By season five, Mad Men had firmly established itself as television’s greatest incubator of character development. Matthew Weiner’s recreation of 1960s America viewed through the microcosm of an up-and-coming advertising agency has been playing the long game from the beginning, allowing its myriad complex characters time to evolve naturally and gradually reveal more and more about their inner selves. The superb season four gave the series its biggest wholesale narrative jolt yet, as the relatively comfortable environs of Sterling Cooper were abandoned for fledgling new venture Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the finale. Season five finds the characters grappling with this brave new world and gives us a brand new Don Draper who may in fact not be all that different.
Jon Hamm’s portrayal of brilliant womanizer Draper gets a shot of stability in season five as he adjusts to newlywed life with former secretary Megan (Jessica Paré). It’s a move that pays off incredibly well, reducing January Jones’ problematic Betty Draper to a background player and offering the gifted Paré a chance to grow a previously flat role into an intriguingly enthusiastic foil for Don’s neuroses. Best of all, it forces some external changes on Don Draper (who knew he could excel at monogamy?) that bring a sharp focus to his perpetual cognitive dissonance. Is he really a changed man, and even if he is, can he believe that about himself?
Like always, season five of Mad Men proves how well the show excels at character balance, offering up riveting storylines for every major player. Christina Hendricks’ Joan Harris' tumultuous home life gives way to an even more troubling workplace development, where career advancement comes at a steep, despicable price. As the facilitator of that despicableness, Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell becomes even slimier and yet still retains an ounce of humanity, his desperation even in the face of ostensible success giving the character a movingly tragic quality.
Peggy Olson’s (Elisabeth Moss) success comes at a much slower rate than her onetime companion’s, but society’s fundamental paradigm shifts are happening, and she finds herself a sometimes reluctant member of that forefront. John Slattery’s Roger Sterling is on the opposite end of that spectrum, trying to grasp the remnants of a bygone era, with the cracks in his own freewheeling perception of himself starting to show. One of season five’s biggest character leaps comes in the form of Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), a heretofore slightly sketched character who we truly to come to know as his life unravels.