TV Club

Mad Men Season 5 recap: Are the men of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce friends?

This is an office! We’re supposed to be friends!

Mad Men.

Michael Yarish/AMC.

André and Maria, I envy you your historical research! Your description of the Mad Men writing process—and the joy of finding “delicious small events” from the era to repurpose—sounds like a lot of fun. I imagine it’s like flipping through a weathered stack of old magazines at a junk sale, being struck by the immediacy and detail of the stories you know already—the race riots, Vietnam—and by the ephemera that hasn’t endured, events like the airline strikes and the Speck murders. (Casting a glance over Time magazine’s covers for the rest of 1966, I can only hope Megan attempts to master the art of French cooking before the season is out.)

I’m glad, too, to hear you don’t pay squawkers like us too much mind. It frees us up to go on squawking with abandon. So I’ll get to it.

Is it me or are the offices of SCDP feeling increasingly claustrophobic? This season, there’s a lot more suspicion and whispering—not to mention hard left hooks—and a lot less joyful agency ass-kicking. Think of the spirit and delight that went into the Honda prank last season. We’re not seeing any of that mischief, verve, or esprit de corps.

That’s something of a bummer for us—the show is always fun when our ad men are conquering new terrain—but it’s a bigger bummer for the people who work there. This was an episode about the consuming nature of agency life, and the uncertain nature of the friendships it engenders. As Roger notes when he dresses Kenny down for moonlighting, working on Madison Avenue is “a day job and a night job.” There’s pressure to perform in meetings at the office, and also with clients after hours. Which means that nearly every human interaction has a subtext, and everyone you talk to has an ulterior motive. It can be exhausting—and difficult to know who your friends are.

I saw an emphasis on friendships, true and false, throughout the episode. Lane scoffs at his wife’s British pals for being “rather recently acquired”—until it turns out one of them could be the key to the $3 million Jaguar account. Megan chides the antisocial Don for being so loath to attend Pete’s party: “You don’t think there’s any chance you could have a conversation with another couple as friends?” Roger gives Lane tips for wooing Mr. Jaguar, teaching him how to establish a strategic camaraderie with his new chum. And Mr. Jaguar hints he’d like to experience something more exciting than dinner with Lane or drinks at the Carlyle: “I just want to make sure I enjoy the people I work with.”

All that networking can cause emotional corrosion. “When this job is good,” Roger tells Ken, “it satisfies every need. Believe me, I remember.” The unspoken counterpoint: When it’s bad, it leaves you all too aware of all you’re lacking—especially friends you can trust. When Pete laments to Don, at the end of the episode, “This is an office, we’re supposed to be friends,” what he means is, I thought you guys would do more than draw the curtains and watch me get beat up!

The more invested in work these characters are, the less happy they seem. Pete—who’s seen more success than anyone at the firm of late—is full of frustration and bitterness. Ken Cosgrove, on the other hand—or do I mean Dave Algonquin?—has one foot happily out the door. And lately, Don seems to be of an increasingly Cosgrovian bent. He’s interested in lunch with Megan, car rides with Megan, babies with Megan. He tells Pete that if he’d found Megan first “I would have known not to throw her away.” He’s utterly checked out at work.

And he seems pretty happy, doesn’t he? So happy, in fact, that it’s hard to explain that noose he was doodling during the partners’ meeting. The suicide references in this episode worried me. Don told Megan: “Saturday night in the suburbs, that’s when you really want to blow your brains out.” Roger’s been described as “miserable” a few too many times lately. And we do know that Pete still keeps that gun in his office …

Just fiddling with this bolt here, don’t mind me,