Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The New Missus of "Mad Men"

I figure if I did a "Game of Thrones" post for the midpoint of its current season, I should do one for "Mad Men" too, which has been on fire this year. Season Five has been all about Megan Draper (Jessica Paré), and she has been a valuable addition to the ensemble. Spoilers for all episodes that have been aired so far

"Mad Men" is now firmly in the midst of the tumultuous 60s, and this season we've finally started seeing the cultural changes start to affect the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Minority staffers Dawn (Teyonah Parris) and Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) were welcomed with a lot of fanfare, before slowly fading into the background, but perhaps not for long. The character who has done the most to shake up the place, and the life of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), has been his second wife Megan, who he proposed to on the spur of the moment, back at the end of Season Four. Over the long break, it was hard to imagine that Don wouldn't regret his impetuous decision after reality sunk in. However, the reality has been complicated. There's a lot more to Megan than there appears to be at first glance, and Jessica Paré has had the opportunity to turn the character into a showcase for her own formidable talents. The internet couldn't stop talking about her rendition of "Zou Bisou Bisou" after the season premiere.

After the disintegration of Don's marriage to Betty (January Jones), he cycled through several potential replacements, and at first it seemed like Megan was not one of his better options. She was his secretary, a would-be actress, and the age difference, though not extreme, was notable. So it was a welcome surprise that Megan became a copywriter at Sterling Cooper, and that she showed that she was capable of operating on Don's level in the workplace. She wasn't a minimally involved trophy wife like Jane Sterling (Peyton List) or trapped in the domestic sphere like Betty, but far closer in temperament and ambition to our favorite working girl, Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), and got along with her too. This doesn't mean that Don and Megan's marriage has been perfect. There have been fights and spats since very early on, and sometimes Megan's independence has been the major irritant. However, Megan has been good for Don. This season we've seen him happier and more stable than he's even been. Megan knows all about Dick Whitman, and she doesn't care.

Of course, there's still that ever-present feeling that the walls are closing in, though Don hasn't been subject to the worst of it this season. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) has been suffering a much more visible downward spiral, and Peggy is showing increasing signs of strain. Don may be joining them in their existential misery soon. In last Sunday's episode, Megan revealed how tenuous Don's new happiness is, her decision to leave Sterling Cooper suddenly and profoundly disrupting both Don's work and home life. It's only in her absence that Don realizes that he's on the wrong side of a growing generation gap, and he's no longer at the height of his advertising powers. The fallout is likely to continue through the rest of the season, and I have to wonder if Don's second marriage is going to last through this year's finale.

Even if we don't see much of the newest Mrs. Draper past this point, she's contributed a hell of a lot dramatically, thematically, and entertainment-wise too. This season of "Mad Men" will almost certainly be a jumping-off point for Jessica Paré's career. She's outshone January Jones so thoroughly that Betty's minimal appearances this year have barely raised an eyebrow, though Megan enjoys the advantage of embodying all the transformative, vibrant, positives of 1960s youth culture that Don Draper keeps trying and failing to connect to. His brief happiness in the first half of this season may just end up making him more miserable in the end. The symbolism this season may be heavy-handed - the open elevator shafts, the life insurance policies, etc - but it's appropriate to the current storylines. Roger Sterling (John Slattery) on LSD was priceless.

I'd like more Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Sally (Kiernan Shipka), but I'm perfectly happy to see how the storyline with Megan plays out. She's been so good at teasing out new aspects of Don Draper, and provoking the rest of the characters, she was exactly the boost the show needed at this point in its run. Megan is one of the few examples of a New Girl that worked, and worked wonders.

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