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'Mad Men' Season 5 Finale Review and Recap: 'The Phantom' of an Old Self Comes to Life

Television
by Beth Hanna
June 11, 2012 6:16 AM
7 Comments
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AMC "Mad Men."

In a weak finale of a strong season of "Mad Men," ghosts haunt the characters and portend something terrifying: There is no escaping the past. Spoilers ahead!

What happened:

Don is nursing an aching tooth.

On his way into the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices, he passes a closing elevator and thinks he sees his dead half-brother, Adam. Importantly, Adam hanged himself in Season 1 after feeling abandoned by Don.

During a partners meeting, Joan tells Don, Bert and Roger that the company revenue is up 34%, and that she has plans to meet with the building manager about the vacated space on the floor above SCDP. Nosy Harry Crane has already been inquiring about the space, which was formerly occupied by a parachute company. Could this be a playful jab at the "Mad Men" viewers who speculated a character's suicide would occur by jumping?

Meanwhile, Megan's mother Marie is visiting the Drapers. Megan is depressed about her recently rejected screen test reel, and she and her actress friend Emily gripe about the difficulty of finding work. When Emily asks if Don could possibly cast her in the Butler Shoes "Beauty and the Beast"-themed commercial that SCDP is handling, Megan agrees bitterly. But it gets her thinking. When Don arrives home that evening, she asks about the Butler Shoes spot -- for herself. Don pooh-poohs the idea: "You want to be somebody's discovery, not somebody's wife." Poor Megan waits until she's alone in the bathroom to burst into tears.

Having run into Howard and Beth Dawes on the train, Pete gets a call from Beth at the office asking he meet her in a hotel room. He caves in to her request, and they have sex in the hotel bed. Beth admits that she's been depressed and has scheduled a hospital appointment for electroshock therapy -- and not her first. She says of her blue spells: "I feel a door open, and I want to walk through it." Pete recently cut down a man from a noose who had figuratively walked through an open door, and insists, "That's for weak people."

Joan tells Don that SCDP will receive a staggering $175K insurance payout from Lane's death. That SCDP would get so much money over the death of a man racked with financial problems is bitterly ironic. Don visits Lane's widow Rebecca to give her a $50K check -- equalling what Lane gave the company post-Lucky Strike -- as a means of condolence. Rebecca's response is icy: "How could you fill a man like that with ambition?" She understands that the American Dream turned into a brutal nightmare for Lane, epitomized by the picture of the young woman in Lane's wallet. Like the photograph, everything Lane wanted was acutely beautiful, but somehow always small and distant, unattainable and untenable.

Don returns home to find Megan drunk and acerbically honest. Waiting around for Don all day is "all I'm good for."

Pete visits Beth in the hospital after her shock therapy, but she doesn't remember him. In an on-the-nose monologue (uncharacteristic and disappointing for "Mad Men"), Pete makes up a hospitalized "friend" who has the same life he does, so that he can tell Beth his own soured version of the American Dream. As the voice of institutional creepiness, Beth says, "They'll fix him up here. They're very good."

On the train home, Pete encounters Howard and angrily lets it slip that he knows about Beth: "You just couldn't wait to get her in the hospital and erase her brain." Pete's knowledge betrays his intimacy with Beth, and he and Howard begin to brawl. Pete gets fresh with the train captain and, for the second time this season, is punched in the nose. The spirit of Lane lives on.

After tenderly watching Megan's audition reel (a callback to the home movies of the Season 1 finale), Don gets Megan the role of "Beauty" for the Butler Shoes commercial. Dressed in a ridiculously garish costume, Megan kisses Don on the set. Don wanders over to the bar.

"Why didn't I give him what he wanted?"

Joan is the only one who wants to talk about Lane's death, or to admit that she hasn't found closure from his terrible departure. She stares sadly at Lane's empty chair during the 4-person partners meeting. When she tells Don about the death insurance payout, she worries aloud why she couldn't have submitted to Lane's desires while he was still alive. She knew he was in love and lust with her. It's fascinating (and very sad) that she partly blames herself for Lane's death, because the pressure she subjects herself to is much like the pressure she faced with Herb in "The Other Woman." If Joan can just give a man what he wants, then things won't fall apart. That's the cruel logic that stems from a deal like Jaguar.

Death and attempts at rebirth:

This season of "Mad Men" is bookended with butt shots. In the premiere episode, we saw baby Kevin's butt being slathered in diaper rash cream. In the season finale, we are shown Roger's butt. (Importantly, Roger is Kevin's father.) Of course it's funny to see Roger Sterling exposed, but the image says a lot about his often pathetic and occasionally moving attempts at rebirth in Season 5. In this episode Roger convinces Marie to meet him in a hotel room for sex. Once she arrives he suggests they take LSD together. LSD served as an eye-opener for Roger in "Faraway Places," allowing him to break up with Jane and supposedly turn a fresh leaf. He's subsequently put too much stock in the acid trip, viewing "his experience" as a single-handed game changer and one-way ticket to enlightenment. Marie cuts this off at the source: "Please don't ask me to take care of you." Roger needs to learn the difference between rebirth and being a baby.

"The Phantom":

The finale's title manifests in many ways throughout the episode. First, Lane's phantom is haunting Don, quite literally in the form of Adam. When Don finally gets his "nasty absess" taken out at the dentist's office, he hallucinates while anesthetized that Adam comes to him. Gruesomely baring the bruises of a noose, Adam jokes, "I'll hang around," implying that Don's guilt will not easily subside. For me, this sequence was too much. Part of the fun of "Mad Men" is getting to connect the dots oneself, not having them drawn together with permanent marker by the scriptwriters. Yes, Adam hanged himself, as did Lane, and Don failed to stop both. We get it.

Megan receives anonymous phone calls, which seem phantom-like, until we learn that Roger has been calling the Draper residence trying to get in touch with Marie.

As Megan wallows in bed over her lackluster career as an actress and Don's refusal of her Butler ad proposal, Marie tells Megan that she's "chasing a phantom... Not all little girls can get what they want." Stinging and passive-aggressive as Marie is, she's right. Megan, like so many other characters on "Mad Men," is chasing the phantom of more. Lane chased that phantom right to his grave.

Hello, old friend:

The old Don stays in the picture. As Megan is pampered onset for the Butler ad, Don orders a drink (an Old Fashioned) at the studio bar. A pretty blonde woman approaches him and, gesturing over her shoulder to a brunette woman in the background, asks Don for her friend: "Are you alone?" This question operates on a few different levels. Based on Don's tempted smirk, he likes the idea of being alone -- as in, single. Megan has been sinking into the mire of the lonely, expectant housewife, much like Betty did before her, which doesn't bode well for Don's fidelity. As we see Megan become increasingly like Don's ex-wife, we may see Don become increasingly like his former self. This is not Megan's fault. This is what Don does to his marriages.

(As Joan cattily surmised in "Lady Lazarus," Megan and Betty both fit the model-actress prototype of a Don Draper wife. Upon seeing Megan gussied up in that ridiculous "Beauty" costume, I immediately thought of Betty's brief return to modeling in Season 1. In both cases, neither woman would have been courted for such a silly, falsely flattering role if not for Don.)

The question "Are you alone?" also suggests existential loneliness, and could be the tagline for Season 5.

Bits and pieces:

  • Peggy returns! She's on a mission from CGC to "smoke, name and sell" a ladies' slender cigarette. She and Don unintentionally meet in a movie theater, and have a few friendly, wistful words. She also witnesses two dogs humping outside of her Virginia hotel room. 
  • Poor Trudy shows off another horrendous nightie and, after seeing Pete's bruised face and hearing his lie about falling asleep at the wheel, insists he get an apartment in the city to avoid the horrors of commuting.
  • Best line of the episode: "What is Regina?"

Other ideas or interpretations? Thoughts about the episode?

Television
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More: Television, TV Reviews, AMC , Mad Men

7 Comments

  • Rosie | July 12, 2012 2:51 PMReply

    I wouldn't exactly call Season Five strong. It had some strong moments and even one or two truly exceptional episodes. But overall, I found it mildly disappointing.

    ["Megan's appearance in the ad is something she wants, an ambition, a step up the ladder. Betty was just having a fling with modelling by taking up the job. "]

    Betty was serious about renewing her modeling career. That is why she was so disappointed when she learned that she had been used to attract Don to another ad agency.

  • Lil | June 13, 2012 5:47 AMReply

    Why do you think Weiner ended this explosive season with such a quiet, melancholy episode? Seems a little "mediocre" given how it lacks subtlety. I thought in contrast to Betty's modelling, Megan's appearance in the ad is something she wants, an ambition, a step up the ladder. Betty was just having a fling with modelling by taking up the job. Don is perhaps afraid that she would truly leave him once she is successful. That's implied in what he said to Peggy, isn't it? You help someone and they leave you....

  • Beth Hanna | June 14, 2012 1:11 PM

    @Lil -- That's a good point, I think Marie's discouraging presence in the apartment definitely had to do with Megan's decision to push Don about the Butler commericial. And yes, Megan shows much more drive and independence than Betty. One of the things I love about Mad Men is getting to see how all of the show's female characters (particularly Peggy, Megan, Joan and Betty) deal differently and sometimes similarly with issues of independence, ambition, domesticity, traditional femininity, sexuality, etc.

  • Lil | June 14, 2012 12:36 AM

    I still feel that Megan's a lot more hardworking and much more of an independent woman than say, Betty. It may be that she's succumbed to the constant undermining by her mother---having her in the apartment seems to unnerve Megan so much, that she is willing to take a less-than-ideal acting job just to maybe bolster her own ego--some kind of last ditch effort of defending herself from her mother, perhaps? I guess we'll see....I agree though, that Don is probably torn between his fear of losing Megan and his disappointment in how things end up at the end of this season between them..

  • Beth Hanna | June 13, 2012 4:02 PM

    @Lil -- The lack of subtlety in this episode definitely made it a mediocre installment for Mad Men. In terms of Megan, I agree with you that it's something she wants, but I still think it's ultimately a disappointing accomplishment for her. She wants to star on Broadway, but instead gets cast in a shoe commercial that she wouldn't have secured without a little help in the nepotism department. However, it will be interesting to see if and how this evolves next season -- maybe she'll do with her acting what she did in advertising, i.e. be given an opportunity slightly unfairly but then prove to be actually very good at it. And you're right about Don's comment to Peggy. He's seen Peggy become awesome at her job and leave SCDP, and he's worried that Megan might flourish as an actress and leave him, too. But I contend that Peggy and Megan are different. Peggy worked her ass off to get what she has. Megan married into it.

  • Beth Hanna | June 11, 2012 2:05 PMReply

    @RScott -- Thanks, I didn't catch which movie they were watching. True to Mad Men's attention to detail, the theater looked fairly deserted. Definitely one of the best seasons of MM, and possibly THE best. I was underwhelmed by the finale, but the hot streak of "Mystery Date" through "Lady Lazarus," and then "The Other Woman" (season's best episode, in my opinion) followed by Lane's suicide, easily makes Season 5 one of the highpoints for the best show on television. (Using a lot of superlatives, but I think it's warranted!)

  • RScott | June 11, 2012 1:04 PMReply

    I'm probably the only one who found this funny, but based on the music playing at the start of the film, Don and Peggy were watching Casino Royale, the version with David Niven. This James Bond parody was one of the biggest bombs of the period. Is this yet another disappointment for these characters who never seem to get what they truly want? Either way, one of the best MM seasons ever.

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