Episode title: The Phantom
“His life with his family was some temporary bandage on a permanent wound.” —Pete Campbell
After first watching the finale, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed by it. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good episode, but there were two things that left me feeling slightly disappointed. The episode was a little disjointed in areas, unable to totally come together, like usual Mad Men fare. The other problem was the lack of a strong narrative to close with. The bottom line is that The Phantom was not Mad Men at its most compelling. Then again, the show doesn’t need tricks to get us to madly yearn for its return. A whole year of waiting will no doubt be torturous.
The episode starts with Don and the (maybe too on the nose) toothache he’s suffering with. This plot device was used as a symbol to hammer down the theme the writers were trying to convey. I’m not sure it worked, but at the same time, it didn’t bother me to the point of ruining the storyline. To tie in with Lane’s suicide, throughout this episode, Don is having hallucinations of seeing his late brother, who also killed himself. As I suspected last week, Lane’s death hit closer to home, causing his guilt over Adam’s suicide to rise to the surface. After Adam’s apparition tells him that his tooth isn’t the only thing that’s rotten, Don’s actual tooth is extracted. Don is carrying so much inside him, that you wonder how long it will take for him to completely succumb to his turmoil. He has this underlying feeling that he brings people down around him, which is why I think he tries so much to appease his second wife, so she doesn’t turn into another Betty, or someone more tragic.
Speaking of Megan, we get an even deeper look at her, and with doing so, we start to question some of her character traits. Something The Phantom was very successful in doing, was dissecting the character of Megan Calvet, and makes us wonder if we didn’t really know her as much as we once thought. First one of Megan’s aspiring actress friends wants a favour from her; she hopes that Megan can talk her husband into considering her for a part in a commercial. What the friend has requested is obviously crossing the line, but then Megan takes this as an opportunity for herself, telling Don to consider herself for the part. Don is understandably perplexed because he rightfully believes that Megan doesn’t respect advertising; she’s supposed to have a love for the art of acting. He explains to her that she wants “to be somebody’s discovery, not someone’s wife.” This is the one time I had to agree with Don, in regards to Megan’s dream of acting. These wise words should’ve affected Megan as well. It did, but not in the way that I would have thought. She goes through her own downward spiral, the first time we’ve seen Megan totally lose control of herself. Her aura of pleasantries and positive energy is gone, and replaced with misery and a dejected attitude. It is not an attractive quality of hers. In the end she gets her wish, and she’s the leading lady of a commercial.
But how did we really get there? At one point, while she’s fretting about Don not wanting to do the favour, she tells him that he wants her to wait on him, basically indicating that he only wanted a good little housewife, and I agree with her wholeheartedly. The problem is, under this certain circumstance, it plays out more like a manipulative tactic, a classic way of making him feel bad until he does exactly what she wants. Again, she does it when she says the only thing she’s good at is sex. Does she really believe that or is she trying to put on a show to gain power over the situation? From this episode, it is clear that Marie does not truly support her daughter’s passion, and she even calls her an ungrateful bitch at a certain point, but what are we to take from this? Marie does not think her daughter has talent, and in fact states that her daughter should be having kids, and give up on her lofty childhood dream. There are so many interpretations to Megan’s actions and mindset, and this is what I love about the show. You can have so many perceptions about a character and their actions and they could all be correct, unless the show decides to eventually confirm or dissuade your assumptions. Megan is definitely the key person in this last episode of the season. When Megan excused her to go to the bathroom after Don first said no to what she was asking, she stood in front of the mirror and started shaking ever so slightly and then began to cry. For some reason, the scene from an earlier episode came to mind: the one where Megan is innocently teaching Sally how to cry on cue. It made me wonder if I had been all wrong in my prior reading of Megan. And that’s the thing, I can’t be certain, but it put a seedling of doubt in my mind. The way Megan behaves throughout, wallowing, crying, whining, drinking, drowning in self-pity; she comes off as more of a child. She has not been seriously trying to pursue her acting for very long, but yet she’s already at the end of her rope, and looking for shortcuts, undervaluing her talent, by participating in work she doesn’t believe in. It was also very insightful when Don blamed Marie for Megan’s drunkenness, as if she were a child needing to be coddled. Marie rightfully responded that it wasn’t her job anymore to take care of Megan, Don is her husband now. This could have been the moment of self-awareness for Don, that there would be more of this in the future. Megan is still young and this is how young people sometimes behave. One of the most striking scenes was when Don was looking at Megan’s luminous screen test and it appeared that he was enchanted with her again. To me, this proves that Don truly does love her, and wants the best for her. I watched this scene over and over, not only because I loved the imagery so much, but because I was trying to figure out its significance, what it was truly telling us. My mind has travelled to many scenarios: he saw a talent in her that he hadn’t recognized in her before. He realized that she is that good of an actress and perhaps she has been playing him. Or that he comprehends that he has to give her this chance and let her go. That smile that turned to a little bit of reflective sadness seems to be telling us something, but what?
The only other character besides Don and Megan to have a major arc in the episode is Pete Campbell. He has been the saddest character all season, longing for a life in the city, and trying to hold on to a time when he felt significant. I can’t lie but Pete’s affair with Beth was not a favourite storyline of mine, but this episode highlighted Pete’s unhappiness in a volcanic way. Having one last afternoon in a hotel room with Beth before her electroshock therapy, you actually believe he may be in-love with her, as he tries to convince her to come back to bed. Then to have her electroshock completely wipe her memory of moments with him, was heartbreaking to say the least. Pete pretends he is visiting a friend at the hospital, a man who is forlorn and unsatisfied with his life. He has one of the greatest monologues the show has done. The way he expresses himself gave us a rare intimate look at the inner conflicts of Pete Campbell. It was heavily insinuated that he had been feeling closed in for quite some time, resenting Trudy and their child in the process, for changing him into the kind of suburbanite he dislikes. But now it has been disclosed that he isn’t even sure of what he wants, and the more distressing part is that he might not ever find it. And for that brief moment where we might have thought he found love in Beth, it is dashed when he admits “he needed to let off steam. He needed an adventure. He needed to feel handsome again.” He confirms that Beth’s presence in his life was just a distraction, as are all the other women he has or attempts to have affairs with. More astonishingly, is that his family is also in this category. They are tools to make him forget his deeper internal problem. Pete is anxious to find the cure to his ailment, but has been unlucky in locating it, whatever it is. And every time he makes an attempt, it causes more disillusionment, because it is never the solution. Ironically, after he returns home battered and bruised, after picking a fight with Beth’s husband, Trudy finally gives in and allows Pete to have a home in the city. Trudy thinks this is the solution to their unhappy marriage, but we know better. This is just another bandage.
Peggy shows up briefly in The Phantom; just enough for us to know that she is respected at her new job and is facing new challenges. When she runs into Don at the cinema, the two of them are genuinely happy to see each other. She reveals her guilt about moving on with another firm and wonders if Don is upset with her. He was her mentor and “that’s what happens when you help someone; they succeed and move on.” Could this be the reason why he inexplicably gives in and gets Megan the commercial job? This line reading made me wonder if he realizes Megan will not remain in his grasp; she will move on, and more than likely it will be without him. This is enhanced with the image of the other most striking scene of the episode, Don walking away from the commercial set: he is strolling away from the brightly lit sound stage, the hallway is dark. It’s almost as if his marriage is being swallowed up and he knows it. We then hit to a bar, and Don’s whole demeanour of this season, has been transformed. It’s like looking at his earlier season’s embodiment; something is definitely familiar, but a little unsettling. A young woman approaches; asks for a light, he obliges and now the soon to be iconic saying, “are you alone?” is uttered by this woman, encouraging him to meet her friend, who is obviously interested. The way Don turns his head in that sly way of the past makes us think his infidelity days may have returned. We cut to black and that’s the end of a solid season.
No more Draper and company until next spring. Hopefully it won’t take seventeen months before we take a peak into the thriving ad agency and its troubled occupants. Season five has been a rather bleak one. There were an abundance of underlying themes of sadness, coveting, failure, regrets, and tragedy coursing throughout the episodes. If I were to look over Mad Men in the sense of overall season arcs, this may be my favourite season. It could be a tossup with Season three, which I found to be flawless, every episode being exceptional. During this season, there were some episodes that M and I would disagree on, but overall I really enjoyed the thematic structure of Season 5, as it travelled to bleaker and melancholy terrain, in retrospect to the social change in America at the time.