“When is everything going to get back to normal?”
With that one question, Roger Sterling may have summed up the theme of Mad Men season 5. Stability is gone, changes are forcing their way in and the establishment is losing its security. But what is “normal,” and when can the world of Mad Men reach it again?
The Times They Are A-Changing
You can’t say that things haven’t changed in the ad game over the five seasons we have watched Mad Men. Back in season 1, Don Draper could joke about never hiring a Jew. Peggy caused a sensation by being more than just a secretary. Betty Draper recoiled in horror at the very idea of divorce.
On the face of things, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and its workers have moved forward from these beginnings. Social taboos are being broken weekly, and hey — they have an African-American secretary!
But how much of the change is real, and how much is just superficial? What does change mean for the old guard of advertising? Has anything changed at the heart and in the establishment of Mad Men?
Establishment Isn’t What It Used to Be
Establishment was, at the beginning of Mad Men, the goal and the prize. Don Draper — when not falling prey to the self-doubt brought on by a life of deception — measured progress against the rules of the establishment. A successful businessman, with his two kids and beautiful wife out in the suburbs, was all that Don — or anyone — could want to be.
Even if Don failed to find happiness in that life, he always felt that he should have.
The world agreed. Take, for example, the season 1 episode, “The Hobo Code.” Don spends an evening of smoking and jazz with Midge’s Bohemian friends. When Don decides to leave, the beatniks warn him that he can’t walk through some police action outside. But Donald Draper could. He could do whatever he wanted because Don was the establishment, and the establishment was good.
Six years later in Mad Men season 5, that’s not the case. The establishment hasn’t left, and the establishment is still in control. But it has become clear that no one on the outside cares. Teenage girls drooling over the Rolling Stones don’t listen to what men in suits have to say. Young upstarts of business constantly threaten to topple the hierarchy that created the upstarts’ jobs in the first place.
Establishment, in Mad Men season 5, is built on shaky ground.
No More Normal
That shaky ground is why Roger Sterling can never like the answer to his question of when “normal” might return. Without that old, strong establishment to maintain it, Roger’s version of normal just isn’t going to come back. “Normal” has left the building.
It’s not just the obvious changes to the Mad Men world that killed Roger’s “normal.” Normal was gone long before Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce hired an African-American secretary. Normal didn’t hold its departure until the Rolling Stones arrived. Normal did not flee in the face of disinterested youth.
Normal was gone, because that’s what happens. The times are always changing, changing “normal” as they go. Roger Sterling’s normal is gone only because he fails to see the new normal created by the world’s changes. And this failure is what will undo Roger in the end.
Normal doesn’t last. It always changes.
And the real question to be asked about Mad Men season 5 is — Who can change fast enough to find a new “normal” in the future? The world will not be kind to its Roger Sterlings when they can’t keep up.
(Image courtesy of AMC)