Every episode of Mad Men begins with those iconic credits: the silhouette falling off the high rise, the violin, the iconic last image of the silhouetted man shot from the back, cigarette in hand.
That, of course, is meant to symbolize Don Draper, Mad Men’s handsome protagonist. He’s a man of mystery, of largely invented path, a man who seemed constantly primed for downfall — just like in the opening credits.
Over its first four seasons, Mad Men continued to spin around
Draper, sending him through a cycle of self-destruction, epiphany, destruction,
and now reckless joy. And after a while it seemed that most of the examination
of Don Draper’s character had become well-trod territory.
Indeed, Season Four opened with the question “Who is Don Draper?” That was the show’s central question.
But now, in Season Five, the implied question is: “Who is everyone else?”
Just when the Mad Men formula was growing stale, the writers seem to have made a gutsy decision: to pull back on the Draper.
It doesn’t seem anymore that Draper’s work life and home life are the
central focus. Some of that’s because we don’t see much of Don’s ex-wife,
Betty, a character that had the unfortunate tendency to center episodes more
around Don’s domestic life.
Since Megan, his new wife, has been more integral to his office life, she doesn’t just bring out nuance to the character of Don — she illuminates aspects of all the other characters in the office as well. She’s highlighted Harry’s sleazy sexist side, Peggy’s wish to be a mentor of sorts, and she’s made for a clear contrast to Roger and his wife.
Suddenly, Mad Men’s spending time at the Campbells' house and the Sterlings' house, instead of just the Drapers'. It’s exploring, in greater depth, Pete Campbell’s arrogance, entitlement, and depression, Roger’s immaturity and neediness, Peggy’s increasing frustration with her personal life, and even Ken Cosgrove’s desire to be more than just an accounts man.
None of these stories is necessarily new. But since the lens has pulled back from Draper, suddenly all these other characters get an opportunity to snap into focus.
It’s a fact that’s underscored by the way Draper has skipped out on pitch meetings and handed off more responsibilities to Peggy, Pete, and the other staffers at the advertising agency. Mad Men gets all symbolic like that.
The lesson can be applied to basically all long-running shows, many of which struggle to succeed past their sixth seasons. If most of the big stories for the main character may have already been told, it’s time to turn to the ensemble.