Mad Men: The Phantom

"Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world could not support that many ballerinas."

Nancy Sinatra sang that you only live twice -- one life that you drift through, and the other a fantasy. For Don, he's literally lived twice, but this season saw him embarking on something of a 'third' life, a cheat that goes against the message of the song. Megan was his opportunity to start fresh. He wouldn't cheat like he did with Betty. He wouldn't lie like he did with Betty. But over the course of these thirteen episodes, there's been this nagging sense that something was wrong with his new arrangement. Megan was beautiful and talented and admired... but there was a block. There were dizzy highs, and they often made up for the lows, but the inner turmoil Don was experiencing had to ultimately manifest somehow. So the anguish became a literal pain, something he chose to briefly ignore, until it became too much to bear. In the end, he realized what he had to do. They were done.

Of course, it would be unfair to merely explore Don's torment. Because Megan, too, was beginning to suffer. All that initial excitement about her choice of vocation, the sudden ability to actually pursue the dream she had always truly wanted for herself... yet none of it came. This is a woman who's always been fortunate. She has a natural knack for whatever comes her way, but for some reason this acting thing just didn't fall into her lap. So she crawled back to the one person she didn't want to turn to. She used her husband's connections to get a gig, even if it hurt inside to rely on the power of others.

And Don realized it was all something of an illusion. Watching that audition tape, he sees Megan as this beautiful, charming creature. It's all surface level perfection: the dream second-wife. But that doesn't automatically ensure happiness. It eventually creates this numb feeling, this gnawing pain that prevents him from any kind of action, and the only way to get over it is to finally get it removed. God, that read harsh. But the intention is there.

"The Phantom", of course, wasn't just about Don and Megan. Breaking from tradition, it was a finale more concerned with tying up loose ends from the rest of the year than trying anything truly experimental or particularly interesting. But what it lacked in narrative 'specialness', it made up for in gorgeous scenes for most of our regulars.

It never seemed hugely popular among fans, but I found Pete's affair with Beth pretty absorbing, if only because there was always this sense that something traumatic was lurking right around the corner. In a testament to how unique Mad Men is, Beth didn't turn out to be 'crazy-crazy', with the violence or the erratic quality or the Glenn Close hysterics. Instead, she turned out to be literally 'crazy', in that it was all pretty sad and awful. Beth represents the truly tragic 'trapped woman' of the era. Any hint of depression is followed up by psychiatric analysis, and a quick-fix is electroshock therapy. Even worse, it's implied that this is all an easy get-out for what seems like a run of infidelity on her part. Have an affair, get your mind wiped. It's harsh and terrible and something that stuck with me for days. I'm assuming this form of therapy has evolved over time (Carrie Fisher gets it regularly and she insists that it's saved her life), but the fact that Beth seemed to have been pushed into it by those around her made the whole thing so horrible.

Pete's final analysis of his recent decisions could read as clumsily literal, but I found it to be particularly moving, Pete talking to this blank slate who has no memory of the effect they had on each other. It's like a death but arguably worse, all those feelings Pete experienced all for null because that woman doesn't exist anymore. What initially appeared as something sexy and irresistible is suddenly somebody fragile and abused, more a troubled little girl than an opportunity for escape. We leave Pete once again punched in the face and humiliated. No matter how many minor victories Pete seems to experience, his volatile decision-making and general dissatisfaction always leaves him looking ridiculous. He just hasn't got it in him.

Julia Ormond unexpectedly stole the show this week, being perceptive about her daughter (I loved her line about having an "artistic temperament" but not the talent itself) and uncomfortably open about Don's role in his marriage. I also really like her budding relationship with Roger. Roger himself was complaining only last episode that his pursuit of younger women had gotten old, growing bored with the total lack of challenge it takes in pursuit of casual sex. But Marie is his sexual and emotional equal. They've lived interesting lives, they see the world in similar ways -- and they both get their share of the best lines. They're also the type of people you'd probably think were huge assholes if you ever encountered them in reality, but on screen they're ridiculously fun. I hope their fling continues next season.

Don also got moments with two characters left on the sidelines after major events. There was Lane's widow, who was focusing her rage at her husband's work, in a decision that feels misplaced but is perfectly understandable. Then there was Peggy, who I didn't expect to appear at all. There was something so sweet about the two of them just stumbling into each other again at the movies, conversing like two old friends with a ton of respect for one another. Peggy seems happy at her new job, even if she's a little rusty like she said, but there's still that longing for Don's partnership. Likewise with Don. Despite his happiness that she's 'flown the coop' and is out on her own, he misses her, too. Their moments are always so special.

So where does all that leave us? Besides a couple of minor blips when it came to overt symbolism and mild clunkiness, I was just as engrossed by season five as I have been with every other year of this show. It pushed characters into dark places, tested your patience at times, and seemed to raise more philosophical questions than ever before. Few episodes didn't make me question my own feelings about sex and infidelity, or relationships and race. It's why Mad Men is that rare show still at the forefront of pop culture, even though it began six years ago. They're constantly evolving these characters, and having them make decisions that everybody has an opinion on.

That last montage saw Don seemingly walking away from his marriage (in one form, at least) and being seduced by his old emotions. He lost some of his edge being with Megan, but for the first time ever he seemed genuinely content and happy at times. I guess there's always that allure of the unknown, the attraction to what you don't have, and Don is always walking that tightrope. Maybe that's his destiny? Constantly struggling with that question mark, as much as it may hurt...

Notables

- I didn't talk about Don's visions of Adam, but I guess it was another 'phantom' that was haunting him, a literal representation of his pain and his lasting guilt over Lane.

- I have no idea what the dog-screwing meant, but I loved how completely unexpected it was. Plus Elisabeth Moss' grossed-out expression.

- It was endearing seeing Joan determined to raise things that Lane would have probably raised, keeping him there in spirit.

- Megan's friend Emily was stunningly beautiful. Like Heather Graham crossed with Julie Delpy. Thinking about it, the girl at the bar also looked like Heather Graham. Maybe I just have Heather Graham on the brain. Ah, Rollergirl.

- Clearly somebody in the camera crew has a thing for Rory Gilmore side-boob.

- I was surprised that Ginsberg never really went anywhere as a character. Unless it was wrong to assume that he would anchor his own stories, since he was more of an instigator for other character's subplots.

- Writing about this show has been intense -- primarily because it's a series that's so polarizing, since so much of the drama is rooted in human action rather than plot devices. Thanks to everybody who's commented and debated, and actually read these things despite me posting them days after the episodes themselves aired. I'll probably be quicker next year.

Quotage

Marie: It's a great sin to take advantage of hopeless people.
Megan: Hopeless?
Marie: [Take advantage of people's hopes.]

Harry: I need a window, Joan. I'm getting scurvy.

Ginsberg: I consider it a success if you don't have to go a single day without telling me I'm an idiot.
Stan: Tell you what, I'm so bored of this dynamic.

Joan: Tabling does not require a vote. It only needs to be seconded.
Pete: What is this, parliament?
Don: Is this meeting over yet?
Joan: No, it's not.
Pete: Don, I give you my proxy. I have things to do. (He leaves)
Don: We do that?

Marie: I wanted to spend Easter with my daughter. My husband is an atheist.

Pete: Let's go to Los Angeles. I've been there. It's filled with sunshine.

Pete: And then you'll leave, and what if you forget you love me?

Marie: [How is Regina? Did everyone enjoy your speech?]
Roger: Marie, it's Roger Sterling. I've used up all the French I know.
Marie: [Yes, we can talk. Megan's in the other room.]
Roger: What is Regina?

Joan: I know a dentist, he's in the steeple of the Chrysler Building. Even if he can't help you, you still get to see the view.

Marie: Not one thing you said was true. No dinner, no chaperone, and no conversation.
Roger: Stop being demure, you're already on the bed.

Previously posted at Unwelcome Commentary.

10 comments:

maxpower03 said...

Okay, so I've been reading around and general consensus is that the episode was more about Don's guilt, and less about moving on from Megan. Yeesh, I have no idea.

That's why it's so intense writing about this show! You get so wrapped up in what you think, that it all comes crashing down once you read that you're pretty much in a party of one.

Billie Doux said...

Mad Men is a complicated show, and it means different things to different people. Your opinion is as valid as anyone else's, Max. (Actually, I think your opinion is more valid.)

Josie Kafka said...

I second that validation, Max. Your reviews of this show are wonderful.

Jess Lynde said...

Yes, I didn't see anything wrong with your take on it, and I've read a variety of opinions. Certainly, your assessment of Don's arc this season seemed spot on. He tried something new, lost his edge, became dissatisfied with reality, and finally succumbed to his old ways.

I think he was truly happy when Megan was working at SCDP and succeeding. He thought he hit the miraculous jackpot with Megan after that Heinz pitch. She was the perfect combination of Betty and Peggy. He thought he'd finally found the ever elusive happiness. But then Megan turned out to be an individual with her own hopes and dreams. She didn't share her dreams with him, and didn't enjoy being part of his world the way he thought she did. And that was it. He gave her what she wanted so she wouldn't turn into Betty, but then the dream was over for him and he walked away and into that bar. Because his core is rotten.

Aaah, my own reality calls. Thoughts to be continued later, perhaps.

maxpower03 said...

Thanks, guys. And I wasn't fishing. Heh.

I think it's that I've never experienced this before, writing about a show that's airing right now that is all about varying interpretations of characters and their actions. Of course, it's what makes Mad Men so spectacular, but as a writer it's real scary, you know?

I feel like I should put together a post-mortem list after I write each review, since some of the stuff I've been reading over the last couple of hours is ridiculously profound.

Like Don "giving Megan what she wants", followed by him imagining that she'll "move on", as if he's fulfilling the desires of the women around him, and slumps back into his old territory because that's where he belongs...

Or "the temporary bandage for a permanent wound", which folds into most of the stories this year.

Or Megan as "the beauty", finally happy in the fantasy world of the commercial.

Gah. There's just a ton to sift through, and that leads to sweating and panic and worry over the fact that certain things flew right over your head.

Damn, I'm neurotic. And Jess, like always, your comment was perfect. I agree with every damn word.

Anonymous said...

This was definitely not Mad Mens strongest finale or season over all. But it had its moments but I don´t think that it will be enough for another Emmy.

Just some remarks:
- Peggy and Don watched "Casino Royale" and the song at the end was a James Bond theme. "Phantom" is also a crime syndicate in the world of James Bond.

- Adam had the mark of the rope around his neck.

- The fact that Megan played the role of the beauty complied with the chliché of the pretty girl with no talent. Well Megan didn´t get the role beacause of her stellar acting.

- A naked and drugged Roger at the end

- Bert wants an office

- How can Ginsberg get away with such a behaviour in front of clients and his superiors?

- I really hope that Don won´t go back to his old ways of behaviour because that would just be repetitive and boring. Maybe the marriage with Megan will be over but I want more than just a philandering Don. I´m somewhat a little sad that the writers developed the story of Megan and Don in that way.

- Petes monologue was really sad. There´s nothing that will make him happy. Strange that his first thought about the pool was a possible drowning of Tammy. Well at least he thought of his kid for one time.

- The only happy and content person at the moment seems to be Peggy and maybe Joan (interesting that Joan now as a partner wears glasses - maybe to look respectable?). The two persons who pursued her careers in this season.

My favourite scenes: Peggy/Don, the partners in front of the window and Don walking away from Megan. All Beautifully shot!

Max, thanks for your reviews they were really inspiring! Looking forward to next season ;)

Suzanne said...

Max,

I have loved all of your reviews and have checked for them every week. I agree that Don was walking away from Megan in some sense in this episode. I am not sure if that means he will leave her or even cheat on her, but I don't think she will be his sole focus as she has been all season. He feel for her magic just like he began, too, again while watching her tape, but as he'd did about 3/4ths into the tape, he realizes that much of her persona is an act. We really saw that with the way she back-stabbed her friend so easily about the job. He is beginning to see how spoilt she is just as her mom pointed out in the episode.

I am not sure where this leaves him, though. I agree with Jess that he seemed to want a more beautiful version of Peggy, but that isn't what he is getting with Megan.

While I was watching this episode, I wasn't overly excited about it, but like always with Mad Men there is a lot to think about afterwards and reading great reviews like yours is always fun.

Gracie said...

The bad tooth could have represented guilt, absolutely. Especially with the hallucination Don had of his late brother. But I also got the feeling that Don had realized Megan wasn't the perfect little wifey he thought she was, and was ready to move on. How dare she have a dream of her own, huh?

This episode made me melancholy. The James Bond song "You only live twice" can be interpreted as quite sad, and that's how it felt to me. Life is never what you think it's going to be when you're young. Oh, well.

Max, I think the dog scene was because Peggy was waiting for her boyfriend. Perfunctory mating. Doesn't say a lot about her relationship with her boyfriend.

I've enjoyed all of your reviews this season, Max. Thanks so much.

Jess Lynde said...

I don't think she was waiting for her boyfriend. I'm pretty sure she was in a hotel in Richmond, Virginia, to work on the ladies cigarette campaign. When she and Don saw each other in the theater they were talking about her upcoming trip, and he jokingly noted that it wasn't the Paris, France she had been hoping for.

So, to me, that final scene was further confirmation that things weren't quite turning out like she hoped, but for her that was okay (unlike Don). Instead of opening her curtains to a glorious view of the Eiffel Tower, she gets dogs humping. And yet, she just closes the curtains and settles in on her hotel bed with a content smile. Peggy's actually got a shot at finding some measure of happiness in this morass. I hope she gets it.

Suzanne said...

Jess,

Thanks for the great explanation of the dog scene. That makes total sense since it fits so well with her scene with Don and as a contrast to him and Pete and even Roger who all seem to need the fantasy.