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"Mad Men" Season Finale Review: "The Phantom" (Season 5 Episode 13) - “I’m President of the Howdy Doody Circus...”
The fifth season of Mad Men comes to an end with the season finale, episode 13, “The Phantom.” It’s the last hour of a fantastic season, so for the final time this year, I’m here with my weekly review and analysis. To do the finale justice, this review contains heavy spoilers, so don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode.
Spoilers for “The Phantom” after the jump…
At the end of a tumultuous, hugely eventful fifth season, Mad Men ends with a slow, somber, contemplative finale where all the characters are left to ponder the choices they have made and the places they’ve arrived. As the title suggests, they are all haunted by phantoms – one literal, most figurative – of the past; of mistakes made and opportunities lost; of foregone happiness and memories of better days; of guilt, grief, and sorrow; and most importantly, of the things they each have done to become the people they thought they wanted to be. It’s an hour of self-evaluation, of characters taking stock and considering the lives they have built for themselves. In the process, each character receives at least temporary resolution, and if little of it is positive or uplifting for the characters themselves, it’s all dramatically satisfying and thematically fascinating for the audience. In short, “The Phantom” is Mad Men at its complex, insightful best, as it has been for most of this exquisite fifth season.
Surprisingly, I felt most compelled by the conclusion to Pete’s story; Matthew Weiner and company have given Vincent Kartheiser outstanding material to play all year long, but in the process, they’ve taken Pete down paths so dark and self-destructive that, for a long while, I predicted he would be the one to kill himself, not Lane. Suicide seemed like the only neat way to resolve the incredible amounts of self-loathing and unhappiness Pete had descended into, but in “The Phantom,” Weiner found a much more meaningful way to bring Pete’s arc to a resonant conclusion: Pete experienced the moment of insight he’s so desperately needed for such a long time.
That insight was instigated by Pete’s personal phantom: himself. Beth – the sheltered housewife he had an affair with in “Lady Lazarus” – seems for a long time like she will fulfill that phantom role; after all, Beth is the embodiment of all Pete’s disappointments and failures from the past year. She took away his pain for fleeting moments, but when she turned out to be different than what Pete wanted, his unhappiness returned full force. But as damaged as Pete has become, Beth is even worse-off, a clinical depressive in a time that lacks developed psychological treatment. She hasn’t come to haunt Pete. On the contrary; she’s called so Pete can haunt her one last time, so she can have one more happy moment before the electro-shock therapy turns Pete into nothing more than a ghost.
When Pete visits the hospital, it’s not Beth he sits to talk to, but the forgotten image of himself he sees in her eyes. It’s an existential moment; the one thing that truly mattered to Pete all season, the one thing that brought him happiness and he invested hope in, has been erased. He and his actions are little more than a phantom for Beth, one that will never mean anything to her. If Pete’s actions, even the ones he finds meaningful, can be rendered so profoundly insignificant so quickly, have they been worth anything? Did the man Pete describes to Beth accomplish anything by running away from his family and trying to find happiness elsewhere? Or did he just become a pathetic, heartbroken loser left further in misery than ever before?
It’s this conclusion Pete comes to in the brilliant speech he gives at Beth’s bedside. Kartheiser has never gotten to make Pete this vulnerable or, indeed, introspective, and it may go down as his finest scene in five seasons of Mad Men. “He needed to let off some steam; he needed adventure; he needed to feel handsome again,” Pete says, slowly realizing the futility of his own motivations. “And he realized that everything he already had was not right either. And that’s why it all happened at all. His life with his family was a temporary bandage on some permanent wound.”
That’s what I call insight, and it’s what I’ve been writing about all season. Only when these characters have the clarity to recognize and isolate what’s wrong with their lives do they have a shot at being happy, and for Pete, this revelation has been five years in the making. There is something fundamentally broken about Pete, something off deep down that prevents him from ever feeling satisfaction in his successes or shame in defeats. It might be depression; it might be something else, but whatever the case, Pete now knows what we’ve seen all along: that even if he commits himself fully to his work, or tries loving his family wholeheartedly, or sleeps around when all else fails, he will not feel content. There are ways Pete can move forward; I do not believe the man is a lost cause. But the path ahead could never be revealed if Pete didn’t first confront and accept his own broken nature, and I think it’s been a rather fascinating journey to bring Pete to this discovery.
But as with every season 5 arc, Pete’s story doesn’t end on this moment of clarity; instead, it continues to a place of ambiguity, just as it should. Pete’s insight only raises more complex emotions, confused and bitter feelings that get him into two fights on the train, both of which he loses. Perhaps Pete will reach a point in Season 6 where raising his fists doesn’t result in a savage beating, but this is Season 5, and for now, Pete gets pushed back down every time. The real humiliation comes when Trudy, worried about Pete’s bruises, agrees to let him get an apartment in New York. It’s not only too late, but it’s the antithesis of what Pete wants and needs at this point. The man has reached a juncture, one where his flaws have become clear but the path ahead is anything but; I’d like to think a more self-aware Pete might take a journey of self-improvement next season, but for that to happen, he’d have to open up to someone and ask for help, and as of now, I don’t know who that would be. He’s afraid of being honest with Trudy, no one at work particular cares for him, he hates his family, and he doesn’t seem to have any friends. Pete’s final shot of the season represents his current status: alone, confused, and worried about what harm he’ll inflict on himself next.
For Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, both the company and its people, phantoms abound at every turn. The agency has become more successful than ever, but for Joan and Don, at least, that success comes with a price. Lane’s phantom will always haunt them, it seems, both for Joan – who expresses her entirely misplaced guilt – and for Don, who internalizes his more rational regrets. The shadow of what the partners and Joan did to land Jaguar still looms large, and as Ginsberg pitches Topaz – the account Peggy landed in last year’s finale – memories of Peggy’s departure hold firm as well. Roger, in many ways, is chasing phantoms; his enlightenment may have worn off, but he doesn’t want the feeling to go away, and so he returns to Megan’s mother, Marie, and later, LSD. If the shot of Roger standing naked in the window during the final montage isn’t one of the funniest frames in the history of Mad Men, then my memory must be faulty.
But the agency and supporting characters are not, by and large, the focus this week. Outside of Pete, it’s Megan and Don who dominate the hour, and both reach fascinating resolutions. Megan winds up in a happier place than Pete, or perhaps her husband, but not a less ambiguous one. Jessica Paré has proved a stellar addition to the cast, perhaps the most compelling character the show has introduced since establishing the original regulars, but after Megan left SCDP, her material quickly began feeling aimless. Was Megan really accomplishing anything? Was her story going anywhere? Looking at the finale, those questions don’t seem like mistakes or dramatic missteps, but very intentional pieces of Megan’s arc. Because Megan’s phantom, appropriately enough, was her own choices, choices she’s come to regret as she’s discovered living the dream isn’t as easy as she thought.
As we’ve seen throughout the season, Megan clearly has, like many other characters, deeper psychological issues she needs to confront; she struggles with anger, is disappointed easily, and doesn’t always feel entirely comfortable in her own skin. Working at SCDP did not fulfill her artistically, and it made her resent her husband in ways she didn’t want to, but it did, at the very least, keep her stable. Now that she’s adrift, trying to become an actress but hitting roadblock after roadblock, there’s nothing to stop her from feeling increasingly sad, lost, and bitter. It doesn’t help that, while Don certainly hasn’t been horrible to her as of late, he also hasn’t given her the support or stability she probably needs to feel comfortable. So Megan, as we see tonight, has fallen further and further, feeling increasingly sad and dejected, until she’s willing to go back to Don and ask for commercial work just to feel like she’s accomplished something. Though Don isn’t exactly graceful when he points it out, he’s right in saying that Megan has come to him for the exact same things she left SCDP to escape.
After Don denies her, Megan falls into her deepest depression yet, but it’s easily fixed – momentarily, at least – when Don finally gives in and lets her star in the commercial. Thus, Megan ends the season happy, but we know it will be fleeting; this bit of work will not solve all – or, perhaps, any – of her problems, and it won’t help her and Don’s increasingly problematic relationship. There is something fundamentally flawed with their marriage, something that causes continual unhappiness between these two and undeniably contributed to Megan’s recent depression. Whatever the problem, it cannot be assigned to Don or Megan alone. It’s like Don’s toothache: A constant, sometimes unbearable pain that both have chosen to ignore, allowing it to fester and ferment for unhealthy stretches of time. Don gets his tooth pulled, and Megan gets her commercial part, but these are only temporary remedies for larger issues both must address in the future.
Ultimately, though, Don is our main character, and he’s the one presented with the big choice: will he move forward and attempt to make lasting, meaningful amends with his wife, or will he revert to Dick Whitman once more and run from his problems? The question is posed through Don’s oldest vice: young, attractive, beddable women. “Are you alone?” the girls asks. Don turns. He thinks.
We cut to black.
Of course we do; we have to, because for now, at least, that’s not a question the show can answer for us. It’s too loaded, too complicated for an immediate response to feel satisfying. Season 5 has been the show’s most thematically overt year by far, yet the ending is left ambiguous, and what you believe happens next will depend entirely on how you’ve interpreted the last thirteen hours worth of events.
Me? I don’t think a concrete ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer does the moment justice; the significance of that ending is that Don gives the idea of cheating on his wife credence, that he has reached a point in his arc where he’s willing to at least think about adultery once more. Contrast that to “Mystery Date,” wherein Don was tormented by the thought that he might ever be weak enough to do wrong by Megan and sleep with another woman. The brilliance of Don’s arc this year – perhaps of season 5 as a whole – is that everything we’ve seen him go through, every decision he’s made and every reaction he’s given, led not to some life-altering choice, but to a brief moment of hesitation before an unknown answer. A moment of hesitation that says far more about where he has come than the answer itself actually would.
“The Phantom” makes it clear that Don is not happy; the toothache, as stated previously, is representative of all sorts of issues he’s failing to deal with. He still feels guilty about Lane; he’s unsure of how he should approach his wife; he’s uncomfortable with SCDP’s financial success because he detests the cost it took to get there; he’s lost Peggy and he can’t recapture the creative magic he once possessed.
This is the baggage Don carries with him at the finale’s outset, and it all manifests itself in the phantom of Don’s brother, Adam Whitman, a character we have not seen since he killed himself at the end of the first season. On the most obvious level, Don’s guilt over Lane’s suicide – which was in many ways similar to Adam’s – brings up old feelings of regret about how Don treated his last living relation. But to me, Don also sees Adam as a reminder of who he used to be: Dick Whitman, the man who ran away and tried so hard to never look back. That’s what Don’s good at, after all; he can run away when he encounters a problem, and he’s encouraged others to do the same.
But the Don Draper we’ve watched this season is a ‘new’ Don Draper, a seemingly enlightened man who started the year happy in a new marriage and content in the life he had built; the thought of running, even into the arms of another woman, has terrified him all year long, because it would mean admitting defeat and accepting that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot change his life for the better. Only at the low, low place Don has reached would he consider ‘running’ once more, and that’s why the moment of hesitation we end the season on is significant.
But if you put a gun to my head and forced my to tell you whether or not Don goes with the young woman, I’d have to tell you he denies her request. This is entirely based on my subjective analysis of Jon Hamm’s performance in Don’s final three scenes, but in my reading of the episode’s back half, I think Don begins resolving to try harder in his most important relationship.
First, there’s the wonderful scene with Peggy in the movie theatre, a glorious, classic Mad Men moment if there ever was one (as all moments involving Elizabeth Moss are, I think). Peggy’s arc was wrapped up in “The Other Woman,” and you can read my analysis of how she is one of the few characters to find true health and happiness in that review. Her return here is largely to create contrast with Don, to show that he still has trouble processing her departure while she continues to respect him unconditionally.
Here’s our first clue to why I think Don answers ‘No’: in the movie theatre, he finally comes around to showing Peggy the respect she deserved when she resigned. Don doesn’t exactly apologize, but he does come out and admit he’s proud of her, and that she’s happy she’s found success elsewhere. He even agrees when she suggests they start getting together as friends, indicating that Don is willing to try building a healthier, more fulfilling personal life for himself.
Next, Don returns to the office and watches Megan’s audition reel on the projector, a visually rapturous moment beautifully directed by Matt Weiner. With smoke billowing, Don’s silhouette rests in front of the projection of Megan; but it’s not just Megan. It’s gorgeous Megan, perfect Megan, ideal Megan; the God of a woman who made Don feel so happy one year ago; the Megan he first fell in love with. Up on the screen, he sees Megan before she was complex, or damaged, or his to comfort and hold and heal. Looking at the projection, Don smiles. It’s the first real smile he’s given in a long time: A content smile, a pleasant smile, a smile that indicates that in this moment, Don feels good, gazing upon the love of his life.
It’s impossible to know exactly what Don’s thinking, but I believe that smile acknowledges that the ideal Megan he sees on screen is a Megan worth fighting for. His smile turns into a look of steely resolve. If it’s a challenge to make things work with her, to make their marriage the best it can be, maybe it’s a challenge worth confronting.
That’s why he gives her the part in the commercial; it’s not a solution, but it’s a start, and not an empty gesture by any means. As he walks away from the set, Don looks sad, confused, and a bit lonely, but I don’t think it’s because he’s disappointed in Megan and intent on throwing their relationship away. I think it’s because, given everything we saw between the two of them this year, Don knows that working things out will be tough and that he has a long, arduous road ahead of him if he wishes to recreate the happy days of their honeymoon period.
He hesitates to answer the woman at the bar when she asks if he’s alone. He’s busy contemplating the journey ahead, and he knows the sex she offers is a quick and easy – albeit temporary – solution to the strife he feels inside.
Contemplating temptation, though, is no sin; it speaks to where Don has arrived, but in my interpretation, he answers “No” only a second later, and takes the road less travelled; the road that will hopefully lead him back to marital bliss.
Is mine an optimistic reading of the ending? Certainly. But it’s also a reading rooted firmly in the Don Draper we’ve observed for the last thirteen hours, and I do not believe, for a second, that Don has fallen so far he’s willing to throw everything away for a moment’s bliss. Don would have done that two seasons ago. Maybe even one. But unless you believe Mad Men features static characters incapable of change – and I think this would be a fundamental misreading of the show – you cannot deny that Don has taken large steps in his life. Are they steps that will lead to his salvation? That is what I have taken away from this fifth season; your interpretation may differ. We will find out a year from now.
What is more certain, I think, is that Mad Men has delivered one of its most creatively ambitious and successful runs to date; it is far too early for me to tell you where I feel Season 5 ranks in the Mad Men pantheon, but I feel it must sit near the top, for the sheer number of masterpiece hours the show delivered this year is staggering. “The Phantom” was not one of the all-time greats, but it was a fitting, riveting conclusion that emphasized this season’s truly powerful thematic arcs. This was a year of sharp, sometimes uncomfortably contemplative character study, one with broad social implications and small personal moments, all of which spoke to real-world issues we struggle with on a daily basis. For me, Mad Men Season 5 was as dramatically satisfying and meaningful a season of television as any I have ever encountered, and I cannot imagine enjoying the show any more than I did this year.
I also enjoyed writing my thoughts, and sharing them with you, and emphasizing the communal experience that is TV over twelve weeks of articles and comments. I write an awful lot in my life, but my work is rarely as fulfilling as it has been these last twelve Sundays.
Thank you for joining me; I’ll see you next year.
Come back next Sunday for a special article:
Mad Men: Farewell Season 5 Spectacular!
We’ll send this great season off in fine fashion!
Read All Season 5 "Mad Men" Reviews:
#1-2: A Little Kiss
#3: Tea Leaves
#4: Mystery Date
#5: Signal 30
#6: Far Away Places
#8: Lady Lazarus
#9: Dark Shadows
#10: Christmas Waltz
#11: The Other Woman
#12: Commissions and Fees