part of the episode). So few people ever get what they want on Mad Men, much less know what they want. And if they do get what they want, it never seems to be what they imagined. It would take some mighty undoing to mess with Mad Men’s existential core.

And “Signal 30” had so much left to discuss even after the brawl (Pete’s tastes in the bedroom, his nascent realization that he’s getting old, Don’s possibly subconscious thoughts about death/suicide, and Ken, Ken, Ken – the sci-fi, the passion, the persistence, the existential robot! – Jesus, there’s no end to the goodness).

But I’ll leave that for others to delve into this week. It’s a long(ish) season and it can’t properly be judged until it’s over, but I’m beginning to truly miss ‘The Carousel’ type moments of the past and I’m trying to acclimate myself to the less nuanced changes that appear to be here to stay on Mad Men.

Email: Tim.Goodman@thr.com; Twitter: @BastardMachine