Mad Men: “The Phantom”
Mad Men's fifth season ends with a question: "Are you alone?"
June 12, 2012 4:51 pmTerry Yates
In my attempt to keep last episode's recap to a reasonable length, I forgot to parallel the similar suicides of Lane Pryce and Adam Whitman. Both of whom hanged themselves after throwing themselves to the mercy of Don Draper. It's eerie how similarly Don dispatches with the sage wisdom of new beginnings, under the guise of having done so numerous times, when it's a bald faced lie. The idea that money and time will ease all the growing pains is an idea that is American as apple pie, and one that Don Draper embraces with white knuckle ferocity. However, both Adam and Lane prove that sometimes some form of human compassion is all that is really necessary to bridge a difficult time.
It's something that the season finale "The Phantom" explores to great affect, the feeling of abandonment that accompanies Don Draper wherever he goes. In keeping with the macabre element of the entire season, Don gets visited by the apparition of his dead brother Adam Whitman, who's shows up in Don's periphery as a sort of manifestation of his guilt over Lane's, and presumably Adam's, suicide.
It's with a "hot tooth" that Don's guilt seems to manifest itself physically, and one he believes will go away on it's own eventually. This is his basic attitude towards most of the problems and struggles of his life. It's why he comes across as mostly annoyed when problems linger, grow louder and start showing up with more regularity. When his creative underlings pipe up about being underutilized or being misappropriated, Don's incredulous at their temerity to not just stick their nose to the grindstone and work it out as he did. Which may or may not be the case. There's little prologue to Don's early years at Sterling Cooper, we assume he just rocketed to the top with his creative brilliance, we haven't seen his struggles. But if we can assume that he's full of shit when he tells someone that starting over isn't so bad because he's done it so many times, you have to wonder if he has delusions about his past and successes.
Joan seems to be the only person at SCDP that mourns Lane's passing. This may be a callback when Megan says to Peggy earlier in the season that no ones at the firm smiles, they just smirk. It's not that I don't think people aren't mournful over the passing of Lane, it's just business, and it's on to the next new day. Sort of similar to when Megan left SCDP and celebrated her exit with a lunch, and when Peggy sauntered out the double door's. The unceremonious natures of people's departures this season has been striking. That you think they would have some sort of impact, yet those who notice them are so few.
While Joan is mournful, business has never been better, in fact 34% better than last year! Hooray for SCDP! But this being Mad Men, all the great success has come at a great cost. I don't think the departures of Lane, Megan and Peggy have fully shown their negatives yet, and hopefully next season will develop this further. It's also worth nothing that SCDP has become quite the sausage fest, as in one scene Don's looking around the office, and his creative staff is all dudes. Ginsberg has a tumultuous meeting with the Topaz client over how to sell frugality to fashionable ladies. The copy is clever and edgy, but leads the clients to be dismayed in SCDP's sudden inability to sell to ladies.
Speaking of ladies, we get to see Peggy's first few moments working for Ted Chaough. She seems triumphant in her new position, with a nice big office all to herself, barking Don Draperesque orders to quivering minions. It then becomes clear that Peggy may have just hit the reset button on her career, as Ted wheels in a cart of ladies cigarettes and tasks her with naming it and branding it: because she's a girl. It's also worth noting how Ted's tone has changed from his meeting with Peggy a couple of episodes back. He seems more disdainful of her, essentially calling us back to when Peggy first become a copy writer at Sterling Cooper earlier in the series. At SCDP she was met with a different resistance than the one she faced at Sterling Cooper and now under Ted Chaough. The fact that she's caught midday at the movie theater by Don speaks volumes to her early onset dissatisfaction in this new adventure. Surely Don recognizes this, but maintains his poker face and seems to be supportive towards her.
As this season has progressed I've become less and less a fan of Megan Draper. We've come to learn more about this character, and just like Don Draper, we're not really that impressed with what's to discover. Dr. Faye said it best last season when she said Don only likes the beginning of things. All throughout this season we've seen the beginning of the Draper marriage and how quickly it began to tarnish. However, I don't buy the notion that Don wants things a certain way. He's never expressly admitted to what he wants, only what he rejects. But his rejections aren't much to build a case on what he desires as he never seems fulfilled with anything he obtains anyway.
Don wanted Megan to be his advertising protégé and savant, when she rejected those notions, he lashed out and began to reject her dreams and desires. He wasn't outwardly unsupportive of Megan and her goal to be an actress, but he wasn't going to help her in any way achieve that goal. Until tonight, when she asks if he'll talk to the Butler shoe client and influence the casting of their "Beauty and the Beast" style commercial.
Unbeknownst to anyone, Megan went ahead with a screen test in order to land commercials or film. She hasn't even shadowed a stage and yet she desires the next best thing in commercial work. Perhaps Emile was on to something when he chided Megan for enjoying all the success but doing none of the work. But then you have Marie Calvet, visiting her daughter for Easter, explaining to Don that when Megan left home she was a happy girl. It seems as though the Calvet's are either delusional or are in denial about their daughter,. Unfortunately for us and Don, we have to find out the truth the hard way.
I don't think Megan became a spoiled brat once she married Don, as Marie Calvet would have us believe. I tend to side more with Emile that Megan was always looking for the easy way and would sulk and cry if she was denied. When acting became too hard for Megan the first time, she gave up and became a secretary at SCDP. It's arguable whether or not she was looking to land one of the wealthier men in the agency, but she succeeded at landing the biggest one, Don Draper.
She mentions, after asking Don to do her the casting favor, that the whole acting/auditioning thing was hard. Don's reply to her that she should rather be concerned with being someone's big discovery instead of someone's wife is worth noting, as Megan does indeed understand this and knows it to be true, but yet insists that Don do this for her, regardless of artistic merits. Although Don initially refuses her, he watches her screen test. You can see on his face that he recognizes the girl he feel in love with, but slowly you see him sour to this notion that she may indeed be no good and that the only thing that's going to propel her career is whatever Don can do for her, either financially or otherwise. But Megan will not be anyone's discovery.
This episode also has great moments with Pete Campbell, as much as I loathe to admit to as much. If you already weren't aware, the show goes ahead and hits you over the head with the "Beth Dawes is crazy". Sadly, it's more or less untrue as Howard essentially uses it as an excuse to take Beth to a mental hospital to undergo electroshock therapy. It scrambles her brain, makes her "fuzzy headed" and keeps her off Howard's infidelity laden ways. Which of course, Howard drops the idea that Beth also participates in her own extracurricular activities, hence needs to be "treated", but I highly doubt that, as does Pete. Perhaps I was a bit tapped out from the last few episodes heavier emotional scenes, but the scene between Beth and Pete after she's had her treatment didn't really resonate with me. It was sad and touching, no question, but the emotional weight wasn't there or was lacking. In a season that dropped on atom bomb of a charged scene with Don's Jaguar pitch and Joan's night with Herb Rennet being juxtaposed against one another, you'd think that Pete and Beth's scene would at least touch on some of that, but it doesn't even come close.
Right before Don has his tooth removed, he is visited again by Adam Whitman who tells him "it's not your tooth that's rotten". The evidence for this is all throughout the season, yet it's the one thing that the show doesn't beat you over the head with, unlike it's other points. This entire season has been Don at his, to this point, most antagonistic to everyone around him. He pushes every single person close to him away at some point this season. The only time he actually pays the price for it is with Lane's death, which you'd think he would've avoided after the eerie similarities to Adam's demise. The fact that Don acted pretty much the same way to both men at their moment of dire need speaks volumes to the rotten soul of Don Draper.
What's even more surprising is that Don doesn't seem to learn from any of it. We have scene in this episode where Don visit's Lane's widow to return his collateral funds from last year's Lucky Strike debacle. Similar to when Don dropped by Joan's to attempt to save face by voicing his dissent, Don seems to mean well. Unlike Joan, Lane's widow see's right through Don's "well meaning" and rebukes his condolences. My biggest question from these scenes is whether Don actually means well, or is actually pretending and is being called out on it? That he's lost some of that ability to lie smoothly, his silver tongue has turned to clay and he has failed to recognize it.
If the main theme of this episode is people chasing phantoms, then what is Don Draper chasing? He seems to only be running away from phantoms, whereas every other character in this episode is chasing after them. Is this the juxtaposition of this episode? The running from phantoms is quite literal in Don's case, as he spends most of the episode seeing Adam Whitman, before the dentists office where he drops a Jacob Marley laden doom sentence on him.
At the end of this episode we see Megan, all the princess, getting ready to shoot the Butler shoe commercial that Don obtained for her. After she gives him a peck on the cheek, we see Don forcibly walk away from the set. It's meant to be a sort of iconic shot, and it works perfectly. We see Megan in her little fantasy world shrink further and further in to the distance as Don walks away from it, sourpuss and all. He walks in to the next scene, a bar, and orders a "neat Old Fashioned." We all know what Don's drink of choice is, that he audibly says it is intentional to us.
Don's shown all throughout this season that he's flatly rejecting this generational shift. He's proven that he can still land clients with his singular creative genius, and that he doesn't need young people telling him what they want. He doesn't believe they even know what they really want, so fuck them. Of course time will be the great equalizer as this decade continues and dinosaur's like Don will be left in the dust, but for now, he is triumphant. The cliffhanger of sorts comes at the last few seconds of this episode when a young woman asks Don "Are you alone?" While it's been established that Don wanted his marriage to work this season, his "neat Old Fashioned" ways have finally come to the fore. He tried, as he's done in the past, to reject his old fashioned way, but now, why fix something that ain't broke? We all know how Don Draper answered that young lady, and that is why we love Mad Men.
Mad Men's fifth season wasn't the best season of the show ever, but it was still really really good television viewing. I loved most of the macabre theme that threaded itself through all the episodes, and it paid off awesomely with the "death" of many of Don's business and personal relationships and the literal death of Lane Pryce. If season four and season five are Don Draper at the pinnacle of his business success, the it's the utter depths of his solitude and isolation. Because he views most of the people that come to him for help as vultures and leeches for him to shoo away, he lacks any real empathy or basic human understanding for anyone, even those he supposedly loves. It seems the only love life Don does have is with his work, and even then he is mostly left unsatisfied. When Peggy mentions her trip to Virginia to view the factory of the women's cigarette client, she says "It's not Paris", Peggy, like Don have this idealized dream of that one thing that will make everything all right. This chase for happiness that can only be obtained by wanting it more.
Roger sums it up best when he talks to Marie about Lane's death. He mentions that you'd have to be sure that there was something better on the other side, but he believes it's in the here and now. It took Roger an LSD trip to realize that he needed to just stop and enjoy what he had, that's happiness for these people. Unfortunately for his colleagues that won't be the case ever, or until it's too late. The windows to this understanding are all over this place, if only the characters would look. Lane's death should've been Don's "Aha!" moment, but as we've seen this season, that's just a chilling breeze from a window that he shuts immediately.
My problems with this season are minor but I think need to be mentioned. I thought the Civil Rights movement, race riots and other racial tension of the late 1960's would've been at least in the margins of the season a bit more. What Mad Men started at the beginning of this season with the hiring of Dawn, died on the vine after "Mystery Date", no more racial elements ever really popped up in a major way, which was kind of a disappointment. Understandably, Mad Men isn't really about the general historical elements of the 1960's as a whole, but there could've been more material to mine from it at least. I'm of the mindset that if they weren't going to do anything meaningful with it, besides add Dawn to SCDP, then why bother at all.
In the ensuing seasons of Mad Men, I think paring down the cast is in short order, it's effecting the narrative economy of the show. There was no Betty or Harry Francis in this finale, and the bulk of this season dealt very little with the Francis' and only to draw mostly symbolic elements that never really paid off. That Don Draper would never achieve a level of influence that Harry Francis has is kind of inconsequential to the general narrative of Mad Men. Don's wealth and stature could lead to some level of influence or at least a piece of the machinery that runs things.
There's just too many characters that are being focused on and at times it feels like it's spiteful, and just there for Matthew Weiner to show the doubters that "yes, every single character is important!" But when you step back a bit and look at this season as a whole there was some definite character filler. Harry Crane comes to mind almost instantaneously. He was only good this season for a visual gag or a quick joke and nothing more. His character growth was minor and really inconsequential, we get it, he's a nice guy. But he's a background character, like Stan and Ginsberg. He's a loose end to an earlier season, and unless large gains in television media suddenly arise in the late 1960's, Harry Crane is virtually unnecessary to the series at this point. As I stated previously ,Betty and Harry Francis aren't necessary anymore either. While I admire the attempt to show Betty try and poison the Draper marriage, it was completely pointless, we all knew that Don was going to be the one who poisoned the Draper marriage. It was a patent case of "This character needs something to do" that Mad Men has been great in the past with not doing too often. This season, that wasn't the case, and it was noticeable.
How did my predictions turn out? Pretty good all things considered:
- Pete Campbell got punched in the face…twice! Once by Howard Dawes and then by the trains attendant! Season five has definitely set the bar high for Pete Campbell ass kickings.
- Megan does land a role, it's not far away, but I think it spells the end of the Draper marriage.
- Roger doesn't drink vodka or say anything awesome…but we do get to see his big bronze ass…this is not what I envisioned when, before this episode started, there was a "this episode has partial nudity" advisement!
- Don Draper did say "What?"
- Glenn did not shave his trash-stache, but I assume he does in between this season and next.
- Joan doesn't get a letter saying Greg is dead, but she does get envelopes full of money! On some level I see them as symbolism for her own rotten soul, close enough right?
- Harry Crane did get in an elevator, with a wool coat no less, but he did not catch fire. Instead, Joan was there. I will count this as a victory because I did see Harry Crane and a fury of red something or other, I assumed fire and not Joan…and I imagine that she was immolating Harry Crane with her annoyance at his general presence.
|FIND YOUR GEEK RATING
out of 10