Continuing my breakdown of Mad Men‘s fifth season by examining the “Best Shot” and “Best Costume.” Go here to read about my pick for “Best Episode” and “Best Performance.”
Best Shot: The Long Dark Walk, “The Phantom”
“The Phantom” might be the weakest episode of Season 5. We all carry expectations into episodes and we’ve been conditioned to bring impossibly high standards to Mad Men finales. In the last two seasons, Weiner&co. have given us major surprises to tide us over — Season 3 ended with the covert construction of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Season 4 ended with the unexpected proposal. The writers of this show are not strangers to literary structure. They understand the importance of a climax and a denouement. Before Season 3 finished, we witnessed the incorporation of Kennedy’s assassination and Season 4 essentially climaxed with Don’s letter to the NY Times and Lucky Strike’s consolidation. We see the same treatment in Season 5. The story reached a fair apex with SCDP nabbing Jaguar and Lane killing himself in the aftermath. So how does one approach an episode like “The Phantom”? For most characters, it’s a coda. Peggy is pretty happy over at CGC, Joan is secure in her partnership, and Lane is dead. “The Phantom” wraps up Pete’s narrative when Trudy suggests that he get an apartment in the city. Really, the story belongs to Don and Megan.
In a sea of contenders for this category, Don’s walk away from Ms. Calvé wins by a mile.
Plenty of harsh words have been hurled at Megan during Season 5. Their partnership seemed to bend most of the viewership out of shape by the end of Season 4, probably because of the masterful fake-out that was Faye Miller. Megan’s beauty and grace suggest that she is precisely the kind of woman Don Draper would marry. However, Season 5 works hard to show us that she is a new type of woman — one that is able to follow her “dreams,” one that is willing to stand up to Don, one that won’t eat orange sherbet. Megan’s ability to be both perfect for Don and difficult for Don is exactly what makes “The Phantom” (and Season 5) functional. If you’re going to hate Megan Draper, hate her because she is constructed as a mate for Don, not because she’s “annoying.” One hope for Season 6 is that Megan becomes more of an individual and less predicated on the needs of Don’s outline.
Anyway, this shot manages to encapsulate Don and Megan’s entire season into one beautiful image. Don walks out into a long dark soundstage after getting Megan her first legitimate acting job. The previous scene shows us Don watching her test reel, falling in love with her all over again and persuading us to believe that he will be with her forever. Don is in love with a girl on a screen. In that scene, he faces her, smiling. In this scene, he walks away, face blank. He doesn’t look back.
The symbolism of this shot is overt, but its execution is haunting. We track along with Don, reminded that we are supposed to be seeing this world through his eyes. Instead of giving us a fixed point where we can watch this walk unfold, we stay with Don and experience the endless abyss with him. The shot goes on and on and on as he walks through the long darkness. We can’t really see his face and it isn’t too important. What’s happening on the stage isn’t very important, either. What is important is the distance. Not only is Matt Weiner showing us how far apart these two characters are becoming, he’s engaging us in the widening process. By rendering the action of both characters neutral, we are left to experience the increasing gap between them.
We also hear the beginning of Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” as Don begins walking away. Weiner said that he’s been waiting to use this song for a long time because it so perfectly describes this world and these characters. In a story that clutches so tightly to human nature, it’s hard to disagree. The song resonates particularly well within the Draper marriage. They’ve spent the entire season reconciling the worlds of Work and Home — they are trying to make them into two different lives.
“The Phantom” lacks subtlety, which is its greatest flaw in comparison to an uncompromising season. The refusal to acknowledge Lane’s death is a remarkably truthful gesture on the page, but doesn’t communicate well on the screen. Adam’s suggestion that “Something’s rotten, but it isn’t your tooth,” is worth a thousand eye-rolls. Pete’s confession to a wiped-out Beth reads as a lazy writers-room concession. In a way, this shot is just as obvious — ripping your attention away from both characters and encouraging a clear conclusion. But it’s an example of what any good art will do well — communicate an emotion or ideology through creative gesture. We see Don saunter out into space, leaving his wife behind. She’s engulfed in the vibrant colors of advertising, of creativity, of Don’s world, but he moves on. Unsurprisingly, that black void quickly cuts to a deep, smoky bar where a woman from a new age asks if Don is alone. It’s a line that, like the rest of the episode, might be too overt. But Mad Men is all about getting what you wish for and wondering what it means. The Draper household is in great shape by the end of Season 5 — right?
Best Costume: Sally Draper, “At the Codfish Ball”
Janie Bryant’s costume work will surely be recognized as a turning point in expectations for period fidelity in media.Her designs have inspired a very obvious shift in contemporary fashion, men now favoring slim suits and thin ties and tight hair, women embracing the loud, expressionistic colors of the 1960′s.
Of all the magnificent costumes this season, Sally Draper’s new dress takes the cake. Janie Bryant’s marriage of clothing and content has no match in contemporary television. Tasked with the challenge of Sally Draper’s burgeoning adolescence, she delivered a dynamite outfit.
“At the Codfish Ball” is an episode that we basically experience through Sally’s perspective. Her interaction with Roger feels as pleasant as it does because we think that he’s talking to us, giving us the tour of this world. Whether you like fish or not, you cringe when she receives her meal. And when the waiter finally comes to ask if she’s done with her Shirley Temple, you nod along with her. Her false adulthood is a universal experience — everyone knows what that feels like. Ultimately, she rejects it, saying that the city is “dirty.” Sally’s embodiment of the confusing netherworld between childhood and adulthood is remarkable. She’s postured as a fractured soul, intelligent but damaged by the immaturity of her parents. The enjoyment we’ve previously received from her character comes from seeing her try to navigate the adult world with a childish conscience. But, in Season 5, her arc is one that places her among the adults.
When the series is finished, I wonder if we won’t look at Sally and see the greatest change of all. Of course, we are watching Kiernan Shipka pass into adolescence as well. Sally’s ultimate destination is too hard to tell. Imagining her as a flower child or a protester seems too simple for Mad Men‘s agenda. Where do you think Sally ends up?
The fact that Mad Men is not watched and loved by virtually every person on Earth fills me with deep emotional and philosophical turbulence. The show is the greatest weapon for those who are keen to suggest that television is usurping cinema as the Great Populist Art. It’s so good that Homeland’s Emmy sweep this year was basically a chance for the Academy to tell Matt Weiner that it’s polite to share. And how thrilling is it, as a viewer, to know that we live in a time when something like Mad Men is possible? At the end of the line, we’ll have a 91-hour piece of art. If it is true that Mad Men episodes are better than most contemporary cinema, what kind of treasure chest do we have in front of us?
Season Five was recently released on DVD and I did the customary rewatch and explored the extra features and commentary tracks. Not that his ego needs any more prodding, but Weiner does give some of the most illuminating commentary I’ve ever heard. The “recap” culture surrounding Mad Men and so many other current television shows can make it difficult to maintain perspective on a program’s long-term existence. A weekly chapter will end and the world feasts on the details of that episode, often forgetting that we’re dealing with a unique type of narrative – one that can stretch across an entire decade or an entire lifetime with a level of nuance that’s simply impossible in other forms. Weekly recapitulation, as a form, is a strong tool that ultimately fails when trying to contextualize an entire season. So, in the interest of evaluating Mad Men’s most recent season, I want to look at some highlights and see how this installment fits in the full history of the show.
In lieu of a long rambling post, I’m cutting it up into specific categories. Today, I’m doing “Best Episode” and “Best Performance.” Later this week, we’ll have highlights for Scene, Shot, Montage, Costume, Set, Sterling-ism, and more! Let me know your picks in the comments. And don’t forget to argue with mine.
BEST EPISODE: “Signal 30”
Some will suggest that the best episode of Season 5 is a more flamboyant one – “The Other Woman,” which served as the climax of the season or “Far Away Places,” which boasts Mad Men’s most daring structural experiment. But it is “Signal 30,” an episode of brave psychological acrobatics, that best displays what Mad Men is capable of accomplishing.
The story of “Signal 30” belongs to Pete Campbell. Pete’s emotional collapse during Season 5 is possibly even more affecting than Lane’s suicide. He’s a unique creature in this world, but one that we all know and understand. A man who has worked so hard for stability and wealth and power that he doesn’t know what to make of it when he gets there. Like all of us, Pete is a child stepping into situations understood to be “adult.” He and Peggy are our most accommodating guides through the 1960’s, seated somewhere in the nebulous land between youth and old age. They’re neither the agents of change nor the agents of stasis. If you watch closely, you’ll see Pete’s hairline recede noticeably from “A Little Kiss” to “The Phantom.”
“Signal 30” begins with Pete laughing at the maudlin, overwrought driver’s-ed horror film. Removed from the anxiety, he’s able to find humor in it. Then we’re back at his one-story ranch house in the country and the faucet goes drip drip drip. He “fixes” it by cranking the pressure up so high that the leak stops but the faucet waits to explode. Season 5 is partially about how these characters greet permanent problems with temporary solutions – infidelity, LSD, food, and so on. Of course, some folks, like Lane and Joan, do find a way to address major issues and are dramatically changed because of it.
The episode continues, making us privy to Ken’s burgeoning career as a fiction writer. We are allowed into Pete’s home with the Drapers and the Cosgroves and, underneath the easy, rustic posture of Pete’s presentation, we recognize a storm. Mad Men has always been a show about reconciling the worlds of Work and Home. This conflict is made obvious in the Draper household, but Pete represents the core of this war in Season 5. His inability to find peace between the two manifests itself in his physical difficulty with the commute. Pete’s story for the season ultimately resolves when Trudy relinquishes and suggests that he get an apartment in the city. This is more than just a dramatic opportunity for future plot development; it’s a symbol of his separation. Trudy, unknowingly, is ending their marriage. Pete spent all of Season 5 in between Work and Home, finding Beth in the same half-world, but Work won in the end.
Later in the episode, Don, Roger, and Pete take a Jaguar representative to a whorehouse. Pete’s experience is initiated by a series of fantasies where he finally submits to being called a king. In “Commissions & Fees,” Don says, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” This relentless quest for power and control over life and, as a result, others is just as present in Pete’s struggle between Work and Home. “Signal 30”’s climax is, of course, the cathartic bare-knuckle contest between Pete and Lane – new and old, American and British. However, Mad Men doesn’t always find fulfillment by satisfying the audience and uses Pete’s humiliation to motivate a dynamite scene between him and Don in the elevator. Earlier, Pete assumed that Don was judging him for his sexual indulgence and tells him, “I have everything.”
As they stand in the elevator, Pete’s face swollen with shame, he says two things that define his character for the season. First, he remarks that “this is an office, we’re supposed to be friends.” The episode is the first in a series to take that idea to task – just how wide is that gulf between Work and Home? But then Pete gets desperate and says, “I have nothing,” mirroring his empty confidence from earlier.
“Signal 30” has one of the great endings of the Season and of the Series, really. Ken, who has been told not to write fiction, initiates a new pen name by writing a story called “The Man with the Miniature Orchestra,” referring to Pete’s enormous stereo. We see Pete back in driver’s-ed, this time watching his desires walk by without noticing. The drip drip drip returns, this time only in his imagination. Something much bigger needs to be fixed.
“Signal 30″ is a sort of climax in Pete’s development throughout the entire series. We can easily recall the spunky turd from the pilot and the blackmailing tool from Season 3. But it’s Pete’s inability to change himself that defines him. Of course, he might not even believe that he needs to change, but rather expects the world around him to change. This episode is a rare example of Mad Men committing to major, irreversible character evolution so early in a season. “The Other Woman” can be seen as doing the same thing for Joan, but “Signal 30″ carries a more urgent structure, less fascinated with itself and more prone to self-discovery.
BEST PERFORMANCE: Christina Hendricks in “The Other Woman”
After “The Other Woman” aired, there were a few commentators who contended that Joan “wouldn’t really do that.” I still find that sentiment to be embarrassing for those who made it. “The Other Woman” isn’t perfect structurally, but in terms of carefully being led through a series of difficult character decisions and arriving at a satisfying conclusion, it’s a masterpiece. And it wouldn’t be half of what it is without Christina Hendricks. She gives the smartest performance of the year.
Hendricks understood what was going on. She knew that this proposition was a major storytelling risk. Instead of heightening the emotion, she chokes it back and lives with it. Joan’s decision is cold and cynical. She uses the tool that probably got her a job in the first place to secure her own future and the health of her son. The writers designed a scenario where a moment can pay the price for eternity – it’s almost hard to imagine Joan rejecting the offer. The only thing Joan needs to do is survive that singular experience and she is given everything she needs.
Hendricks plays the critical moment – that graceful intercutting between the Jaguar pitch and her exploitation – with heartbreaking gravity.
Again, imagine how easily these moments could be overplayed. The moment where Hendricks grabs his hand and opens her own dress is one of crushing resignation. My sadness doesn’t come from Joan’s choice to sell herself, it comes from the knowledge that this is her only way to get where she wants to go. This is where Mad Men excels as social history/social criticism. It allows us to invest ourselves in these personalities and then subjects them to period realities. Sometimes the outcome is funny, curious, or in this case, awful.
“The Other Woman” is the climax of the season as well as the climax for Joan’s character in the series thus far. Hendricks plays out an event with permanent consequences as quietly as possible. It’s an unforgettable episode and one that will continue to reinforce Joan’s motivations and philosophy for the rest of the series.
Having just finished an abbreviated re-watch of Friday Night Lights, it’s impossible to deny that it is anything less than astonishing. It is a television show that doesn’t outwardly reach for artfulness, but certainly achieves it. In an age of Mad Men and Breaking Bad – with The Soprano’s, The Wire and The Shield just in the rear view mirror — anti-heroes are all the rage. What is it about Friday Night Lights that allows it to be so universal? So American? So heartfelt? It is a show with indisputable heroes, yet it is often referred to as “down-to-earth” and praised for its realistic depiction of rural America (specifically, West Texas). How?
Friday Night Lights accomplishes this with faith. Not blind faith, but a kind of faith we don’t hear about in this country very often — rational decency. Churchgoing citizen or not, it is clear that these characters walk the walk. Proponents of Secular Humanism emphasize morality over faith and encourage a moral code derived from the Golden Rule — do unto others and whatnot. But Friday Night Lights demonstrates how much effort is lost in the debate over faith. Despite the fact that Christian scriptures lay out a meticulous system of rational decency, the debate has shifted. Rather than focus on leading a life of basic respect, we all try to prove or disprove God.
Friday Night Lights passes from extraordinary to transcendent by subverting this maxim. The show espouses a centrist ideology that American politics no longer support. In that way, the show couldn’t be less American. But by tapping into the lost belief in universal respect, Friday Night Lights (FNL) manages to deliver a one-of-a-kind critique of American ignorance and obsession. And, unlike Sorkin’s American fantasies, the show manages to avoid didacticism. Mistakes (the Landry/Tyra plot of season two, for example) that remove the show from its footing seem more painful because of the consistent realism that FNL usually observes.
Much of FNL’s realism stems from its audacity. It may not be immediately clear, but the show takes regular risks. No other show is so earnest about underage drinking. Tim Riggins is rarely seen without a beer in his hand. He is 20 at the end of the series. Much of the time it isn’t even acknowledged. Characters go to a party, get drunk, go to football practice and get on with their lives. Hardly ever is it the source of drama. In fact, in “It Ain’t Easy Being J.D. McCoy,” Coach Taylor coaxes Tim into taking J.D. out for a good time. After J.D.’s domineering father finds out, he is forced to apologize directly to coach. In this case, underage drinking is even aligned with the most heroic figure in the show — Coach. Most corners of reality involve high schoolers drinking and still managing to succeed.
The same type of risk is taken with Julie’s character. While off at college during season five, she begins an affair with her married TA. Julie often functions as the “result” of Eric and Tami’s parenthood — which, on paper, isn’t encouraging; underage drinking, losing virginity at 16ish, and striking up extramarital affairs. But she maintains respectability. I would argue that this is true of most of the characters. They are rendered as flawed humans. And we are far more likely to project our flaws onto fictional characters. If they were made too heroic, we wouldn’t buy it. Just like the show seems to typify America by being un-American, the characters are made heroic by being un-heroic. Take a moment and think about the moral problems that are built into FNL — The Landing Strip, steroids, infidelity, just to name a few. It’s not easy to find a show that would allow Lyla to sympathetically wind up with Tim — remember how she cheated on wheelchair-bound Jason with him? There are so many examples of characters that might seem more flawed than good, but through understanding their humanity we are allowed to trust them.
This is the reason Eric and Tami possess the most believable marriage in television history. Their struggles are numerous and not trivial — their relationship dense with sacrifice. But the audience is able to believe in their steady affection because it is always tested. Of all the characters on television with whom I would want to buy a drink — Don Draper, Walter White, Roger Sterling, Meadow Soprano, Ron Swanson, etc — I would invite Coach. We attach ourselves to these characters because we believe that they’re not impossible archetypes. Sam Fuller once said that a hero needs to be flawed so that we can see ourselves in the Final Heroic Act.
This brings us to the series finale, “Always.” Eric Taylor had been telling us how to be a real man for four years at the time of that episode. He had endured subversion and job insecurity (that did lead to the most successful reboot of any series that I’ve ever seen — would anyone argue that seasons 4-5 are less enchanting than 1-3?) to reach State once again. However, of all the plots to wrap up in this season finale, the primary one was with Tami. Offered the position of Dean of Admissions at a school in Philadelphia, the Taylors are faced with a big decision. I can hardly imagine what it would have looked like if they stayed in Dillon — then again, that outcome was never possible in this universe.
Fairness is a hard truth in FNL. Almost invariably, characters pay for serious indiscretions — often emotionally. Tim’s jail term is a great example. His anger towards Billy is made complex through our understanding that Billy has undergone serious emotional strain and has tried to give back by coaching football. The finale shows them both working on Tim’s house together. In fact, the entire final montage is in the business of settling issues of equality. Jess is coaching in Dallas. Vince is the star quarterback of the Panthers, wearing his ring. Luke is headed for the military — an honorable choice when we understand that he was not the best student and couldn’t play Division 1. Finally, we see Eric coaching in Philadelphia. Tami comes on the field before they walk away together and the lights turn off. FNL has never used football as a grand metaphor. It functions dramatically and is depicted as a way for boys to be crafted into men of good character — and in the final season, with Jess, girls into women.
The final montage works as drama and moral tool. Each character is finding success but also making sacrifices to enjoy that success. Vince is playing with the superteam that they fought so hard to avoid. Becky and Luke’s issue should be clear. Jess was forced to move to Dallas. And Coach is not in Texas anymore. The only segment that doesn’t fit this concerns Matt and Julie. However, their separation from their respective families is both necessary and sacrificial. FNL always traded in sacrifice and fairness. It ends that way as well.
Friday Night Lights is a rare example of a television show that doesn’t preach or advance a political fantasy. Rather, it displays characters who encounter difficulty and attempt to solve problems — sometimes successful, sometimes not. Most of the characters are practicing Christians, but the show is not interested in conversion. Rather, it tries to hand us a mirror. Every show tries to do this in one way or another, but FNL is incredibly good at allowing us to project our own triumphs and anxieties on its cast of characters. It’s this relationship that makes the show both great drama and great social argument.
[Ryan Douvlos (@rdouvy on Twitter), a great friend and fellow fan, will be joining me on these Season 5 recaps. Welcome to the Family! Parts of this conversation were edited for clarity]
MZ: So your ricin cigarette made an appearance.
RD: Yep. Suspected it would. Most important part of the episode is what’s behind that picture.
MZ: I think it was an address to an offshore bank account. Like Cayman islands. But it could be anything. What was the crucial scene for you?
RD: Aside from what i’ve just mentioned, the flash-forward. Walt was 52 and had a new last name — Lamberg. In the back of the vehicle he had purchased in the bathroom was an M-4 with plenty of ammunition. It’s apparent that Walt has unlimited disposable cash, as he tipped the waitress $100.
MZ: I thought that was the Big Scene. At least a year later — Walt’s birthday contrasted with the pilot where he eats veggie bacon. The waitress says “Free is always good,” which obviously means a number of things for Walt, who appears to be on the lam. (Lamberg?) In addition, we got a peak at the placemat underneath his breakfast and it was a bright pink milkshake — matching the color of the infamous teddy bear. I’m assuming that was deliberate. My favorite thing about that scene was how long they lingered on the breakfast plate before showing anything else. That happened one other time in the episode — Skyler visiting Ted in the hospital. We see her reaction and it’s pretty devastating to watch. I thought that scene was particularly heartbreaking. How about you?
RD: Very sad scene. We see the relationship between Ted and Skyler still exists on some level, as he tells her that he said the trip and fall was an accident and that he’s not going to say anything. I’m not sure the milkshake symbolizes the teddy bear. I realize that the teddy bear is thematic in that it displayed the grief and tragedy Walt had caused those around him earlier, and also that the half-burned, one-eyed teddy bear also symbolized Gus, but i’m not sure the meaning and importance of it is much deeper than that.
MZ: I agree that the milkshake is not a symbol. I was merely pointing out that it’s probably a deliberate reference. Walt will not be killed by a milkshake or anything. The interesting thing about Ted’s scene and all of these people connected to Walt is that we’re starting to see casualties of Walt’s business. Obviously there have been serious ones in the past, but the death and pain is creeping into his family and into his loved ones. That scene where Skyler and Walt Jr. come home is arresting because we are all thinking about the fact that Walt is a genuine murderer and Bryan Cranston plays Walt with so much kindness towards his daughter and wife. And there’s absolutely no music or street sound or anything in that scene. The calm that has washed over Walt and his family is still filled with some deep anxieties. Also, since we know that opening scene is so far in the future and Walt is at such a low point, we’re allowed to enjoy all of this season — even the triumphs — without worrying that Walt won’t get to some desperate position again. The shape of this episode was particularly nice, I thought. Calm, but still caper-esque.
RD: ”The calm that has washed over Walt and his family is still filled with some deep anxieties.” Absolutely, Skyler said it herself that she is scared of Walt.
MZ: Not only her. Saul is as well. And Mike is only working with him because they’re both in the same deep shit. And his relationship with Jesse is based on a string of increasingly serious lies. The function of all of that — the scenes with Skyler/Walt and Saul/Walt — seems to show that Walt is enjoying and feeding on his new power and control. He is victorious. He just outsmarted his mortal enemy. He’s hungry
RD: Saul absolutely. That was the first time that we see Walt threaten Saul in a way. Usually, Walt is begging Saul for help. The tables have turned, and Walt has pulled Saul down with him. Everyone, for that matter. You’re wrong about mike. Mike still has trust for Walt and Jessie and that’s important. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have participated in their stunt. He would have skipped town and not looked back. He trusts Walt and that’s why the three of them will continue to have a fruitful relationship.
MZ: Are you joking? Were you in the bathroom when he was about 2 feet from filling Walt with bullets? “Because I say so?” in the car. That was sincere. Every scene that they had together was a standoff. The only way they got Mike into that gig was because Walt told him that he’d be on that footage as well. Mike isn’t a stupid person. The only reason Walt isn’t dead right now is because Jesse hopped between them and Walt said that they’d both get caught. If we just disagree, that’s fine; but I think the audience is supposed to understand that Mike is not with Walt on anything.
RD: I agree that there is serious friction between Walt and Mike, but all I am saying is he trusts him enough to work with him. Even if it is to save his ass.
MZ: That said, what did you think of the whole caper sequence — the three of them wrecking the evidence — ?
RD: It didn’t quite go according to plan. The truck was left behind. That’s bad for several reasons — the possibility of fingerprints, being led back to the junkyard, et cetera. Did Walt have gloves on? Because they zoomed in on the device Walt used to increase the magnet.
MZ: It seemed to me that they were being pretty careful. And Walt was confident about not leaving things behind. The fuckup seems to have been that they revealed the Cayman bank account in the picture inadvertently. Finally, what do you make of this premiere in terms of the future of the series? Breaking Bad premieres have had pretty complex and interesting relationships with their ultimate context in the past. Any predictions?
RD: An obvious prediction would be that he called the guy Saul recommended that could make him “disappear.” So my only prediction is that Hank finds out – and Hank finding out means everyone finds out. He’s not going to be a little bitch and flee unless he gets caught, somehow.
MZ: He does need a machine gun for whatever trouble he’s in.
RD: Serious trouble if he’s not with his family on his birthday.
MZ: Good point. I absolutely agree that Hank will find out. That’s always needed to happen. He’s also taking some medication during that intro. Do you think his cancer could be back?
RD: Yep! he coughed. He took medication and the cough came back, which was gone for, what, 2 seasons? Did you notice that he put that poisonous flower in his car? It’s still in there.
MZ: That cough! Haven’t heard it since the end of Four Days Out, the great episode in season 2. And yes, the lily of the valley is laying right next to a garbage bag full of all of his bomb-making, Gus killing chem lab equipment.
We’re in for a great season. First episode delivered with some great suspense and excellent form. Perfectly ambiguous introduction that sets the stage just as well as we’re used to. And that chilling final line and telling look from Skyler. It’ll only be getting better if the show follows its standard trajectory. Thanks for joining us on the recaps! See you next week.
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.
“Commissions and Fees,” the penultimate episode of a deceptively placid season, begins with Don in a barber’s chair. Another ad man (mad man?) walks in and congratulates him on winning the Jaguar account. He says, “that’s a big win for your little agency.” These little characters hardly know that their small talk quickly becomes the focus of the show. In this episode, we see Don get hungry, Lane run out of steam, and Sally cross the avenue.
In a season that suggests we all have a price printed on our forehead, it’s impossible to exclude the bookkeeper. A few weeks back, Lane embezzled funds from SCDP in order to pay backed taxes to Her majesty. The entire season hasn’t been kind to him. He is clearly unstable romantically, making passes at Joan and having a bizarre interaction with the woman on the photograph. After last week’s charade, there has been some backlash in the critical community about characters acting out of character — most of it centered around the disbelief that everyone has a price (or at least having a price so quickly). It is interesting, then, to be given Lane, a man who is less concerned with money than with honor.
After Don discovers the embezzlement, he offers to let Lane write his own resignation. Some have construed Don’s response as uncharacteristically principled. Really, the offer is incredibly kind. The company bookkeeper embezzled money from his own books and forged a partner’s signature. He had to be fired. He couldn’t be trusted. There is no way that Don could have known where the events would lead. Don has found finesse in starting over — it’s an art. To Lane, it’s unthinkable. It’s shame. He could care less about the money. It’s about honor.As a result, Lane commits a type of harakiri. Hanging himself from a rope in the middle of the night. In a cruel cruel joke, this all happens after failing to commit suicide in his new Jaguar. I was questioning the process until the heartbreaking moment when Lane snaps his glasses in half. That was proof enough that he was really ready to go. He knew that he just didn’t need them anymore and that he hated them his whole life.
Some may be disturbed by the scene where he is discovered, but it was treated with ease and concern for character. Pete, Ken, and Harry’s reactions are all revealing — not to mention Don, who frantically helps to cut him down, hugging his body to hold him up while Pete cuts the rope.
Lane’s suicide neatly (and more than a little strangely) coiled around to meet the beginning of another cycle. Sally has been walking the line of womanhood all season long. We are given the climax of that character’s arc in “Commissions and Fees”. Yet again, she is entranced by the romantic glow of adulthood while out with Megan. Did she not learn anything at the Codfish Ball? (That said, there was a beautiful moment when Sally orders coffee so as to appear grown up — dumping a long stream of sugar into it.) She reacts by enticing our real favorite Weiner, Glen Bishop (played by Matt Weiner’s son), to meet her for a day on the town.
Wearing the boots and makeup that her father denied before the Ball, she takes Glen to the natural history museum. As they stand looking at diorama’s, all of families of animals, we are reminded that they both come from broken homes. It’s not unexpected, then, that they softly share their problems, sort of. Glen speaks about being bullied and reveals how he lied about “doing it” with Sally. Sally doesn’t care, of course. All of these words are still dreams to her — vague images that will transform her into Megan. Alas, and very conveniently for Weiner&co, Sally runs away to the bathroom, discovering that she had gotten her first period. She runs away to her mom, which was an incredibly earnest end to that story as well as Betty’s. Betty has had a truncated role this season, but there is clear anxiety over her role in Sally’s life, competing with Megan’s trappings. Their unity over a simple matter of biological necessity seems right. They are brought together by the natural force that allows motherhood. We all understand the relevance of mothers in this show and last night’s “Sally Plot” was particularly well-crafted to subtly (as subtle as Mad Men can be) touch on some less-articulated motifs.
Finally, we come back to Don who, after going to the barber, is so hungry for business. Complacency is his worst enemy and he cannot understand the concept of settling. It can’t be unusual for us to see his impulsivity. “What is happiness? It’s the moment before you need more happiness.” Well said, Don. I think you just found your own mantra.
His obsession for freshness and passion is balanced by the final image of the show — allowing Glen to drive himself back to school and appreciate the simplest moments of happiness. While Mad Men has, to some, become too “obvious” or “packaged” this season, this final scene resonates as the kind of oblique, but earnest storytelling that made the show popular. The episode dealt with death, life cycles, happiness, and need. The writers seem to be reminding us that the moments of true happiness are simple joys rooted in the freshness of childhood. In that way, are they also affirming Don’s impulsivity? He asks Glen, “if you could do anything right now, what would it be?” Either way, they are allowed to be in a moment where happiness isn’t a moment before you need more — it’s a moment where you can forget.
- I predicted that we would not see Peggy this week. Will we see her next week or will they make us hang on for our dear lives?
- “Do you want something to eat?” “If you don’t mind”
- “You’ll tell them the next thing will be better. Because it always is.”
- The green car recalls Joan’s robe and some other potent uses of green this season.
- Don couldn’t stop looking at Lane’s corpse. This is not the first person close to Don who has hung himself. Recall Adam.
Historically, Mad Men has put a lot of weight on the eleventh episode of each season. Each season has had a highlight in that spot. “Indian Summer,” “The Jet Set,” “The Gypsy and The Hobo,” and “Chinese Wall,” are all memorable episodes and served as a type of crux in setting up the seasonal endgame. Last night, the eleventh installment of the fifth season, called “The Other Woman,” aired.
To say the least, it holds up to them all.
In fact, I would posit that the back half of “The Other Woman” is some of the finest Mad Men to be produced.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.To recapitulate, the episode opens on a torpedoed SCDP board room full of tired copy writers working on the Jaguar campaign that Don promised to win. Elsewhere, Megan is preparing for another audition and Peggy is getting sick of being treated like an animal. That’s basically where the episode begins. Certainly not where it ends.
The primary impetus for “The Other Woman” rests in a dinner conversation between Ken, Pete, and Herb, some slob from Jaguar management. He asks them if he can sleep with Joan. However, he doesn’t want to work for it. He doesn’t want to ask her, either. Sure, she’s married and has a baby, but all women are really just prostitues, right? Pete, being the slime that he is, actually propositions Joan the next morning at the office. She says, “I don’t think you could afford it,” obviously flustered. Who wouldn’t be? Later, a partners meeting occurs where Don leaves in a huff, the only one opposing the idea, and the others basically vote to solicit Joan. It’s all just a lowly state of affairs. Long story short, she eventually accepts after Lane offers her a partnership and 5% of the company.
In a galaxy far far away, Peggy accepts an offer from Teddy Chaugh as Head of Copy and a $19,000 salary. The episode ends with Don being crippled by the news after Peggy basically tells it to him in a thoroughly prepared sales pitch of a speech. The closing image is her smiling face as she gets on the SCDP elevator one last time (?) to the sound of “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks. The final music choice was, as is usually the case, a brilliant mixture of irony and earnestness. It was jarring to say the least, but it left the taste in your mouth that inspires some extra inspection.
Before speaking about the evident thematic stuff, it is right to give unusually high praise to the production/costume design of this episode — especially centered around Joan. Her red hair is mentioned a couple times and is complimented by the blood red robe worn by Herb and his blood red bed. Her emerald necklace is matched by the most ravishing robe anyone has ever seen, wearing it when she walks out to touch Don’s face.
Is this how women get ahead? We need not consider Peggy’s future at the moment. At least further than the fact that she has left SCDP. We see her liberation and her pride as she steps into that elevator to the beat of The Kinks. Weiner&co. have set up two different examples of progress in Peggy and Joan. Where Peggy gets a charming Chaugh and some Kinks, Joan gets Herb. Are we meant to understand one type of progress as more genuine than another?
There was a startling moment at the end of the episode. Just after Peggy gives her speech to Don, he thinks that she is kidding and says, “You know I can’t put a girl on Jaguar,” and “Is this about Joan being a partner?” Those two comments were shocking to hear come out of his mouth because it alerts you to the volatility built into Mad Men. In one episode, everything can change. And, here, it has again. Don’s words to Peggy install more meaning into her choice to leave. CGC seems to represent equality and all that is progressive in the ad world. Of course, I can only assume that things will not play out that way. But in Don’s moment of desperation, he proves to himself why she is leaving. All season, we have been seeing how similar Peggy and Don can be. Again in “The Other Woman,” Peggy is given a moment of spontaneous genius, talking to a perfume company on speaker phone. She even spits a nasty insult at Ken. Both of them knew it was out of place, but we knew it was just Don speaking through her.
The portrayal of women in this episode didn’t stop at Peggy and Joan. Megan’s friend is shown crawling around on the board room table, giving Ginsberg the revelation he needs for the Jaguar tagline. Megan is treated like property at home and like meat at auditions. This is nothing new, but there is no reason for her to feel any type of security when walking into those auditions. She does get one step closer this time, and we see Don react to the prospect of her extended leaving. Don is clearly being impulsive when saying, “Well, forget it.” But there’s something genuine, or genuinely ill, about his desire for her. This season has repeatedly shown that Don is the weak link in his string of failed relationships. He is slipping into an unhealthy, albeit different, type of relationship with Megan. Nothing new on the Draper family front this week, but his mental health is starting to spin out of control.
Don and Peggy’s last interaction recalls “The Suitcase,” where he also kisses her hand in the same office. Jon Hamm and Liz Moss imbue that scene with sandbags of regret and nervousness. It might be Peggy’s liberation, but it is only an element of Don’s ruin. His disappointment in Joan’s prostitution is what led him to speak with Peggy in the first place. It all seems to pile onto him. Does he deserve it? This isn’t like the situation with The Sopranos where Tony deserved pretty much whatever he got. In fact, when Joan touches his face she says, “You’re one of the good ones.” Heartbreaker of a line. So is, “Don’t be a stranger.”
While Don and Peggy’s scene was a behemoth in its own right, it was dutifully matched by the obvious, but still deft, intercuts between Joan’s evening with Herb and Don’s pitch to Jaguar. “What behaviors would we forgive?” he asks in the presentation. The slogan, crafted by Ginsberg, (Don, still a mess at work) is “Finally, something beautiful that you can truly own.”
Indeed, there lies the indisputable theme of the episode, neatly tucked into the Jaguar campaign. Women are moving up the ladder. But at what cost? These women are paying with their personal lives. Peggy is forgoing one entirely. Joan is being solicited. We can all see the ramifications of Megan’s achievement. These ladies have a special bond and it is in the forfeiture of their private existence for any amount of respect in the workplace.
The question then becomes — is it worth it?
[EDIT] For the last few minutes I’ve been imagining Weiner&co. strolling around the Internet this morning, shaking their heads as everyone wigs out about Joan soliciting herself while so many have praised Draper for doing the same thing to exponential ends over the last 5 years.
[FURTHER EDIT] Re-watching this episode only serves as a reminder. Mad Men is the most thoughtful and well engineered show on television. Every line seems (and is) packed with significance.
HO! HO! HO! It’s Christmastide in the Mad world. And we got presents! Some needed time with that bumbling Harry Crane. Don and Joan finally breaking some ice. And, most of all, the return of Paul as a member of the Hare Krishna movement and hopeful Star Trek screenwriter.
I was expecting a couple major plot points to be set up in this episode. In the past, Episode Ten’s have included some of the largest shifts that Mad Men can manage. It held true and the season’s endgame has been set up. Lane gambles the company in order to pay off some debt to her Majesty and Don appears to have bitten by a creative flea, pledging to earn the Jaguar account.
We’ll begin with Paul and Harry. And Lakshmi? A strong batch of minor character’s have colored Season 5. It is also clear that Weiner&co. enjoy giving special lines and episode theses to the smallest of participant. Howard’s wife has been the most recent, but this week we see Lakshmi, spiritual lover and governor of Paul’s soul. Of course, Harry gets the hots for this mildly attractive (and very frightening) woman and they carry on a little afternoon delight. Being a Christmas episode, it was timely for the show to do a bit of spiritual commentary. The writers seem to understand the maxim that sexual desire applies itself to each human situation. Religion is not an exception. Instead of aiming at Christianity, we are given a pretty patronizing glance at the Hare Krishna movement. Lakshmi’s equation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy can be understood as a direct ancestor of “free love” culture. Paul’s reappearance as a bottomed-out beggar was relevant as a temporal locator as well as a way to see the juxtaposition between Harry’s lifestyle and his own. Mad Men extends no kind hand to the slacker. Harry ends up giving him some money to escape and a bit of encouragement. It was crafty, but it was the least solid element of the episode. If the screenplay was so bad, why would Harry encourage Paul to travel across the country, leaving someone he loves (even though she’s scary), to try and succeed at something at which he is terrible? Regardless, Lakshmi is (predictably) given the crux of the show in a nutshell “Kinsey is living in a spiritual world… He’s out best recruiter. He really can close.” It’s all advertising.
Christmastide also brings to mind giving and receiving. Truly, the episode’s primary theme is “getting what you want.” Each of the explored character’s are plotted in a way that takes them through a state of need or desire. This is true for Lane, Harry, Paul, Lakshmi, and the junior staff at SCDP, but it’s more complicated for Don and Joan. After Joan is served with divorce papers, Don jumps into the phone booth, takes off his suit to reveal another, and comes to a studly rescue — Jaguar and all. The conversations in “Christmas Waltz” were exquisite. Peggy & Harry. Harry & Kinsey. Especially Don & Joan. They are the show’s two most sexual creatures and their energies smolder without rest. Yet they aren’t made to touch each other, so it all happens between them. Finally, at the bar, the sexual wall between them is taken down brick by brick. Joan has always understood Don’s idea of play and never called him on it. They are both allowed to exist in a singular sexual moment without a single touch. Hitchcock said that his dream was to play a love scene where no one touched each other. He almost gets his Christmas gift at both the Jaguar dealership and the bar.
The most striking element of Don and Joan’s afternoon/evening is that it gives us the tiniest glimpse of a stronger womanhood. It’s always startling to look back on the pilot and see how far we’ve come. Slowly, women are being allowed a dash of the respect they deserve. And it’s never played explicitly. At the Draper household, Megan orders Don to sit down and eat dinner with her after being out with Joan. Instead of throwing his own tantrum, he submits. It’s a strange moment of growth for the two of them and for us as an audience. Lots of people are saying, “all is not well in the Draper household.” Is this news? Don will, by the end of this season, understand that he is the weak link in relationships, not the women. I still hold my ground that Don and Megan will remain married for the remainder of the series. There was something else curious about this scene. For the billionth time, we see Don understand anger as sexual energy — especially with Megan. Is this being set up for something? He “killed off” that demon at the beginning of the season. His faithfulness is the biggest question on many people’s minds. I think he’s capable and I welcome a changed Draper.
One place the writers won’t allow him to change for too long is at the workplace. Motivated by the pressures of women, Megan and Joan, Don gives yet another rousing speech of (is it shocking anymore?) staid but decorated integrity. It sets up the endgame for the season. Do they get Jaguar? Does Lane just fuck everything up?
What do you think?