Capping a season with story lines that recently featured prostitution and suicide (and Peggy leaving!) all within the Sterling Cooper Draper nuclear family, “The Phantom,” the season 5 finale, had much in the way of mushrooms and clouds to live up to. For the first 50 minutes, however, it felt repetitive and desultory, like “Groundhog Day” with a touch of "Marathon Man" (OK, Don, find a dentist already!). But the last six minutes were colossally great, even awe-inspiring. There were no huge surprises, but it built up the kind of masterly payoff that comes only from the expert synthesis of incredible acting, writing, lighting, costumes, sets, direction, and staging.
It started with the electric connection of Don and Peggy, who met cute in the movie theater. They seemed much more comfortable together than the present Don and Megan. (As opposed to the maximum awkwardness P&D achieved in the Cool Whip test kitchen, while Peggy still worked for Don.)
Cut to the partners' walk (and Joan’s forward-moving, hydraulic hip swivel) onto the new frontier, an additional SDCP office floor. What a composition! The image of the five remaining partners standing in the empty space with their backs to us, Joan the middle anchor in the red dress, was so gloriously framed it practically stopped time, like a painting or a fine art photo. Yet true to the idea of existential loneliness that MM loves to probe, each figure seemed very much alone in space, silhouetted like a solo dancer in front of a window, while Don is the only one straddling two panes (and pains!)
Then we got that amazing, heartbreaking, moment of watching Don watch Megan’s audition film as it sputters on the projector and his cigarette smoke circles the beam of light; the whole thing evokes his Kodak “Carousel” presentation. (“In Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from old wounds.”) Black and white, and silent, the film is like a time capsule. Standing in an old-fashioned artist’s atelier (suggesting the place Midge lived in the pilot?) in her gorgeous dress, (is it Courrèges?) Meagan looks beautiful, like a younger, more delicate Anouk Aimée. But she seems a bit stiff and self-conscious; Don watches as if he’s never seen her before. The change in his face (and in the light) is heartbreaking as he goes from registering obvious love and pride, to sadness, as it dawns on him that his union with this would-be actress wife is as ephemeral as a frame of film.
And then the obvious contrast, the cut to a hyper Technicolor set for a shoe commercial. It’s busy and garish, a kitschy ad fantasyland that Megan wormed her way into, even though she left advertising to work in theater. (And had she done the Cool Whip commercial with Don, in which she was so natural and effortlessly magnetic, she could have easily become a star.) Now, however, she double-crossed a friend, and used Don to get cast as Beauty, in a ridiculous clown/wench outfit. (We’re not in Disneyland anymore.) There’s an ugliness to her excitement, telling Don “I love you!” just as she mouthed it to a stranger in her screen test. But now she’s whisked off by a crowd of handlers. As a pair, which one is Beauty and which one is Beast?
Don leaves the set, where he is her courtier, with a resigned grin. It’s similar to the look he faked when first wife Betty modeled for a Coke commercial, on a similarly artificial, stagey set. And then we get that spectacular tracking shot, showing Don walking through the limits of space and time to the apt lyrics and tune of “You Only Live Twice.” That was a song from the James Bond movie that debuted in 1967, and had the secret agent fighting the great evil force SPECTRE. (Phantoms, anyone?) In the James Bond movie he watched earlier with Peggy, we got another musical first: the sounds of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass!
Don ends up in the bar he frequented (or as Lane’s wife would say, “fre-QUENTED”) in the pilot. Then we see, in quick succession, Pete shutting out the world in his headphones, Roger standing on a chair in front of a window, exposing himself to the world, naked as a tripping jaybird, and Peggy, happily ensconced in her hotel room (no satin bedspread in sight) on a business trip, putting up with the rooting dogs of Old Virginey in a parking lot outside her window. She’s happy: she’s got her Scotch, she’s got her work, and it’s all made seamlessly thrilling. But in cycling back, I didn’t love that Don is back in his old haunt, ordering an old-fashioned, getting approached by a late-edition Marilyn who wants to introduce him to a Jackie. (Are you cheap or less expensive? Does your boyfriend light your cigarettes?)
So let’s get down to business: Don is so sexy that even his tooth is hot. (Rim shot.) But really, what was up with that ginormous molar? It had the roots of a Sequoia, and the magnitude and blackened enamel of something yanked out of a mastadon’s jaw -- or a shark’s. (But why did Weiner have to have Adam spell out the “something’s rotten in Draper” symbolism so literally?) After the extraction, Don was left with blood on his mouth again, although last week the blood that Roger spoke of was the result of Don metaphorically goring some self-satisfied Dow executives.
Speaking of blood, Pete got a spectacular beating once again. Does his face look a punching bag? Yeah, well, kind of. Either that or Stewie, the creepy British-accented baby on “Family Guy.” The liquor-induced frat boy brawling on the commuter train made me miss Lane, with his priceless Marquess of Queensberry boxing stance.
Now we know everything we need to about Campbell: he’s depressed and has seasonal affective disorder, or SAD! (Although I don’t think that’s a diagnosis that existed then.) Pete just needs a little sun! When he finally got home and spit out in his patrician tones that the car was fine, but that he looked so awful because he “fell asleep and ran into a ditch,” I laughed out loud, because it sounded so ridiculous. I thought that the seriously blue-peignoired Trudy was going to sit him down and tell him she couldn’t take it anymore - -and ask for a divorce. But Trudy’s sure holding up her end of the dream, and wants a pool to boot. So she’s setting up hubby in an apartment in the city. I fear for what what will happen next season in that bachelor flat, drama-wise.
The tedium was the message in Pete’s reunion with Beth; it was so overly long and predictable that I even felt like fast-forwarding through the sex scenes. I started thinking about the sun-dappled growth on John Malkovich’s eyelid in that creepy iPhone commercial. One interesting thing: as with Joan thinking she could have prevented a suicide had she given Lane some of her patented lady love, Pete apparently thinks he can cure mental illness with his penis.
Certainly, Pete’s lie to the nurse that he was Beth’s brother (“same eyes”) reminded me of a Salingeresque scenario: an obsession with brothers and sisters. Further, there was some “Chinatown”-ish fooling around (“she’s my daughter/she’s my sister”) with family protocol when Don came home and found Megan drunk and in her robe. He yells, “Where’s your mother?” as if his wife is his daughter. Her mother has to ‘splain to Don that she delivered from her home a “happy girl.”
(By the way, Matthew Weiner seems to have little respect for female actors, and he often shows women having only two gears: full throttle, or depressed drunkard in a bad robe.)
The hospital scene allowed Pete to brood more. One of the most poetic things he said was that whatever he does is a “temporary bandage on a permanent wound.” The place was based on the famed Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in Manhattan, I think, which was very tony and trendy among manic-depressive writers and celebs at the time. According to Wikipedia, “ Marilyn Monroe was hospitalized there in early 1961, and Mary McCarthy based her book, The Group, on her inpatient experience.”
And what can we say about the post-electro-shocked Beth? She of the perfect pink peignoir (the good witch!) with her hair in a bun and her clean, shining face! She reminded me of a heroine of a Douglas Sirk movie who was blinded in a terrible accident but is being very, very brave. And in the end, with her gumption and grit, it turns out that she can “see” life more clearly than the sighted!
But let’s get to the main phantom: Lane. Although the empty chair at the partners’ meeting weighed heavily on Joan, Lane was hard to read in life, almost a phantom, even in the flesh. His wife certainly didn’t understand him. Consider that Mrs. Willy Loman had a husband who had majorly poignant flaws in his character, but she famously demanded respect for him at his funeral. “Attention must be paid, ”she said. As almost the anti-Mrs. Willy, Mrs. Lane tells Don: “You had no right to fill that man with ambition.”
Don has done many dastardly things, but filling Lane with ambition was not one of them. Lane found his way to his chocolate bunny on his own, and pride, not ambition, killed him. I loved Rebecca Pryce's perfect passive-aggressive announcement when Don arrived: “I’d offer you something, but I have nothing in the house,” she said. Acid with a twist, maybe?
Don did rush over and try to do the right thing, to fill the house. But why did he once again do it without consulting the partners? In light of what happened, returning the $50,000 is nice. But why not give her the entire insurance payout of $175,000? Lane earned it, and it’s blood money to the firm. (Especially now that they’re sleeping on a bed of money.)
One thing Rebecca Pryce said to Don was particularly searing: “Don’t leave here feeling that you’ve done anything for anyone except yourself.” That applies to everything, and everyone, on “Mad Men.” Don thinks he can solve everything with a pile of money. Certainly, that didn’t work with Adam. “I lost my job when I died,” the red-headed kid (half) brother kids, reappearing, a red ligatures on his neck and all, as Don gets his bowling-ball-sized molar out.
As the dentist says, Don almost had a nasty abscess, and lost half his jaw. His life with Megan is coming to a head, and perhaps he’ll lose half his wealth. But like a shark, Don has two sets of teeth, and two sets of everything, including identities, which allows him to shape-shift in life more easily than the average monomaniac. “Mad Men” is filled with doubles. (Mr. Dawes asks Pete how his “second honeymoon” was.) And what this season proved is that most people have two sides. Megan was built up to be a paragon of perfection, which seemed really annoying. (And those pulling for Betty are thrilled that the toothy one was revealed to be a spoiled manipulator, only playing a role.)
Megan’s mother, (I love Julia Ormond, but she has a ridiculous French accent) tells her daughter she is “chasing a phantom.” But that’s the point. So is everybody on the show. If next season kicks off in 1968, Peggy will perhaps be killing herself at work to usher in the tag line, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” for the new Virginia Slims cigarette her agency is launching. This is the greatest irony -- that women had come so far that they now had their own cigarettes with which to destroy themselves (and were referred to as “baby.”) What dream does matter? Two for the price of one?
“Are you alone?” the blonde (not Megan’s friend!) asks Don at the bar. It’s a highly rhetorical question, and I’m sure Don will carefully weigh both sides before responding. And the cycle continues.
It’s been my honor to write Mad Blog for another season! Thanks for reading -- and thank you, commenters, for your brilliant insights and analysis. What did you guys think of the final episode?