Monday, June 11, 2012

'Mad Men' season finale recap: "The Phantom"

Spoilers for this week's season finale below. Don't click through if you don't want to know.

After two weeks in a row in which shattering, game-changing events happened, I wasn't surprised that "Mad Men" chose to end its fifth season with a relatively low-key episode. After all, how do you follow prostitution and suicide without going over the top? Better to just offer a well-constructed episode in which a lot of balls are thrown in the air, but nothing terribly dramatic happens.

And that's just what "The Phantom" was -- a well-made episode in which nearly all of our characters are chasing after something intangible and, quite possibly, unattainable. Megan wants a successful acting career. Roger wants to recapture the enlightenment of his LSD high. Pete is desperately clinging to the idea of a life with the elusive Beth Dawes -- even as she slips away from him after electroshock treatments reshape her mind. Peggy wants the Virginia Slims account. And the whole firm is looking for that most intangible commodity of all -- space. Flush from their new business, they're looking to rent more space in the Time Life building, unaware that the view from their new digs looks ominously like the in the show's morose title sequence.

But, of all the characters pursuing ghosts, Don is the only one being chased by ghosts. Namely, he's being chased by the ghost of his brother, Adam, who, like Lane, hung himself after Don gave him money and told him to go away. Weeks after Lane's death, Don keeps seeing Adam's face, and even has an anesthesia-induced conversation with him. It's kind of an obvious device, but the episode uses it just sparingly enough that it's haunting and not eyeroll-inducing.

Don has yet another ghost to deal with, in the form of the death benefits the company receives for Lane (can someone tell me how this works? Wouldn't Lane's family receive the benefits? Why is the firm the beneficiary?). Don tries to do the right thing, giving the money Lane invested in the firm back to his wife. But, of course, she uses it as an opportunity to give Don a stiff-upper-lip style tongue-lashing -- and to question him about the photo in Lane's wallet (the one he recovered from the wallet in the taxi). She clearly blames the firm for raising her husband's hopes beyond what he could achieve, not knowing that it was in Lane's nature to go after things that were beyond his grasp.

Then there's the matter of Don's marriage. The episode takes its title from Marie's "advice" to Megan that pursuing an acting career is, for her, like chasing a phantom. It's not supportive motherly advice, but it is realistic. Megan, however, can't give up on the idea that she's destined for stardom -- to the point where she all but begs Don for a role in the Butler shoes commercial even though, as he correctly points out, she would have once considered it beneath her.

Of course, Don's motivations for initially rejecting her idea aren't totally pure (even though the reason he gives her -- that she'd rather be someone's discovery and not someone's wife -- is solid on its face). In his conversation with Peggy, Don talks about how, in helping Peggy, he enabled her to leave him. Clearly, he fears the same will happen when he helps his young wife. He does it, but mainly because he just can't stand to see her miserable (and probably at least partly because Jessica Pare looked so gorgeous in that screen test reel).

She gets the ad, but is this really her first step in building a career? And what impact will it have on the Draper marriage? By episode's end, we see Don getting propositioned by some bubbly young gals who want to know if he's alone. We don't see him answer, but the fact that he doesn't immediately reject them doesn't bode well for the future. It's hard not to read the scene with Don leaving the set of Megan's commercial -- walking away from the beautiful fairy land she's in and striding into the darkness -- as a commentary about their relationship. Just like the set isn't real, the beautiful facade of Don's new marriage isn't what it seems. It's an idea that we've seen represented all season, but watching Don walk away from that idyllic set might mean that he's ready to stop pretending that his life has changed all that much.

Anyway, here are some more thoughts on "The Phantom":

  • Yaaaay!!!!! We saw Peggy! And she and Don had a sweet, awkward movie date. Hopefully, this means that, next season, we'll continue to check in on her from time to time. And maybe she'll even come back. After all, her absence is being felt at the firm. The guy from Topaz sorely misses her input, and Ginsberg seems to be learning that all the brilliance in the world can't make up for the fact that he isn't a woman (just as Peggy's talent was often overshadowed by her gender in the eyes of some clients).
  • After all the crap he's pulled this season, I didn't think it was possible to feel badly for Pete, but his genuine sadness upon realizing that Beth doesn't recognize him anymore was heart-breaking, and some more excellent work by Vincent Kartheiser (who's had a very good season). Yes, Pete is more likely mourning his own loss than realizing the suffering that poor Beth has gone through, but his speech about his "friend" is as honest and emotional as we've seen Pete since he confessed his love to Peggy a few seasons back.
  • Look, I like Trudy and all, but she can't really believe Pete's lie about his bruises coming from a car accident that someone did no damage to their car. Can she? It's just too ridiculous. Also, notice that she asked him if he'd been in another car accident. So I'm guessing he passed off his bruises from the Pryce-Campbell bought as an accident as well. I hope he at least had the good sense to take a hammer to the fender to support that lie.
  • Have you ever ridden on Metro-North? I'm actually surprised that fistfights aren't a regular event. Competition for those seats can be tough.
  • Nice reveal that Roger was the source of all those hangups at the Draper house. And his reunion with Marie was sweet and funny (even if she is cheating on Megan's dad with him and he was just trying to persuade her to be his LSD buddy). 
  • Also, I'm assuming Roger was on LSD again at the end -- alone, in his hotel suite. I hope nothing bad happens.
  • Interesting conversation between Don and Joan, in which she wonders if she could have saved Lane by giving him what he wanted. Don, of course, disapproves, but doesn't take the opportunity to scold her. Which, of course, is why she confessed that tidbit to him and not one of the other partners, who probably would have judged her for not offering up her body to keep Lane's self-esteem afloat. Don is still unhappy about the Jaguar incident, but he still likes Joan well enough to treat her with respect. It's a tense dynamic and it will be interesting to see it play out.
  • Good Lord that was a gruesome close-up Don's extracted tooth, wasn't it?


Bill Scurry said...

Up for interpretation: I think Don walking away from the fairy tale set was a definite break from him trying to regard Megan as his equal, and instead seeing her as the "child bride" she's been derisively referred to as by Betty. I don't think the marriage is over, but the ambiguity of the final indecent proposal in the bar leads me to believe that Original Recipe Draper is back, thank christ.

And as much as I liked Vinny Kartheiser's soliloquy to Beth, that was waaaay too on the nose by the writers room.

Iscreen said...
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Lee said...

I read somewhere that companies often take out insurance policies on executives, or even the cleaning crew, naming themselves as beneficiaries. The families may not ever know it happened. We may be worth more dead than alive to people we don't even know.

Think of that next time you take the company shuttle to the parking lot.