Contributor: Henry T.
Written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner
Directed by Matthew Weiner
After four seasons of memorable season finale episodes, each with a major event that shifts the foundation of the series, “The Phantom” takes a different, stranger tack. It seems fitting that a largely introspective season — one where it has spent the majority of the time exploring the characters’ darker impulses and desires — ends with an introspective finale.
It’s one that doesn’t have a game-changing event, but deals more in the aftermath of one. The big event occurred in the last episode with Lane Pryce’s suicide, and even though some time has passed since then, characters are still reeling from that seminal occurrence. The “Mad Men” world is filled with sad or empty characters now, seemingly devoid of any joy or happiness in every part of their lives. Even Peggy, who has escaped the hell of SCDP’s offices, is struggling at her new firm with subordinates who are not as skilled as her former cohorts. There are little sprinkles of light here and there within this episode, but I have this sinking feeling that this course is going to continue with the show and there are no signs of it stopping any time soon.
Such a dark episode feels befitting that it would be titled “The Phantom”, a term that has ghostly connotations. Indeed, the specter of death still hangs around the office months after Lane hanged himself. That seems to have been his parting gift for the partners, to have to deal with the consequences of his death and his shadow hanging around the place where they work. Don is certainly the one person most directly affected by this existential haunting, as the image of his dead brother, Adam Whitman, shows up wherever he goes.
The financial reality of Lane’s suicide makes his visit to Lane’s widow have this entirely cold and clinical feeling to it. It’s also plainly macabre for both the firm and his widow to profit from his sudden death. The symbolism and connection is very overt here, which is not the norm for this series. Adam also hanged himself, and Don also feels responsible for that death as well. As such, the conversation Adam has with Don in the dentist’s chair (thankfully that sequence is not as strange as Betty’s fever dream while giving birth from a couple of seasons ago) feels a bit too pointed.
I got the “hang around” pun from Adam, and the suggestion that more than Don’s tooth is rotten seems to be a way for series creator Matthew Weiner to repeatedly underline what has been happening since the beginning of this and even the fourth season, when the show was exploring the deconstruction of Don Draper. Don’s soul seems to be slowly rotting away, and he isn’t taking steps to stop this. It’s spreading to the one area in his life that has stayed relatively consistent this season: his marriage to Megan. The marriage is fraying because Megan isn’t getting consistent work in the fickle acting business, and becomes so desperate that she uses her connection to Don to bypass her friend in order to land a national commercial. Unlike her time as a copywriter, she is unable to get by with that striking combination of beauty and natural talent. Being an actor is much harder than she thought it would be, and the storyline plays like she’s unhappy that the world doesn’t bend the knee for her.
Don warns her of this, says he’s unhappy with her constant changes in attitude, yet I could see that he took a “damn the consequences” stance once he got a look at Megan’s screen reel on the projector. She was going to get that commercial, and we’re left wondering if that is going to distance her from him in some way. This would seem disastrous for both of them on the surface of things because Don is always going to have that wandering eye (the final shot of the episode teases this notion) and Megan isn’t going to have the support of both of her parents. So the ultimate question coming out of the finale is what the consequences of “chasing that phantom” will be once the dust settles.
The episode featured many of the characters hiding things from others. The senior partners hide the fact that SCDP might expand upstairs from the rest of the employees. The growth of the office coincides with more and more business flooding the office. I got the sense that with Lane’s death, Joan gains much more power equitable to the other senior partners, and that might present an interesting dynamic going forward. Again, the groundshift is subtle here with the growing presence of women in power positions in a long male-dominated field.
Peggy is struggling to mesh with her co-workers, but she’s heading an account that is going to huge for her and her firm. The as-yet unnamed “ladies’ cigarette” she is testing will become the Virginia Slims cigarette, and it’s going to bring in money that Don’s firm will not be able to touch. I don’t want to claim much foreknowledge of what’s to come, but I think the movie theater scene could be the start of an alliance between Don and Peggy’s respective firms. If Peggy plays her cards right, she could engineer a takeover of Cutler, Gleason, and Chauogh to merge with SCDP, with her and Joan and Don on the figurehead. Their combined business would leave the rest of the competition in the dust.
It would certainly mesh with the ambitions of Pete Campbell because he largely screws up whatever he does in this finale. The finale shows the conclusion of Pete’s dalliance with Beth, and this time goes the extreme route by having Beth request sex from Pete before she goes off into electroshock therapy. It was (and still is) a primitive way to combat depression in that time period and I think it’s an interesting way to go with her character. The fact that she so callously wants to erase Pete from her memory only deepens his sadness and the feeling that he’s still trapped in an increasingly loveless marriage and family life with Trudy.
I’m still not sure of what Pete wants, and whether he will get it any time soon. Beth’s husband violently confronts him on the train about the affair. One has to think that Trudy will find out about his transgressions somehow. Pete is growing to be a character that, to me, isn’t going to fit with the other major players in the series in the future. He is the most detached from the city, though Trudy is committed to getting him an apartment in New York (which is not going to end well), and many of his co-workers just plain don’t like him. Perhaps he will end up like Roger Sterling in this episode, begging a woman he barely knows to take drugs with him to gain some kind of enlightenment, only to end up doing LSD by himself in a luxury hotel room. Sure, going that way with Pete’s character is repetitive, something this show doesn’t do too often, but it seems to me that Pete is running along the same track, only decades behind Roger.
The interesting thing to me about this finale is how much my opinion of it reflects my overall feeling of this fifth season. I thought it was a good season overall, with some real standout moments and memorable sequences, one that still possesses the usual high quality of the series overall. The tendency to dip into the darker and more morose impulses made the season spin its wheels with some plotlines. I’m thinking particularly of the corruption of Sally by introducing her to the seedy aspects of her father and young stepmother’s lives or the increased focus on Megan and Don’s marriage, which see-sawed between happiness and constant verbal arguments.
The finale seems obsessed with these darker themes and motivations, and that left me with a more detached feeling than what I’ve gotten after watching previous season finales of “Mad Men”. The episode resolves the dangling plot threads (aside from Betty’s story, and she was never more than a fringe presence throughout the entire season) instead of setting up much of anything for next season. It’s not the worst thing to happen to the series, but there seems to be a missing forward thrust with this episode. A sense of momentum that is lacking. I think the show’s creator was asking the audience to recalibrate some of their expectations, and he gave us an episode that subverted much of that. It’s a closed-off ending to a weird and somewhat off-kilter season. Maybe it’s because this finale is so different from the other finales on “Mad Men” that I like it. That lingering feeling of detachment keeps me from loving it, though.
(Season 5 Final Average: 8.5)