Monday, June 11, 2012

Mad Men: Season 5 Finale Filled with 'Phantoms'


* Warning: Spoilers ahead from the season finale of Mad Men.*

Lane Pryce.

Adam Whitman.

Beth Dawes.

Megan Draper's acting career.

Roger Sterling's quest for enlightenment.

Pete Campbell's vision of what he was supposed to want out of life versus what he has.

Mad Men show runner Matthew Weiner explicitly says that the season five finale was all about phantoms, naming it, cleverly enough, "The Phantom." Everyone was struggling with something and/or someone in the finale which capped a strong, controversial and creatively daring season. By the time the credits rolled, some of those phantoms were addressed, some ignored and some were chased, like the elusive Moby Dick.

Chief among the phantoms were the ones nagging away at Don Draper. Unfortunately, that rotten tooth with its accompanying ache, was a ham-fisted, klieg light of an analogy for the persistent pang of guilt that hit Don in his gut as he thought he saw his dead brother Adam -- who he sent away with an envelope full of cash and orders never to speak to Don again -- everywhere, the burn of the rope with which he hanged himself forming a permanent tattoo of desperation on his skin. The ghost of Lane clung to every cover of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce from his empty chair at the partners' meeting to the check the agency received from its insurance policy on Lane, forcing Don to suppress even further his compounded guilt about sending Lane packing, after agreeing to cover the amount of money he embezzled, instead of offering him something more. And it ended the same way as his interaction with his brother, only this time Don came face-to-face with Lane after he'd passed.

Don's constant refrain, that the tooth ache would just go away, was about as effective a plan as his decision not to talk about how he felt about Lane or Adam with anybody. His guilt will not go away, the episode told us, unless it's extracted and some blood is spilled. "It's not your tooth that's rotten," the ghost of Adam told Don when he was under anesthesia and Don pleaded, "Don't leave me."

Don's attempts to try to extract the guilt like a bad tooth: He gave Lane's wife a check for $50,000 -- which did nothing to alleviate her emotional tumult -- and, under duress, finally arranged for Megan to get a part in a national commercial. Coming home to a drunk Megan, who'd taken to drinking to dull the pain the way Betty did after she'd been beaten down emotionally and spiritually by rejection, combined with having to listen to his mother-in-law admonish him to tell Megan to give up the fantasy of an acting career, made Don realize that even his wife was in danger of plunging into a downward spiral, like Lane and Adam before her.

In his commentary about the episode, Weiner said that for Don to see Megan, in costume, on the set, followed by that long shot of Don walking away as Megan faded in the background, was analogous to Don giving Megan her wings, her freedom, which very well may mean that the freedom takes her away from him. Wrapping the episode on Don being asked if he was "alone" was intriguing.

Despite my initial skepticism about Don asking his twentysomething secretary to marry him when he was in Disneyland, I must say that throughout the season, it's been fascinating to watch Megan evolve and mature. Also thought-provoking, Don's response to Megan's evolution, often manifested itself in one of two ways: Simply taking actions in direct response to her or reverting back to his default husband setting, to the guy who doesn't communicate with his wife, who takes her for granted and makes her feel like garbage.

The other major storylines were watered down because there was an attempt to stuff so many of them into the final episode. Pete had one last fling with Rory Beth in a hotel and learned that she was going to have electro-shock therapy which was likely to render him not even a pleasant memory. Women experiencing depression -- Beth, Betty, Megan -- seems to be a mini-Mad Men trend, as the women suffer, while the men who have given up on life drink like Don and get into fights, or hang themselves, unless they're Roger Sterling, who's most likely to be the first drug death on Mad Men. Seeing Roger standing stark naked in front of a window is just inches away from Roger leaping out of the window while high on LSD, becoming the eponymous "falling man" in the Mad Men intro. That's terrifying because he's fun to watch. However seeing Pete, bruised and battered after mixing it up on the train with Beth's husband and telling Don-esque lies to Trudy didn't move me in the slightest, nor did his idiotic suggestion that if Beth ran away with him to California, her depression would be cured. If anything, more time with Pete would drive anybody to shock therapy.

Meanwhile, I was thrilled to see Peggy get treated the way in which she deserved by her new boss, who even sent her on a business trip. But seriously, what was up with the dogs having sex outside of her motel room window? Was somebody dropping acid when they wrote up that scene?

All in all, it wasn't my favorite finale, but it did a decent job of setting up the sixth season, launching the characters into new territory without doing something wildly impulsive like proposing to one's secretary. I think the episode suffered in comparison to the 12th episode which was extraordinarily complex and riveting.

What say you Mad Men fans?

Image credits: Michael Yarish/AMC.

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