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BECAUSE YOU NEEDED TO READ MORE ABOUT MAD MEN

Oh, because it's the offseason, and because if Mad Men is designed to make you do anything, it's write at length online about Mad Men.

This entire season of Mad Men in climbing-speak has been 5.12 and above territory, and with reason: writing about happiness, or the gap between life and the concept of happiness, is dicey business. No one thinks the same way about happiness, absolutely no one, and even the few things people generally recognize as common sources of happiness--family, money, success--are usually sources of secondary and lasting misery.

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That is a quality First World Problems observation, but this is a show about those First World Problems and the very First World People running from them. It's been a major pain in the ass this season to watch Pete Campbell shred every last piece of bedding in his cage, but that's what a nervous breed like Pete is supposed to do when he gets what he wants. Low on the oil of humanity and faking the part to the last lines, Pete's failing out of humanity one step at a time, and running out of masks to wear. HIs first model, his father, died and thus scattered the bearings of the haughty preppie overlord he was. Pete then tried to be Don, and that dead-end constituted much of this season's Lizard Pete story arc. Having set the charges to demolish what's left of his home life, Pete is adrift with only hunger to sustain him.

(You think they brought Richard Speck into this year's floating array of cultural references by chance? Pete's the show's resident serial killer, a petty thief with brief forays into serious crime. "Grimy little pimp" by Lane wasn't just foreshadowing; it is, at this point, a job description for Pete. He's literally whored out Joan, raped an au pair, had a delightful conversation about Leopold and Loeb with his brother Bud, hates his mother, attempted to blackmail Don, and is stifled by an overbearing but very likable wife. If that rifle is still in Pete's office, someone needs to unload it and disable the firing pin, because his is this close to being the show's nattily tailored Charles Whitman.)

And yes, no one cares about Megan, ever, mostly because she lacks the fundamental hooks all the other characters have. She's sane, measured, and not walking around with some giant hole in the center of her character. Even in the tapestry of stories dealing with women figuring out the shifting workplace politics of 1966, hers was a story of a actress surrounded with very little drama. Oh, poor Megan wants to be an actress, and if she's not at least she'll be rich, and perhaps she'll struggle with her knockoff Quebecois-brand Sartre/Beauvoir parents. It says something about the dysfunction of almost every character on the show that the functional one is this close to being the Jar-Jar Binks of this show.

Yet even Megan, the unbearably normal one, took it "that way," as Don put it, leveraging her relationship with Don into an acting gig. Joan sold herself for a partnership, something Pete proposed and that Lane underwrote. Peggy cut the cord with Don not just for emotional neglect, but also for more money and a determination to prove herself on her own. Even saintly Ken Cosgrove, presumably chopping wood at his rustic Vermont cabin on the weekends in between writing alien slavery allegories, kneecapped Pete in the future possible business of SCDP by insisting Pete get no meetings out of his family connections.

The Jaguar in the showroom was the centerpiece of the season: beautiful, the car of philanderers with a definite price tag, and with definite issues of reliability. Everything was for sale, yes, but chasing happiness and owning it meant the burdens of ownership--including that moment when that thing fails at the moment when you most need it. (See: Lane's unfortunate Jaguar ownership experience, the darkest and funniest joke of the season.) It's also emerald green, the color of Joan's dress, the stone the Jaguar dealer gives her, and of envy. No one said it had to be subtle, but the middle school English class star in us is really happy we noticed this anyway.

It's all dark, forbidding territory, and the kind that leads to the kind of picayune, futzy finale I watched last night. There's a problem when a show, book, music, or whatever product of your choice is so good, and it's this: the urge to crawl up its ass at the slightest waver of that greatness or consistency. Your expectations blur the oddity of last season's finale--where Don suddenly married Jar-Jarina--or the awesome but obvious symbolism of season two's "Maidenform." Mad Men has had one truly great finale--the caper episode capping season, "Shut the Door. Have A Seat." The rest have been merely excellent television, and your par is suddenly so much less satisfying because of the birdies and eagles that preceded it.

Sound familiar? Or at least relevant to everything Mad Men wanted to cover this season in terms of happiness and its diminishing returns? The season finale really came with the death of Lane Pryce in "Commissions and Fees," a show title summing up the harsh dues paid in the name of happiness. This was denouement, and one not without its narcotics.*

*At least Lane got to see England go out on top in the '66 World Cup. Should have known he'd kill himself when you saw the Mets banner on the wall, though. That his wife assumed Lane's sad picture of a woman he never met was his mistress is just one more stop on the Endless Salad Bar of Lane Pryce's Sorrow, but a horrendous one nonetheless.

The final montage hit stride because it framed up precisely what the previous 58 minutes had fought so hard (and awkwardly) to articulate: Don's new distance from Megan, Megan's new fantasy world she's happily blinding herself in, Peggy's long and distinctly unglamorous climb up the ladder, Roger Sterling's ongoing depravity parade at the Stanhope*, Pete Campbell socked into a pair of headphones alone and humming, and finally Don Draper taking a glance at the offramp to DickWhitmanville.

*This ends with Roger Sterling in a teepee blasted on peyote, and then helping to found Nike and ending up accidentally even richer.

The question "Are you alone?" at the end was the killer, and with reason. Don's not alone at the bar. Dick's there, and so is his dead half-brother Adam, and Lane, and Anna, and the real Don Draper. The empty chair at the partner's meeting, the appearance of a hallucinated Adam, Betty's quiet mention of Don's first wife...there are a lot of people drinking with Don. He's never alone, and at the end of season five, that's the worst part of all.

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