The Televangelist: 'Mad Men' Season 5 Finale
The haunted season ended sadly and quietly, with ghosts a plenty.
In case there was any confusion about the meaning of this dark and twisted season, Matthew Weiner conveniently put the words in the title for us - "The Phantom." Phantoms were everywhere last night, from Lane's empty chair to Don hallucinating his dead half-brother Adam to Megan's failed career and the lack of a "woman's perspective" at SCDP (that being Peggy, of course). It was a quiet finale that gave the same sense of boredom and unease to viewers that the characters on screen have been experiencing all season. It was, quite frankly, a downer. Thank goodness for the "Breaking Bad" promo; when you need help, Better Call Saul!
It took a full season (last year) for Don to drop to his lowest point. His relationship with Megan helped revived him emotionally for awhile, though at the expense of his career and creativity. But Don's supposed gains this season were all part of that phantom imagery - as Pete says to Beth at the hospital, his career, his family life ... these are just temporary coverups for a much deeper problem. Pete wants to be like Don in all of his suave and glamour, but what he may not realize is that the two are mightily similar in temperament and existential ennui already. With a miserable Trudy acquiescing to Pete's request for an apartment in the city, it recalls not only Don, but Pete's rival in love Howard as well. It's a carousel of lies and infidelity, and to what end?
There was a pall of loneliness that hung over last night's finale as well. Each of our major characters were shown largely by themselves (Peggy alone at the movies before Don comes, and then alone in her hotel room; Joan in the elevator; Megan drunk at home; Don at the dentist; Roger naked on LSD), and even when they were with others, there was still a sense of sadness. Lane's death has affected everyone, even Harry (who refused his office), but no one more so than Don.
Seeing Adam's ghost haunting him as his tooth ached (which came from a Screenwriting 101 class, I think. And if we still didn't get it, Ghost!Adam gave us a quote, "it's not the tooth that's rotten"), the darkness that Don tried to patch with his relationship with Megan begins to return. Before his final scene, we get Don watching Megan's reel and falling in love with her beauty again (probably just like how he worshiped Betty at first, in her modeling days). His smile falters as he realizes what he feels he must do - give in to her whims and deny himself what Megan's mother explained flatly as "the life he desired." Are the good times over on The Megan Show? "The Phantom" ended with an ominous and familiar shot of Don at a bar, alone (at that moment literally, but also emotionally) being hit on by young, attractive women. What choice does he make?
Maybe Beth holds the answer. The earlier reference in the season to Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus" had literal meaning here, where Beth seems to be in the habit of getting depressed, sleeping with some poor man who wants to save her, and then gets electroshocked at the behest of her husband to erase the memory and start things afresh. There may be more overtones of the "Bell Jar" here than anything, but the idea that, as is oft said on "Battlestar Galactica," "all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again" seems to be something the characters of "Mad Men" cannot escape. It's a more sophisticated and elegant version of "Groundhog Day." The ending song, "You Only Live Twice," doesn't seem to bode well for Don as a changed man. But would we ever have believed him to be?
This was, looking back, an extremely odd season of "Mad Men." Last year seemed to set up big changes and the chance for plenty of character growth and redemption, and I think that for the most part it succeeded. Aside from Don, we saw Peggy strike out on her own and will presumably be really big-time when she lands the Virginia Slims account. Joan escaped the grasp of her awful husband and found a way to be independent - at a cost - while moving to the top of the career she so loves. Lane took a fall for the company, which finally got back on its feet. The money is coming in so fast, in fact, that the offices can expand. Even Betty experienced growth - not just literally - in her relationship with Sally. But while these other positives rolled in, Pete continued to wallow in self-absorbed pity, Megan became increasingly immature and obnoxious ("it's difficult to watch, but that's what happens when you have an artistic temperament and are not an artist," as her mother said), and Don's cracks began to show. Another dark season might be too much for this show, so where we go from here is a complete mystery. Then again, maybe I'm just chasing a phantom of happiness.
Musings and Miscellanea:
— This episode of "Mad Men" felt particularly tame after an explosive premiere episode of "True Blood." Don's tooth was also the second extracted tooth I saw in two hours, although the first one came as a result of a shotgun blast.
— I'm not sure what Matthew Weiner wants us to think about Megan. That ultimately she's just another Betty? He seemed to love her and give her inordinate amounts of screentime for most of the season, but in this last episode she really showed her pettiest side. Stealing the part that her friend asked her for was low, but having to rely on Don, once again, for a job put her back exactly where she was a SCDP, but with everyone a little more miserable.
— Maybe the "mad" in the show's title refers to everyone's depression. Honestly, I'm starting to wonder!
— I love Megan's mother, because she just tells it like it is. She calls Megan an ungrateful little bitch, tells Don to deal with her, and sleeps with Roger but tells him not to ask her for anything, she is not there to take care of him. Preach!
— Did anyone else think that the heavy breathing hang-ups were Glen before it was revealed to be Roger? Or does he only creep for Betty?
— "I need a window. I'm getting scurvy." - Harry
— Hmmm, how can we convince everyone Peggy is in Virginia? I know! Show two dogs humping!
— Naked Roger on LSD was a highlight of the episode, let's be real.
— There had to be closure with Lane's story and Don visiting his widow, but it didn't serve much except for Mrs. Pryce to yell at Don that his money does nothing to help anyone but himself. I'm not sure she realizes exactly how much debt she is in, though. I was sad that she found the creepy picture Lane had swiped - that will surely haunt her for a long time.
— "Well I'm the President of the Howdy Doody Circus Army!" - Pete
— Pete getting punched by two different men last night was great, and I'm sure Lane's ghost was smiling down that the grimy little pimp got what he deserved.
— Farewell, readers! It's been a great ride. What are your final thoughts on this season?