This article contains several spoilers for the fifth season of Mad Men. If you haven’t seen the season, turn back now.
Of all the gorgeous, startling, life-affirming, soul-crushing, laugh-inducing, and otherwise outstanding moments captured in Mad Men’s fifth season, the one that’s stuck with me the longest is also the season’s most unsettling. In the episode “Lady Lazarus,” Don Draper parts with his wife (and newly resigned copy writer) in the elevator banks outside the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, only to punch the “Down” button moments after Megan begins her descent to street level. Jon Hamm is silent for the remainder of the scene, but his facial expressions broadcast Don’s motivations: He’s hoping to race Megan to the lobby of the Time-Life Building, maybe even persuade her to return to the agency. But when the adjacent elevator doors open, there’s no car—just a long way down and some ominous echoes. There are no words, but the image speaks volumes. “She’s allowed to get out,” the concrete void says. “You’re not.”
And that—not Don’s co-workers parading past him in “Far Away Places,” not the multi-generational tableau of disenchantment “At The Codfish Ball,” not the sight of the former Rory Gilmore in little more than a fur coat—is the image that defines this past season of Mad Men for me. The A.V. Club’s own Todd VanDerWerff sees the past 12 episodes as a commentary on what it’s like to work in a TV writers’ room—an interpretation that certainly has legs—but I’d like to add another to the pile as we approach this Sunday’s season finale. While Matthew Weiner and his writing staff have put forth the occasional analogy about compromising your grand artistic ambitions or writing for intelligent, talented actresses often seen as nothing more than a cup size, they were also transforming the advertising agency of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce into the most terrifying monster on television.
It was a good time to do so: In the wake of big ratings for Mad Men’s AMC compatriot, The Walking Dead, television programmers went crazy for monsters. NBC ordered Bryan Fuller to cast a darker pall on The Munsters’ domesticated ghouls. On the other side of the development cycle, Ryan Murphy reflected a nation’s demons in American Horror Story’s funhouse mirror, while Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli subjected a team of documentarians to the tropical terrors of The River. Even MTV got in on the action, car-surfing on top of the slowly decelerating Twilight bandwagon with Teen Wolf. Yet only The Walking Dead’s lumbering flesh-eaters pass muster when it comes to unnerving the viewer—and even then, the hordes of undead aren’t nearly as terrifying as the thought of spending another season among the bickering humans sequestered on the Greene family farm.
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, on the other hand, is an unstoppable force that absorbs and destroys its victims with no discernible pattern. (It is an advertising agency, after all, and the root of the word “consumerism” is “consume.”) It’s a Frankenstein-like creature: It’s both escaped the control of its creators and it’s made of pieces of previously existing entities. Like the zombie throngs of The Walking Dead or George Romero’s Dead films, SCDP is massive and difficult to evade, as Don discovered in “Lady Lazarus.” Like The Borg or the Body Snatchers, it’s a dangerously compelling hive mind, one capable of tempting a typically levelheaded person like Joan Harris into compromising herself for the good of the company and a new place at the partners’ meetings. (The Joan of “Commissions And Fees” seemed a little too happy and out-of-sorts to be the same person who watched Peggy Olson skip the Jaguar party at the end of “The Other Woman.”) “Commissions And Fees” marked another milestone for SCDP’s hideous transformation, one notched by any monster that’s haunted the collective imagination: The firm took its first life.
The death of Lane Pryce came as a tremendous shock, with its own borrowed bits of horror-movie vocabulary: A false scare when the character couldn’t get the Jaguar to start, and a “No, don’t go in there!” moment when he stepped into his office at SCDP, never to step out again. It wasn’t scary, per se, but the monster’s stalking of its prey created sustained suspense, something its TV counterparts haven’t managed to do. That kind of thing is easy to carry off in small, scenic chunks spread across 90 minutes of a film, but incredibly difficult to stretch across multiple episodes and multiple weeks. In that way, it was in Mad Men’s DNA to bring forth such a hideous creature; as adept as the series is at changing faces and themes from week to week, it’s equally skilled at maintaining a tone throughout an entire season and using previously established information, no matter how slight, to build to definitive conclusions. Just think about how nearly everything that passes between the Sterling Cooper brass and its British overlords in season three ultimately builds to that moment in “Shut The Door. Have A Seat” where Don declares, “I’m sick of being batted around like a Ping-Pong ball.” That’s the character’s hubristic Dr. Frankenstein moment; it would take another 13 episodes or so for the beast to turn on those who gave it life. And just like Don, Frankenstein had a way with copy—what is “It’s alive!” if not the horror genre’s greatest tagline?
And it’s not like the show hadn’t been planting the seeds for some sort of calamitous event for most of season five. As Vulture’s Margaret Lyons notes, the season is fixated on death and dying. And while at least one of the cultural artifacts refracting and distilling the characters’ anxieties—The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”—casts the end of life in a positive light, Don’s aborted experience with side two of Revolver was preceded by hours in which mass murderers Richard Speck and Charles Whitman skulked around the corners. Speck’s was a particularly difficult presence to shake, causing “Mystery Date” to get too heavy-handed in its contemplations of everyday horrors. Don’s destructive temper was nothing new to the show; strangling a vixenish Mädchen Amick in a fever dream was just the most visceral way of displaying it.
Speck and Whitman were monsters terrorizing the show from without, but the latter apparently had a lot in common with a metallic terror sprung from the imagination of Ken “Ben Hargrove” Cosgrove. The dinner scene from “Signal 30” is many things—a showcase for an underutilized Trudy Campbell; a public emasculation of Pete Campbell—but it’s also a nice bit of foreshadowing and a brilliant misdirection. The biggest monster of season five isn’t hiding out in Chicago or Austin. It’s seated right there in the Campbells’ dining room, feeding on the choices and the visions of the men in garish sportcoats.
As Ken tells it to the Campbells and the Drapers, his science-fiction parable “The Punishment Of X4” hinges on a choice: The titular robot either chooses to keep a bridge joining two worlds in ship-shape, or he chooses to remove a bolt and send hundreds tumbling to their demise. Don asks the all-important question: “Why does he do it?” The author’s response: “Because he’s a robot. Those people tell him what to do and he doesn’t have the power to make any decisions, except he can decide whether or not that bolt’s on or off.”
It’s a moment where the “Mad Men as writers’ room” and “Mad Men as monster movie” interpretations of the season dovetail. Weiner and company are talking directly about their own X4s, characters with set roles, purposes, and paths whose attempts to shake things up typically cause more harm than good. And what’s there, usually goading them toward making those decisions? Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Junior partner Pete Campbell is discouraged by the lack of respect he receives in the office, so what does he do? He begins dismantling his marriage and picks a fight in the conference room. Joan Harris, her own marriage disintegrating and her mother exerting too much influence over her home life, seeks a modicum of control by allowing the company to use her as a pawn in the game of capturing a client. Lane Pryce finds shelter from a hostile homeland (and a pool of readily accessible cash) in the tiny fortress he’s constructed in the workplace—and then the fortress collapses in on him.
This is the most sinister quality of SCDP: It offers security, but delivers none. It’s a beautiful trap, a carnivorous plant whose mouth is lined with illusions of power, influence, money, and happiness. There are ways of extricating yourself, as season five’s “final girls,” Megan Draper and Peggy Olson, proved—but that requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice. And when you press the button that allows you to make your exit, there’s a one-in-four chance that beast is going to swallow you whole. You just have to watch where you step.