A pall of melancholy hangs in the air at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, wearying the modish bodies haunting the office’s corridors, clinging to every clean-lined suit and skinny tie, permeating the status reports and sales pitches and meetings over dinner and drinks. A lush and a womanizer are the meager ad firm’s lucrative must-acquire prospects, cold leads warmed by the agency’s baby-faced moppet, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), now playing the part of pimp. Don (Jon Hamm), former titan of industry, slumps into a complacency of his own design, his incomparable talents neutered, improbably, by something like happiness at home. A garish surprise party arranged by Quebecois sexpot and secretary-cum-wife Megan (Jessica Paré) is a locus of feelings previously unfelt, both for Don (stirred by the proceedings) and for us (exhilarated by Megan’s literal song-and-dance routine, a rare moment of unmitigated glee for the series). Rather than reemerge with a bang, Mad Men lets slip a whimper whose effect is to confuse and disturb. This world isn’t the same as the one we left at the end of last season, as the agency was shrinking and Don, still shaken by the death of a friend and confidant, was throwing caution to the proverbial wind by marrying a woman he’d known only a week. We return and things seem vaguely different: There’s something disconcerting and portentous in the air, and it will probably end badly.
Death, of course, seems a natural recourse for a season characterized, tonally speaking, by gloom, and indications of impending disaster are peppered liberally throughout: Don, in “Lazy Lazarus,” receives an existential crisis in miniature as the doors to a high-rise elevator open onto a yawning void; a newly obese Betty (January Jones), in “Tea Leaves,” discovers a nodule on her thyroid which may be cancerous; Roger (John Slattery), taking LSD in “Far Away Places,” authors a note of cautionary instruction to be left on his greatly disoriented person. It’s ultimately Lane (Jared Harris), the British expatriate with the permanently fixed grin of desperation, whose life draws to a sudden close, but the curtain call itself is less tragic than the harrowing descent that lands him there. Dread, specific to his case, mounts rather quickly, beginning with a taxman’s demand for $8,000 he doesn’t have; dire straits bloom, over the course of two episodes, into something like a personal apocalypse, as a hapless loser’s honest mistakes become dishonest ones and a situation in severe need of a solution quickly proves impossible to solve. It’s in this narrowing of personal rather than more broadly social or political strictures that Mad Men truly comes into its own, shearing itself of the weight of historical context to thrive, finally, as a drama both lean and pure. The grand irony is that Lane’s private struggle, an inward collapse unmoored from time and place, resonates more intensely and more universally than any of the show’s attempts to engage with the meat of its loaded setting. It is, more than anything else, a passage of drama to which we can relate rather than one we feel we ought to understand.
Lane’s death marks the moment at which a seductive but nevertheless thin drama becomes a substantial one as serious as it’s always aspired to be, and the reason is simply that it doesn’t try as hard. Working from a solid foundation of long-form character development and relationship-building, Mad Men‘s fifth season is finally liberated from the context-driven social and historical drama that defined its first four seasons. In short, the season is free to engage with simpler pleasures: It’s now a more refined and elegant drama, trading in small blows. Claims that, relative to seasons prior, “nothing happens” across the fifth season are, frankly, exactly right, as the show is no longer obligated to justify its period setting by paying lip service to public record. When Mad Men was most deeply in thrall to the guiding framework of history, it seemed awkward and ill-fitting; shallow nods, for instance, to major events or figures of the day, seen always with the anachronistic insight of 40-plus years of distance, smacked of obligation to its own high-concept premise. Season one labored to show us, time and again, how unfair the early 1960s were to women, the implication often being that things are so much better off now (be thankful for your opportunities, even if you still aren’t earning equal wages—at least you’re nobody’s secretary). Worse still were the in-jokes made at the expense of the necessarily naïve, always invitations for savvy audiences to pat themselves on the back for being familiar with history (someone’s confident claim that J.F.K. “could never be elected president” elicits a chuckle because, see, we know that he was in fact elected). Season five does away with this almost entirely. History, for once, informs the drama without strictly defining it, as social events inform our lives every day without totally guiding them. The Charles Whitman shooting rampage becomes a brief topic of conversation, shading a walk home with fear; the Richard Speck murders frighten a child; various subplots involve music, films, or ad campaigns of the day without smugly commenting on their specificity of any of them. The drama, in other words, becomes casually modern: History is as invisible as it is to us as we live through it, and what resonates is smaller, more personal, and tied only to us.
If Mad Men's long-standing reputation for embracing a cinematic rather than a strictly televisual aesthetic seemed more noteworthy in 2007 than it does in 2012, it's only because the show's tendency to embellish period detail has seeped into the art direction and defining visual style of nearly every series now on the air. Mad Men, consequently, has had to step up its game, and it's to the credit of showrunner Matthew Weiner's stable of in-house directors (including star Jon Hamm himself) that season five is the show's best-looking. What Lionsgate's positively pristine new AVC-encoded 1080p transfer brings into sharp relief is the eye the show has for detail, from a shared and obvious compositional acumen (what Scott Hornbacher does with mirrors, windows, and doorframes throughout "Far Away Places" is worthy of Douglas Sirk) to its sumptuous, eye-popping palette, all of which is conveyed on high-def without noticeable flaws. The season's favored mid-length two- and three-shots show astonishing clarity and detail, its trademark dark colors appear deeply saturated and rich, and black levels are every bit as impenetrable as the secrets these shadows hide.
The transfer's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is similarly stellar: Voices come through as loud and clear as you'd expect, but what's most surprising is how rich and varied everything else is, from typewriters clacking away in the ad offices to the busy drone of traffic in New York's city streets. The show's elegant and often thoughtful original score is balanced and robust, and its often significant use of licensed, period-specific material—"Zou Bisou Bisou," of course, but also "Tomorrow Never Knows"—boom triumphantly as needed.
Inordinate sums of interesting but often only tangentially related content bloat each of the three disc's to their bursting points, providing every excuse for habitual downloaders to drop cash on the physical set. A little of this material qualifies as quintessential studio fluff ("Mad Men Say the Darndest Things" is a meager compilation of one-liners that adds nothing of value to the experience of watching the show), but the bulk of this glut goes much deeper. Two roughly half-hour featurettes, the first on the influence of Greek-Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico on the design of season five's popular promotional poster (which doubles as the set's front cover) and the second a detailed explanation of Truman Capote's Black and White masquerade ball (which literally has nothing to do with Mad Men besides having been held the same year that season five is set), further enrich the social and historical context of a series already loaded with it, and though they obviously qualify as superfluous, their inclusion (and surprising depth) betrays the degree of thought and care that went into producing this set. Where most studios are content to settle, out of obligation, for a handful of airy five-minute video extras, someone at Lionsgate ensured that this package went the extra mile.
A long, involved featurette about composer David Carbonara examines the process of scoring the show's fifth season, which proves illuminating, if slightly oversimplified. "The Uniform Time Act of 1966" again looks at an issue pertinent to the period, but not directly to the show—in this case the history of daylight saving time. And a digital gallery of Newsweek covers from 1966 seems especially relevant given the recent news of the magazine ceasing publication. Commentaries from Weiner, along with a variety of cast and crew members, cover each of the season's 13 episodes in full, and range from informative to mildly amusing. But the most oddly compelling special feature is not even technically a feature at all: Included at the beginning of disc one, amid promotional trailers and advertisements for other Lionsgate properties, sits a brief commercial info-tainment from one of the set's principal corporate sponsors, Canadian Club, which turns out to be a kind of instructional video featuring recipes for Mad Men-inspired drinks. What's interesting here is that the company went to the effort of producing this small, gleeful video at all; the alleged "executive" and bartender starring in the spot appears so pleased to be there that any sense of try-hard corporate mugging dissipates altogether. We're shown how to make both a CC Old-Fashioned ("a cocktail from a time when men were men and drinks were drinks," uttered so endearingly that it's tough to fault the sexist implications) and, of course, a CC Manhattan ("the classic drink of the New York ad agencies, and it still is to this day," said with the pride of a father). And just in case the instructions zip by too quickly, there's a hard copy of the recipes stuffed in the inside sleeve of the box. It's obvious that somebody important at Canadian Club loves the shit out of Mad Men and made a point of getting heavily (and earnestly!) involved.
Lionsgate put every ounce of effort and care into serving up the fifth round of cable TV's stiffest drink.