One of the many reasons that 'Mad Men' is such a superlative bit of television is the way the series remains unafraid of change, even while looking directly into the frightening permanence of it all. After spending 2011 without a single new episode, due to a dispute between AMC and the series' creator, Matthew Weiner, season 5 returns with Don Draper by introducing us to 1966 and all the changes that year will intrinsically bring to the series.
And it's clear from the start; things inside and out of the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are in the midst of a titanic shift. The world is changing; there is civil unrest and a growing cultural rejection of the very materialism that not only drives SCDP, but Don Draper (Jon Hamm) as well. New York is in decay; a toxic fog hangs over the city on Thanksgiving Day, but more than that there is an undetectable poison in the air creeping into the lives and homes of all the various faces that comprise 'Mad Men.' It is a season of sinister portent, but one that the audience remains only peripherally aware of until the 'The Phantom' tells them exactly what all the implications have been about.
The season kicks off with the fantastic two-part premiere, 'A Little Kiss,' where Don's new wife, Megan (Jessica Paré) Zou Bisou Bisou's her way into the hearts of the audience and inadvertently grants the denizens of SCDP access into the Draper home – and by extension, their lives. It is an invasion. What starts as an innocuous surprise party is actually the beginning of the toxic smog and poison that permeates the season, and, as a result creates this obsession with the ominous that will soon become tragically real.
The series always wants to move forward, so after the shock of Don's proposal to Megan at the end of season 4, 'Mad Men' returned with a nearly unrecognizable Don to go along with his new wife. Don is happy. Moreover, Don is happy being married, and happy controlling Megan's life, whether he's aware of it or not. The work that used to drive him and define him no longer captivates him as it did before. And as a result, things at SCDP have changed; Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) has risen to prominence. The trouble is, no one, but Pete, seems to have noticed. While Don was on "love leave," as Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) will tell him in 'Far Away Places,' Pete's been bringing in all the business, leaving Roger Sterling (John Slattery) with nothing to do but pull obscene sums of money from his pocket as his only means of getting things done.
Don's happy home life, Roger's lack of work, and Pete's sudden authority mean SCDP has finally arrived. This is their moment; they're finally successful. However, as Lane Pryce continually points out all season long, the firm is waiting to reap the actual benefits of all the success with real money. It's success with nothing to show for it. And from that comes a conflict, a lack of knowledge of what to do, and where to go from there. Pete is stuck in the quiet melancholy of a lifelong Manhattanite who suddenly finds himself relocated to the 'burbs. His life is eerily reminiscent of Don's, and, in many ways, the two find themselves domestically transposed. Pete has everything, and is still unhappy. He finds a beautiful woman who is not his wife and makes love to her, only to have her submit to the blissful amnesia that follows electroshock therapy. Megan, too, finds that having everything can lead to a malaise that only leads to more wanting. After making Don so happy at home, and finding she's actually good at advertising, her father selfishly reminds her of the dreams she's given up in the memorable 'At the Codfish Ball' – and though she has a knack for it – as perhaps she does everything – Megan ultimately rejects Don's profession, and by extension, Don as well. But with that rejection comes the return of the real Don Draper, under the theme for 'You Only Live Twice' – which, if you're Don Draper, is twice as sweet.
It is a powerful season that is wholly unlike those that have come before it. Things have changed – as they rarely do in television life – and Matthew Weiner, along with this very talented writing staff, which includes Jonathan Igla, Erin Levy and Semi Chellas, have managed to craft a set of stories that hint at the unknown anxiety and uncertainty of a world that finds itself in the midst of change. It is very much about the impermanence of everything: success, love, happiness and even life. But it manages to tell a story bursting at the seams with the presence of ruin and refuse to make it overly melancholy. Yes, Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) was lost in a horrible combination of circumstance and the infernal machine that is SCDP. Yes, everything was awash in filth, like the trash-filled gutters lining the streets of New York City. Yes, Don envisions he's rotting on the inside, but there's reason to hope: Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), after all, managed to escape and find herself in pursuit of her passion far beyond the whims of Don Draper and his negative influence.
There's success, and then there's 'Mad Men' success. It's the conflict of achievement in a time when such things came to mean something different to those just starting out. In the end, perhaps the season is asking: What good is having everything if you can't enjoy other people's envy of it?
'Mad Men' has often been praised for its cinematic qualities, which are on display in the series' set decoration, period specific styles and wardrobes, and, of course, in its rather sumptuous cinematography. This Blu-ray release would be remiss if it were to somehow neglect the time and effort that goes into making this series look as good as it does, but thankfully, Lionsgate has pulled out all the stops with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that is as good as the four previous season releases.
Everything here is as solid as it can be. Detail is exemplary; there's not a scene that goes by that isn't rich with texture or other elements of the image – significant or otherwise. Everything from the pattern on Lane Pryce's tie to the snow gently cascading outside Don Draper's office window is captured and presented with delicate precision. Black levels are strong, with good shadow delineation that produces deep, rich shadows with plenty of fine detail in all low-light scenes. Meanwhile, contrast levels remain high, which is remarkable given the amount of scenes that take place in white offices with manufactured daylight streaming in. To that end, the image is strong across the grayscale, with strong blacks and whites that pop, but never bloom or radiate too strong over the image.
Color is represented incredibly well, especially considering the changing wardrobes and styles of the '60s. Here the bright, vibrant colors often seen in the women's clothing are as strong and evenly saturated as the men's more muted tones of browns, grays and blacks. Like the series, the transfer here works to maintain a level of reality that prevents the often-audacious clothing choices from looking like the actors are simply wearing costumes. On a related note, flesh tones are rendered beautifully, capturing everything from the sweaty brow of a feverish Don Draper to the flushed cheeks of Megan and Sally just in from the walking the winter streets of Manhattan.
All around, this is the visual treat that Matthew Weiner and his production team work so hard to craft, and the Blu-ray has done a fantastic job in representing their effort.
Adding to the cinematic quality of the series is the fantastic musical score from composer David Carbonara and his team. It's hard to imagine a television series that is as synonymous with a sound as it is with its visual style. So many television series (and films, really) rely so heavily on musical selections from popular music that all but the biggest composers are nearly forgotten. Thankfully, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track perfectly recreates Mr. Carbonara's incredible score, providing one of the best listening experiences short of seeing the music performed live.
From the opening title track that has become so ingrained in the public's consciousness, and so indicative of the series as a whole, to the song selection that typically plays over the episode's end credits, it all sounds rich and wonderfully calibrated.
Naturally, this is a dialogue driven show, so the focus should be on the characters themselves. Here, dialogue is handled primarily through the center channel speaker, but occasionally – like in the party that takes place during the season premiere, 'A Little Kiss' – dialogue is extended to the front right and left, as well as the rear channels, to help immerse the viewer in the din of an excited, and exceedingly inebriated birthday party. The same can be said for the ambience of any setting where additional sounds like ringing phones, dinner conversation or the hum of traffic, can help increase the level of engagement for the audience.
Moreover, balance between the score and dialogue is perfectly calibrated, allowing Carbonara's somber or excited tones to slowly creep up, or instantly excite the audience as need be. Meanwhile, as the series scored something of a major coup in being granted the license to the Beatles' 'Tomorrow Never Knows' for use in the episode 'Lady Lazarus,' the track sounds rather fantastic here – even though Don turns it off.
'Mad Men' season 5 has been given extra attention in the sound department here and it shows. This is a superlative sound effort that enhances a very strong season of the series.
The special features on 'Mad Men' season 5 are extensive, to say the least. Each disc comes with some intriguing behind-the-scenes looks, as well as some truly insightful extras that not only delve into the complexities and often overlooked aspects of the series, but also offers a more intimate glimpse at the period in which the series takes place, and where so much of the rich storytelling is derived. Adding to the scope of the special features is the fact that 'Mad Men' creator and showrunner, Matthew Weiner, appears on a commentary track for each of the 13 episodes of season 5 – in addition to other commentaries, featuring members of the writing staff, directors, as well as various actors and even composer David Carbonara. With 26 commentaries total, 'Mad Men' season 5 goes on and beyond what would be expected of a television series release on Blu-ray, but some of the additional features included here are a surprise and truly offer a more compelling viewing experience.
Sure, it may have lost its chance to claim Emmy history because of that upstart Showtime series 'Homeland,' but 'Mad Men' still reigns supreme as what may be the finest piece of television ever crafted. That is a bold statement that will likely have plenty of readers up in arms, but the series simply excels at everything from writing and directing, to displaying a whole host of incredibly distinct and powerful performances. Season 5 may not be the typical 'Mad Men' season, but it is unforgettable in nearly every way. Added to the fact that this is yet another fantastic release from Lionsgate, and 'Mad Men' season 5 simply comes off as a must own Blu-ray for your collection.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.