One of the most consistent criticisms I’ve seen of this season is that the thematic content has become too obvious, too dictated. It’s not a radical stretch to say such things — the moral underpinnings of Mad Men have been made, in season five, to be more neatly arranged and apparent. Most importantly, they have been abbreviated. Thematic ties were tailored more towards episodic continuity than the earlier seasons of the show have coached us to expect. Indeed, there has been some telling instead of showing recently. But, in this viewers’ futile opinion, it has reaped much reward, evidenced by a weaker but propulsive finale episode, “The Phantom”.
Surfing around some of the big recapitulations this morning, I’ve noticed a healthy bit of complaint about the lack of forward-motion in the finale. Truly, we didn’t pack up and leave Sterling Cooper and no one got pregnant and there wasn’t an iconic pitch. But we all watch this show to see some incredible characters flicker in lights for an hour every week. The finale moves things forward with characters more than events. Last week took care of that.
Lane Pryce wasn’t mentioned once in “The Phantom” by name, but he is in every scene. In a literal sense, he is the phantom. His chair looms in the shadows of their home. His seat remains empty at the office. People are ignoring it, which is what people do. His death is the primary impulse for the motion of the episode — it coaxes the remaining characters to act on a life impulse. Lane is only floating on the fringe, but he’s behind every decision any of these characters made.
Pete’s dabbling with Beth was meant to reach some form of a summit in the finale. It surprises me that people aren’t complaining more about the awkward design of this encounter, so (melo)dramatically tailored to allow Pete a self-conscious moment. Though there are marvelous moments — when they start having sex, Pete so consciously ‘dips into the crazy’ (if you’ll allow a college colloquialism) before panting out a passionate “Oh, God”. It’s a startling instance of animal behavior that Pete is understanding as intellectual. In fact, the entire relationship was predicated on a type of philosophical communion between them. It wasn’t Beth’s sexuality that crept into the Campbell home, surely rotting the walls from the inside, it was her nihilism. She proved to Pete what he already wanted to believe — that his home life isn’t built on genuine feeling and that it all really doesn’t have a point. This show is doing some amazing work with aging. It isn’t hard to wager that Pete (and perhaps Peggy) will look ancient after the end of this series if we look back to the pilot.
Pete’s moment of self-consciousness is directly followed by Don’s visit to the dentist. I am typically averse to almost any use of drugs as a method for narrative revelation and this is no exception. [Roger's is.] This particular scene provided a mouthpiece for those who believe the show to be too “ham-handed” in its exposure of themes this season. Even I was squinting at the screen when Adam says, “it’s not your tooth that’s rotten.” Does he win a prize for getting the right answer? The use of Adam up to that point in the episode was so ghostly and precise that it had me all heated up for some kind of neat deconstruction of Don’s relationship with death. No delivery. This was an irrefutable instance of telling without showing, a characteristic about which Mad Men is allowed to be criticized. The shows’ integrity is structured on a reversal of that concept.
Though it is in Don that we see the most beautiful elements of this finale play out. It was stressful to watch the clock as it was winding down to 11PM. The final commercial break left only 3 or 4 minutes for wrap-up and it was a charged sequence. We were given a brilliant juxtaposition of success and emptiness in the image of SCDP’s new space. Don’s walk away from the sound-stage and into oblivion was full of more foreboding than any words he could speak. And finally, a moment that is sure to become iconic — “Are you alone?” Cut.
Megan has been failing on all cylinders since leaving SCDP. As her mother says, she has the “artistic temperament” but is not “an artist.” She doesn’t know it, but she’s also speaking about Don. Don’s fixation on her acting reel is another way for him to rediscover this woman. His love for her is genuine, I’m sure of it. But in allowing her to succeed, she may be lost. Craftily, she’s referred to as ‘Ms. Calvé’ on the set. It’s a story of letting go, really. I think Weiner used the word “sacrifice.” That’s what the image of Don walking away from an ever-receding box of color and “Beauty” so magnificent. It’s also what makes that final moment — the prowling glance — so magnificent, as well.
The thing that makes the ending of “The Phantom” so successful is that it takes all of the thematic material that we’ve been given throughout the whole season and refuses to wrap it up in a neat bow. It is the opposite of Don’s tooth extraction. It is the fact that, when he looks at that woman, we are totally unsure whether or not he plans to sleep with her. Is the “old Don” back? Would that be a good thing? His love for Megan is pressed directly up against his life-impulse and his loneliness. He looks at that woman because he is alone. Everybody is. That ending montage is all about loneliness and chasing some sort of unattainable void. Peggy sees the dogs in her Holiday Inn. She’s the happiest by 10,000 leagues, but we all know what she’s chasing and it isn’t there. Pete’s headphones are on, the only way he can suck himself out of his own home while he’s there. Finally, we see Roger, perhaps more tragic than Pete, dropping out on his own. Beautifully, he had asked Marie to go on the voyage with him, but she tells him, “Don’t as me to take care of you” — in beautiful contrast to an understated line in the season premiere that women are great “until they ask for something.” Roger is chasing the same demon as all the others — enlightenment, happiness, illumination — but he seems to be even more alone than anyone.
There is far more to discuss but there simply isn’t enough time or brain capacity to really get to the bottom of things right now. I expect to do a season wrap-up after rewatching when the commentary comes out. But, for now, the ending of this finale is my argument against the subtlety argument. While there are moments that this is true (tooth extraction, Pete at the ward), it is more a sign of how intimate we have become with these characters. Looking back on previous seasons, there are events and moments that neatly correspond with life altering experiences — almost every pitch Don has ever given for example. Like the Jaguar pitch was intercut with Joan, the “wheel” pitch is highlighted by images of Draper’s own family. I am arguing that Mad Men has transcended the already high level of character counterpoint and has become a thematic fugue, a level generally reserved for art, not the bastard son of art — entertainment.
There is a moment in “The Phantom” when Don comes home, meeting Megan and Marie. Simultaneously, Roger calls Marie and Megan asks for the job. Three characters inhabit the same space at the same time, yet each embody a specific order of human aspiration. Their lives might be weaving a larger fabric, but they are ultimately individual threads working for what they want. And each of them can be conceived as a representation of Mad Men‘s numerous themes and moral textures.
So many sequences can be understood as having this type of fugal relationship. It’s what makes Mad Men worth all of this critical nonsense.
To anyone who has been reading these capsules this season, I’ll see you in a few months. I do this for myself, but the greatest value in this show is the dialogue it inspires. Thanks for joining me.