'Mad Men' Spoiled Bastard: Ep. 13: 'The Phantom'
An uneven finale to a mostly even season, but the AMC drama nevertheless proves its greatness.
This is a Spoiled Bastard. It contains spoilers. That’s the point. If you haven’t watched the episode, please come back when you have.
There are two moments in the fifth-season finale of Mad Men that seem particularly important and yet don’t call attention to themselves as many others have done this season (and many others did in the finale as well).
In the first scene, Megan’s mother Marie comes home to find Don annoyed that after pouting about her acting career, Megan drank all day and is curled up in bed. Don, of course, wanted Marie to be the babysitter. (But as we found out just moments before with Roger, Marie is not in the nursemaid business with men.) “She’s married to you," Marie says. "That’s your job. She left my house a happy girl.” Don has battled this season with wondering if Megan is the perfect woman for him (she’s certainly brought out his best side) or if she’s just more baggage he needs to escape. That’s why the line from Marie is so perfect, and she follows it up with this telling statement: “I know it’s hard to watch, but this is what happens when you have the artistic temperament but you are not an artist. Take my advice: Nurse her through this defeat, and you shall have the life you desire.”
If Season 5 has been about anything, it’s about Don (and others) trying to figure out what is the life they desire. There are certainly echoes of Betty’s modeling urge in Megan’s acting urge, and by the last frame of the episode, creator Matthew Weiner allows Don a telling look that suggests the life he desires is not the one he’s currently living.
Which would make sense, because so few people on Mad Men know what they want in life, which is really the point of a show that tracks the failed pursuit of happiness from so many angles.
The other scene of note was quite deft and nailed two ongoing Mad Men themes in one character. Beth calls Pete and wants to have one more tryst with him before she goes back to the hospital where she’s about to undergo electroshock therapy. Pete, who has been playing Don Draper Jr. all season – a dirty-mirror version that is perfectly and sublimely not as real as the original -- doesn’t know what he wants. He wants to be angry at Beth for not sharing his fantasy of running away together, but he also wants to sleep with her, even if the idea of her being “crazy” seems to initially offend his well-bred sensibilities. Just as quickly, when they are in bed, post-sex, Pete’s version of what he thinks he wants is playing out. He tells Beth not to get the electroshock. He thinks he can make her happy and that they’re in love. Says Beth: “I don’t know you. And you don’t know me. We just happen to have the same problem.” Pete: “I know. But we’re only sad because we’re apart.” Beth then gets a semi-shocked, semi-disappointed look on her face and says, sadly, “Oh, then I was wrong.”
It’s a great, subtle scene. Because she is wrong about Pete. They don't have the same problem at all. Beth is clinically depressed. Pete is just unhappy with his life, and he’s creating a fairy tale detour for it. Being willing to leave Trudy -- who has done everything for Pete -- and their child to run away with another woman who is clearly unequipped for such a thing is equally selfish and delusional as Don asking Rachel Menken to run away with him in Season 1, but it derives from a less understandable urge. Don has a secret past that was almost found out. Don’s ongoing existential crisis is more real and more troubling than Pete’s selfish, rudderless early-midlife crises. Neither man knows what he wants, but Don is never going to find what makes him happy. Give Pete an apartment in Manhattan where he can get laid, give him a title and a round of applause every time he brings in an account, and he’s fixed. He’s good.
Speaking of fixed: It was almost like Weiner was giving a why-the-hell-not endorsement to the electroshock, since Beth, after the fact, was nowhere near the dark room and open door she talked about with Pete. "It works," she told him before getting the electroshock, which she's had before. I loved the juxtaposition of her finding some kind of happiness, some safe but clueless place, while Pete -- a stranger to her now -- poured out the contents of his unhappiness (and then later, Roger desperately wanting to find the enlightened happiness of LSD, standing naked in the window). Either we're looking for happiness in all the wrong places -- Roger there, Peggy in a dingy Virginia motel room -- or we should take it where we find it and that's enough.
Don? It’s not that easy. He ran away from a problem at the end of Season 4 and thought he lucked into the happiness and life he wanted in Season 5. For the most part, it sure looked like Don was realizing things might work out -- he might find whatever it was he’s been looking for. The wife, the apartment, contentment and then the slow unraveling: age differences, career differences, lifestyle differences, and then -- in the last scene that could be setting up Season 6 -- a chance to run away from it all or at least slowly poison it.
I loved those scenes but didn’t love the finale. I’ve written a lot about how Season 5 has been less subtle, more interested in the Big Moment. Some people have taken my disliking two or three episodes as somehow proof that I hate this season. I tried to clarify that last week in a separate piece marveling at how Mad Men is one of the few truly great, top-tier series to go five seasons without a significant stumble. It’s an incredible achievement. I didn’t think any element of the final episode would tarnish that achievement -- how much damage can you do in an hour?
Well, there were parts that certainly tried. I loved the two scenes where Don thinks he sees Adam, his brother who hanged himself, as Lane did last week. I thought it was a bold move by Weiner in that it was immediately clear that it was the same actor (Jay Paulson) who had played Adam and it was being presented to us with no clues to whether Don was in some kind fugue state. But then that was completely ruined by Adam playing the back-from-the-dead dentist. First, who didn’t see the hallucination coming with the dentist gas? But if the episode-long tooth metaphor wasn’t already too much, Adam has to say that’s not what needs to be taken out. “It’s not your tooth that’s rotten,” he says.
Anvil, meet head.
I also thought the shot of the partners on the upper, unfinished floor all spread out and gazing through the windows looked like it was done for a music video. Too stagey. And while someone might note that everyone fit perfectly in their windows except Don, split nearly down the middle by the frame, it all seemed too heavy-handed. (Besides, I’m still waiting to have the energy to write about the importance of windows – and elevators – this season. I don't have time for frames. Or teeth.).
The other two scenes that didn’t play for me were linked. Don, finally giving Megan what she wants – the pulled strings that landed her the commercial (that part was fine, because it signaled he’d given up on her having grand aspirations, harking back to earlier in the episode when he noted that “you don’t want it this way,” that it’s better to be someone’s discovery than the wife of someone with connections). What I didn’t like was the stagey walk-off, leaving Megan to her fantasies while he walked slowly, coolly through the darkness to the bar (again, too stagey). And then the ending bar scene, when one of two very pretty young women asks him, “Are you alone.” That felt like half an anvil. And I just wished Don had kept staring straight ahead, so we were unsure what he might be thinking or considering. But no, there’s that slow, overly dramatic turn of the head to the woman asking the question -- and fade to black. (And yes I’m jaded enough to have immediately thought of The Sopranos.)
So all told it was more of a creative roller coaster this season on Mad Men. I liked the season as a whole, while disliking a few episodes entirely and splitting the finale down the middle. But every time I wished for something different – more Peggy (and a better idea what will happen to her going forward), less Lane, even more about Betty and perhaps, in the end, less about Megan – I remember that maintaining greatness this deep into a series’ run is extremely rare and exceptionally difficult. And there are still two more seasons to address the dangling storylines (of which there are many).
Until then …