Mad Men’s recently wrapped-up fifth season was possibly its best season yet, and at least its best since season two. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the most ambitious season thus far because it dealt most directly with morality—and was the least preoccupied with subject of happiness.
Most of the time, Mad Men is all about happiness: Is happiness an illusion? Is it ever sustainable? Are the things that make people happy the same? Etc. This can be compelling, but it tends to get self-indulgent and repetitive quickly.
What made Season Five so different, though, was that it took as its starting point the idea that Don Draper, the perpetually self-loathing protagonist, was actually happy. He was finally in a happy marriage; he had a cordial relationship with his ex-wife and he was getting along with his kids; his company was relatively safe, and his relationships with most of his co-workers were good. This was so jarring to some viewers that they seemed intent to find problems where none existed. Every fight with he had with Megan supposedly hinted at the faulty foundation of the marriage—even if the fight was minor and they made up afterwards. People seemed completely unwilling to accept the idea that Don could be happily married and generally content; it was so unlike the Don we were used to.
It’s also harder to generate stories for a character who is generally happy with his life. It was telling that many early episodes focused on the unhappiness of other characters (Pete, Roger, Lane, and even Harry), which Don could hardly relate to. This contrast, however, allowed the show deal more directly with the subject of right and wrong. Mad Men has always been at its best at the intersection of happiness and morality, at the conflict between acting for yourself and for others: The last scene of Season One, Peggy’s decision to give up her baby, Betty kicking Don out in Season Two, and many of the shows best moments are all illustrations of this tension.
Season Five featured these moments aplenty, and often in particularly striking form. An episode like “Mystery Date,” for example, featured Don in a state of hallucination and was shot in such a way that the whole episode felt like a bad dream. In doing so, it was able to weave together its themes of adultery and what makes a man good. While adultery is, of course, nothing new to the world of Mad Men, this episode approached the subject in a new way. All of Don’s previous acts of adultery were just instances of him acting on his feelings of unhappiness and worthlessness. But now that Don was finally happy—and only cheating in his mind—the episode could actually deal with adultery as an act of betrayal, as opposed to just a manifestation of Don’s personal demons. This dovetailed with the rest of the episode in a way that innovatively addressed what it takes to be a good husband and a good man.
It would be impossible—and ill-advised—for Mad Men to abandon the subject of personal happiness altogether, but it can become a slog when every storyline is about someone’s state of discontent. The story of Roger’s unhappy marriage, for example, was enlivened by the LSD trip that changed his life. Instead of being yet another instance of the bloom fading from the rose, the story became one about empathy and loneliness and how people grow apart. In other words, making the character happy allowed his story to become more complex. That story’s climax in “Dark Shadows,”—when Roger sleeps with Jane in her new apartment—featured a heartbreaking scene in which Roger seems to realize that the peaceful serenity of the LSD appears to have worn off, but that he’s grown enough to realize how cruel he’s been.
The most shocking moral question of the season, of course, came in the season’s most memorable episode, “The Other Woman,” when Joan prostituted herself in exchange for a stake in Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The most interesting thing about that decision was the way that characters all tried to distance themselves from it: Roger announced that he wouldn’t be a part of it, but he also didn’t prevent it. Pete brought it up to Joan, but insisted it was the Jaguar representative who “insisted.” Cooper wanted to make sure Joan realized didn’t have to do it. Even Joan herself never seemed to have a moment of decisiveness—she seemed only resigned when she realized the financial stability it could bring to her family. In other words, it seemed like a gruesome example of the way pursuit of self-interest can turn people into amoral automatons.
The only two characters to take action were those on opposite ends of the happiness spectrum: Don and Lane. Don made a desperate plea to Joan, but it came too late.* Lane, on the other hand, laid out in practical terms the advantages of the offer only so that his own fraud would go undetected.
*And here again, a rare stylistic tweak paid dividends. But telling the story slightly out of order, the episode made Don’s speech seem like both an act of kindness and an unintended act of cruelty—telling her “it’s not worth it” only after she had already done “it.”
Which brings us to Lane, whose suicide was undoubtedly the season’s climax. Lane presents a revealing contrast with Don. If, midway through this season, you had asked a typical Mad Men fan who was more likable, Don or Lane, I’m confident about 90% would have said Lane. Even now I’d expect him to receive a majority of votes. Lane was a more likable character because, unlike Don, he did not ruthlessly go after whatever he thought would make him happy. Even when he knew he wanted something, like his black girlfriend or the wallet girl from the season premiere, he always showed the proper restraint. Don, on the other hand, would grab a woman’s vagina in a public restaurant if he felt like it.
This self-control makes Lane more likable, but it ultimately made him a worse person. Twice this season—when he stole the money and when he convinced Joan—Lane did things worse than anything Don has done over the course of the series. He did them because he saw no other way out, but he did them nonetheless. Lane’s death, then, was a tragedy in a classical sense: the inevitable downfall of a good but tragically flawed hero. Given that the qualities that boxed him into this tragedy were the same ones that had repeatedly kept him from going after what he wanted, this was yet another example of the complicated relationship between happiness and morality.
When Mad Men becomes too concerned with the subject of personal happiness it gets tiresome quickly. Megan’s storyline in Sunday’s finale was a perfect example. Though her despair at not succeeding as an actress was a clear contrast for the character, there were ultimately no moral stakes, so it was ultimately pretty boring. It did have moral stakes for Don—who ultimately chose to do something selfless for someone he loved—but even that presented a potentially troubling issue. The final scene, in which a woman approaches Don at a bar and asks, “Are you alone?” rehashed themes and stories that the show has beaten to death: Don’s feelings of isolation, his fear of abandonment, his propensity to seek comfort in strangers, etc.
It’s hard to imagine the show finding innovative ways to approach these ideas if it reverts back to the premise that Don is always alone and unhappy. After a season that dared to show what Don would be like if he got what he wanted and liked it, I hope Mad Men continues in that direction. Ultimately, I don’t care if fictional characters are happy; I only care if they are good.