Some people might be disappointed by tonight’s season finale of MAD MEN. “The Phantom” doesn’t have any jaw-dropping surprises or dramatic payoffs. If anything, the episode continues more of the conflicts established in season five, it doesn’t really settle anything. That’s because MAD MEN isn’t interested in telling short stories, it’s interested in creating a world and characters that live, breathe and grow at their own speed. Don’t hold this show to a strict schedule, folks. It’s going to do what it wants, just like real life.
That being said, I think this was spectacular season finale. It did have closure of sorts and, most importantly, it hinted at what season six and beyond might be like. I really, really don’t want to wait for the next episode and that’s the sign of a great season finale. Plus, “The Phantom” had one of the best finale shots in recent memory. Forget what I said, that last image was jaw-dropping.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a look back and say goodbye to season five of one of TV’s best shows.
Perhaps the most surprising things about “The Phantom” was how little Lane was brought up. As we all remember, Mr. Pryce took his life last week and I think we all expected to see the fallout this week. I know I did. But what was I thinking, that we’d have a scene of Don crying to Joan or the entire office talking about Lane and his passing? That’s silly; it’s not the type of show MAD MEN is, that’s not what these characters would do. Instead, they all deal with Lane’s passing in their own ways. Roger reflects on the suicide and decides he wants to experience heaven on Earth again by partaking in more LSD. You can bet his fondness for the mind-altering drug will come into play next season.
Joan, on the other hand, is willing to discuss her feelings with Don. But it doesn’t get very far. Instead, Don takes the money that Lane ponied up for SCDP and delivers it to his widow, Rebecca. Lane’s wife isn’t happy to see Don and berates him for trying to make himself feel better after the suicide.
Side note: I love that Rebecca brought up the issues of the picture Lane kept in his wallet. Obviously that story will never be resolved, nor does it need to be. Not every plotline has to have a conclusion, some are just created to bring a character to life. Not everything in life will be resolved and so it is for Lane and his adoration for the young woman in that picture. It’s kind of heartbreaking, huh?
Don is dealing with the death of Lane too. In fact, he’s taking it the hardest. Throughout “The Phantom” Don is nursing a “hot tooth” but refuses to see a dentist because, well, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s his fatigue, depression or the painful tooth but Don keeps seeing his late brother Adam, who also happened to hang himself after a painful run-in with Don. This isn’t a coincidence, both Adam and Lane killed themselves while being in similar situations and obviously Don’s guilt is manifesting itself in a major way.
The most telling moment comes when Don is (finally) getting his tooth pulled. As he’s getting gassed up, Don sees Adam standing over him. Adam remarks that it’s not Don’s tooth that’s rotten, a painful and spot-on comment. This is Don’s subconscious talking to him and expressing how unhappy and uneven Don has been for most of this season. Sometimes your subconscious talks to you through the guise of your dead brother. Whatever it takes to address the problem. Will Don acknowledge his unhappiness after this confrontation with his late brother? I doubt it.
There sure was a lot of unhappiness in the finale. At one point, Trudy tells Pete that she’s sick of the doom and gloom. You know what, Trudy? Me too.
Pete is another one who is down in the dumps, as he has been for months and months now. He runs into Beth, the one night stand he fell for, and finds out that her depression has led her husband to schedule electro-shock therapy for her. Ah, the 60’s!
Pete’s shocked (no pun intended. Okay, fine, pun intended.) to learn of Beth’s acceptance. He’s also incredibly saddened when Beth says she might not remember their time together and the passion they shared. Sure enough, later in the episode Pete visits Beth at the hospital and she doesn’t recall him or the relationship they had. This leads to a really touching scene where Pete explains the troubles bothering him and the general misery he feels despite his successful job and beautiful family. Not many people like Pete Campbell but I bet everyone felt a tinge of sympathy for him during that speech. Gosh, it was hard to watch.
But nothing was as hard as the final moment of season five. Don, visiting Megan on the set of her national commercial (Congrats, Megan! How’d you get that job?), wanders to a bar and orders an Old Fashioned. Sitting at a dark bar alone, smoking a cigarette, Don looks like the Draper from season one. And then a beautiful young woman approaches him and asks if he’s alone. Don turns and give her an expressionless but complicated look and…we cut to black, not sure of Don’s answer. See you next season, folks.
That final shot is perfect for so many reason. Obviously the dramatic tension is palpable and the editing is deft. But it’s the mere suggestion that Don is up to his old tricks that really shocks you. It’s been so long since Don has messed around and cheated that you almost forgot about that long lost side of him. But he’s been going through so much lately – from the unhappiness at home and his depression to his shortcomings at work – that perhaps he’s looking for the escape that extra-martial affairs once brought him. Maybe the only way Don will feel like his old self is to act like his old self.
Everyone deals with depression in different ways. Some drink, some bottle it up inside, some cheat on their spouses and some yearn for a life they’ll never have. Some do all of that at the same time.
Season six will prove how Don Draper handles this new, complicated part of his life.
Tip of the hat to John Slattery for his brief nudity. Well done, good sir.
I’m really hopeful that Jessica Paré earns an Emmy nod for her work in this season. She shined bright in every episode but no moreso than tonight. Good work, Ms. Paré.
Don’s run-in with Peggy at the theater was great. I loved the honest dialogue between them. However, you can tell that Don was keeping some emotions bottled up. He might have revealed them to Peggy if only the damn trailers didn’t start.
An expansion of the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? Exciting. Also, what a great shot of the partners standing in front of the windows in their new space.
It’s always fun to talk about this show, I love it so much. Thanks for joining me every week. I’ll see y’all next season. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 18 months for MAD MEN to return.