the dying of the light

Why Is Mad Men Season 5 Obsessed With Death?

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) - Mad Men
Photo: Jordin Althaus/AMC

Mad Men’s never shied away from issues of mortality, but never has a season been quite so focused on the act of dying. Last week, Don doodled a noose during a meeting and made casual reference to blowing one’s brains out on account of being in the suburbs, while Pete watched a gruesome driver’s ed movie and chitchatted about sniper Charles Whitman. The week before, everyone was obsessed with Richard Speck and the murders of eight nursing students in Chicago. Even Sally was unusually focused on the murders, and that’s saying something for her, because we know her to be pretty curious about death and dying (see: all the Grandpa Gene stuff, but also the way she watched news footage of a Buddhist monk’s self immolation in “The Arrangements”). Betty’s fear of a cancer diagnosis sent her into a quiet panic, culminating in a dream about her own death, and even “A Little Kiss” had a moment of Megan standing on her balcony that didn’t seem suicidal exactly, but certainly tapped into the audience’s, and maybe the character’s, l’appel du vide.

But there’s only really been one death scene so far this season, and it only sort of counts: Don strangling his ex-lover Andrea felt real enough for a moment, but it was just a fever dream. (And maybe a Wizard of Oz homage, what with the awkwardly splayed legs with red shoes.) As much as the other character’s feel helpless to protect themselves against the violence of the world, Don in that moment feels helpless not to commit violence. No one plans on accidentally referencing suicide all the time, but it happens.

Broadly speaking, the first season of Mad Men was about exile, the second about control, the third about obsolescence, the fourth about despair, and now this fifth seems to be about death. Could we put this on a Kubler-Ross model for grief? Of course we can! In the first season, Don was in extreme denial about who he was; in the second, his anger issues became an increasingly large part of his life; in the third, Don’s bargaining like crazy all over the place; in the fourth, Don is clearly depressed; and now, here we are in the fifth season and stage — acceptance. Death, death, death, death, death. He’s not fully in the acceptance stage yet, but we’re only a few episodes in.

Maybe that’s why there’s the almost oppressive sensation that someone on Mad Men is about to die. Signs seem to point to the increasingly miserable Pete killing himself. But Mad Men rarely goes where it seems to be heading, and as sad and weaselly as Pete is, we’d hate to think of the show without him (and his bitchface). Could it be Roger whose time is not long for this world? He has had all those heart attacks. Or could it be someone more tangential, like Pete’s baby daughter Tammy? Or new guy Michael Ginsberg?

Mad Men’s dealt with death from the get-go, from Adam Whitman to Ida Blankenship, but it’s permeating this season in a way that’s more haunting than tragic, diffuse rather than acute. Death was always out there, but was it always really all around us?

Why Is Mad Men Season 5 Obsessed With Death?