The answer to the question posed in my own headline headline is "No." “Mad Men” did not jump any kind of shark in its fifth season, but maybe it tripped over a manta ray or some lesser ocean predator.
[Warning: spoilers ahead—and, I know, I’m writing this three weeks after the season ended, a time during which I was attempting to avoid spoilers myself, but screw you, I was in Iceland and just saw the finale the other night]
“Mad Men’s” fifth season problem was entirely explicable, which is that without Jon Hamm’s Don Draper boozing and womanizing, with him leading a mostly fulfilled married life with his secretary-turned-wife Megan, the show has an enormous narrative gap to fill, not to mention simply time every hour each week.
Creator Matthew Weiner and his writing staff filled this to varying degrees of success, leading to a season of hits and outright misses.
Hits: Roger Sterling taking acid, Pete and Trudy’s dinner party with an exploding sink, Peggy’s disillusion with Don, Joan’s prostituting herself for a partnership, Lane’s suicide.
Misses: Betty’s weight gain, Pete’s dull, completely redundant affair, Paul Kinsey’s weird return as a Hari Krishna follower who wants to break into teleplay writing for “Star Trek”, Don and Megan’s histrionic fights.
While I don’t want to give up on her character yet, Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) presents the show with a problem it didn’t need: we have an established set of excellent characters, yet because she’s Don’s wife, Megan, by necessity, must occupy a large chunk of the narrative. This means spending less time with Roger, Peggy, and Joan (who at times seemed to completely vanish from the cast). Megan at once comes off as eminently reasonable and totally spoiled, which has its moments. Yet when you have to hang the entire show on Megan and Don’s mostly happy relationship and seek your unrest in a weasel like Pete Campbell trying to get laid by a fellow commuter's wife, you’re heading in the wrong direction (Also did anyone else think Pete got punched one too many times this season? The entire attraction of his character is that he’s a guy you want to punch in the face but never get to realize the satisfaction of seeing it due to his privilege and general sniveliness; therefore having him punched in the face thrice in a season seems not only overkill but ham-handed).
For my money, “Mad Men” reached its zenith in Season 4 when Don descended into the depths of alcoholic despair in an apartment that recalled an Edward Hopper painting. The season began with the Ayn Randian question of “Who is Don Draper?” and proceeded to undermine the myth of the self-made individualist at every turn. It was epic and tragic and uniquely American and ended with the show’s most jarring twist when Don popped the question to a woman he’d known for all of a week.
Perhaps it is only in contrast with Season 4 that I found the long-awaited Season 5 such a letdown. Nevertheless “Mad Men” remains one of (if not “the”) most interesting shows on television. Even as it moves at a meticulous pace, it seems to rush to its forgone conclusion:
Following Lane’s suicide by hanging, Don began to see apparitions of his younger brother (his Dick Whitman, alternate-life younger brother), who hung himself in Season 1. With Don’s big secret yet to be revealed it seems inevitable that his unmasking will leave him to contemplate the rope himself.