Mad Men: "The Phantom" - Shock to the system

Andy: “Are you alone?”

Last season we ended on an answer: Megan accepting Don’s proposal of marriage. This season, we end on a question intent on upending everything contained in that answer. We end with Don, in an absolutely gorgeously shot sequence, striding away from a shrinking pane of color and light, into a darkness that renders his suit a sort of camouflage. We end with Don in the glow of a bar strikingly similar to the one at which we first met him, with all the cyclical, cynical regression that implies.
I’m already seeing very strong, very mixed reactions to “The Phantom,” many of which reiterate the range of sentiments towards season five as a whole. While there are a great many things to discuss about this finale, I’d like to start with a topic we’ve returned to nearly every week. No: Mad Men is not a subtle show. Has it ever been? More importantly, would it have any business being? At its core this is a melodrama. Subtlety is not in the DNA of the genre. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Done well, melodrama is as valid and potent a narrative style as any.

For my money, “The Phantom” was a fine exercise in that style from beginning to end. And in the tradition of grand melodrama, the moments that worked best were the ones of naked, heightened emotion – like that final montage, or Pete’s soul-searching (and ultimately self-pitying) confession to a post-treatment Beth*, or the lingering shot of Lane’s empty chair while Joan waits for someone in the meeting to poop the party. There have been episodes this year with more indelible scenes (Don and Joan at the bar), episodes with more impressive performances (Peggy’s long-awaited goodbye), episodes with more pure entertainment value (any edition of Roger Sterling Bribery Theater). But “The Phantom” wound up most of the season’s character arcs nicely, closing some doors and opening others.

*Beth having all traces of Pete Campbell’s existence wiped from her memory offers the first completely non-controversial benefit of electroshock therapy ever.

Les: It’s only been a couple of hours since I saw the finale, and truth be told I’m not quite sure where I fall on it. I’m certainly not in the camp that thinks it was a bad episode and emblematic of the show losing a lot of traction this season, but at the same time I also feel more than a little underwhelmed. It did tidy up a lot of arcs – Pete’s affair and city apartment, Peggy’s new professional stance, Roger’s “life-altering experience” – but it lacked the revolutions of previous finales where Don would blow up the agency or impulsively propose marriage. Previously we’ve faced new beginnings, uncertain but new all the same; here, we seem to have found ourselves in a holding pattern. Don still doesn’t understand his wife, Pete’s still dissatisfied despite having a remarkably understanding Annie Edison to come home to, Roger’s always going to find a new woman to serve as a bandage on his insecurities.

And yes, it wasn’t subtle in any of this. But curiously, that didn’t really bother me beyond making a couple cracks about it on Twitter. As our friend Daniel Walters noted in his column last week, while the show’s been less subtle this season around it’s also been a more entertaining show in a lot of ways. There’s been a heightened reality that’s produced some lively moments alongside the quieter character scenes – Lane sending Pete to the floor with a right cross, Roger hearing orchestral music as he opens the vodka, Megan zou bisou bisouing her way across the room. We’d never see these moments from the characters as they were in season one, emerging from the quiet Eisenhower years. As the show’s reminded us constantly, times are changing, and they’re doing so in bigger and bigger ways. Faced with that reality, the only reaction for the agency and the show may be to react in kind. (Our This Was Television partner Noel Kirkpatrick speculated that it could be the show adopting more of the 60s/70s campy melodrama elements, which I think would be a neat little trick if intentional.)

And in terms of not so subtle messages in “The Phantom,” the biggest one was Don’s toothache. Surprise, surprise, there’s a pain in Don’s life he can’t soothe (even with Budweiser-coated cotton balls) and he ignores it thinking it’ll eventually go away – but instead it rots for days and days. And once again, when Don’s in pain, Don hallucinates. Given the episode’s title I was expecting a ghost who walks at some point, but I thought Matt Weiner would take advantage of Jared Harris’s final episode as a member of the regular cast and have Lane* be the messenger. Instead, we get Adam Whitman, the first person Don thought he was doing a kindness to by sending away and who took their own life in response, glimpsed twice out of the corner of Don’s eye and once directly under the influence of nitrous oxide. No resolution, no epiphany – just a reminder that Don’s demons are “hanging around”** and he’ll never fully outrun them.

*Not that Lane’s ghost was absent from the episode – between his empty chair in the partners’ meeting and his iconic red armchair now sitting vacant in Rebecca’s apartment, the specter of his absence hung large over the episode. And not ever Bert Cooper’s willing to ruminate in that office.

*Even Roger Sterling would say “too soon” to that joke.

So Cory, how’d you feel about this one. Too broad, or just broad enough to be entertaining?

Cory: I’m also of mixed mind on this one. I don’t recall a Mad Men finale that felt so much like a traditional TV season finale. We’re used to the “summary of individual stories equals a book of themes” approach from the season, and usually, that results in a finale with some compelling concluding thoughts (or exasperating ones, if we’re talking about “Tomorrowland”). “The Phantom,” however, is all about bring together all the major stories we’ve seen play out over the previous dozen weeks: Don struggling to convince himself that he’s happy, Pete realizing that he’s not happy (and would prefer to have sex with Rory Gilmore over Annie Edison), Roger trying to find something related to happiness and a whole lot of dread. Major guest characters like Beth and Megan’s mother return. There’s just a massive sense of summing up here that I’m not used to, a sense of being stuck. I’d guess that some of that comes from Weiner knowing for sure there will be more of the story.

In some ways, this approach makes sense. The whole season has been so focused on the permeating dread, so it stands to reason that the finale only reminds us that despite all their attempts to prove the contrary, most everyone on this show is miserable. Pete and Roger try to fix their misery with sex and drugs and unsurprisingly, Don just avoids his.

But on the flip side, the lack of subtlety really got to me here. I appreciate your perspective Daglas, and I love Noel’s arguments about the campy turn, but with Don’s tooth, Pete’s big speech to “Beth” and even ARE YOU ALONE at the end, it just felt like too much. I agree that Mad Men hasn’t ever been that subtle of a series, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be, but sometimes Weiner and company can go overboard with flushing our systems with THIS IS THE THEME, STUPID. I can deal with that screaming when character and plot machinations are better. Here, they weren’t.

For better or for worse, this finale fits right alongside the rest of the season.

Andy: Well if they are consciously mimicking contemporary TV aesthetics, I cannot WAIT for the manic chase scene we get next season, set to either a Brit-pop ditty or “Yakety-Sax.”

In all honesty, though, perhaps a change in tone or focus is on the horizon. If the show’s taken to directly articulating its goals, then perhaps a couple of clues about same were hiding in plain sight this week, voiced by tertiary characters in two fleeting scenes. First, Stan announces to the creative team, “I’m so bored of this dynamic.” Later, Trudy laments to her sadsack spouse, “This doom and gloom – I’m tired of it!”

There were times this season when I was right there with both of these wise souls. Wouldn’t it be fascinating if season six began transitioning us away from the Story of Don (nee Dick Whitman) Draper and towards the story of Peggy (nee Margaret) Olson? The more I think about the closing image of “The Phantom,” the more it strummed with the vibe of a series, not season, finale. Don’s vicious cycle has returned to zero position. Peggy’s trajectory is decidedly upward. What if their lovely chance encounter at the movies was sort of a passing of the baton? Twenty-four to 26 more episodes examining the perpetual discontent of Don could easily become wearying, whereas Peggy – capable of reinvention and discovery, but also of stubbornness and regression – makes for a more fitting protagonist to carry us through the late 1960s. Even if just for one week so far, she’s the only character to remain within the show’s universe after leaving the agency’s.

Okay, it’s not likely to happen. Weiner’s made abundantly clear that this is Don’s ride, and he’s going to wring every drop of brooding and scotch and nihilism out of it he can. But how terrific would it be if it did? Or am I the only one who thinks Mad Men, after five seasons, is due for a Dylan-goes-electric caliber shake-up?

Les: Truthfully, I think the show already had its Newport Folk Festival moment at the end of season three, when Don decided he ain’t gonna work on PPL’s farm no more and blew up the agency to start working out of a hotel suite. That was a tectonic shift in the personal and professional lives of a lot of characters and dramatically changed the show in more ways than just building a new set, and I think Weiner and company consider that enough on the major level. They’re far more concerned with micro changes – a broken marriage here, a resignation there – and gradually weaving the show’s tapestry from there.

Do I think the show needs that shift? I don’t think we need to completely reorient the focal narratives, but I think what the show does need is an attitudinal shift. This was a very dark season in a lot of ways – the mid-life angst and loneliness of the partners was amped up considerably, the show emphasized the imagery of death in elevator shafts and real-life serial killers, and of course poor Lane Pryce’s sudden resignation from this mortal coil. When a character was happy, like Don drunk on newlywed bliss or Roger coasting from his electric Kool-Aid acid test, the three of us kept asking how long that was going to last. Even when the show got more experimental, with the three parallel storylines and Don’s dream sequence, the atmosphere was still very unsettling and crawly, showing us in stark detail how alone or “dirty” everyone was. Going back to “Shut the Door, Have a Seat” again (easily my favorite of all Mad Men season finales) that was a very hopeful “We’re putting the band back together!” episode, and this finale came across as very hopeless.

So I guess from that perspective, I’d like to see more of Peggy’s story, if only because she’s the one things are going well for without drugs or adultery. I don’t think the show needs to switch leads, but it does need to keep her in the forefront because this is as much her story as it is Don’s, and at the moment hers is simply going better. She’s leaving the office to the Kinks while Don’s drinking alone* at a bar to Nancy Sinatra.

*Speaking of, one other unsubtle gesture there: Don orders an Old Fashioned. Though that’s been his drink of choice for years, most notably when he made one for Connie Hilton, so it’s a long-running reference.

And on that note, I can’t say how happy I was with that scene where Don and Peggy reunite before Casino Royale starts off. There was a lot of fear after “The Other Woman” that we’d seen Pegasus spread her wings and fly away from the show, but here she is brainstorming a cigarette pitch (a very famous one as history proves) and clearing the cobwebs out of her head just the way Don taught her. Don had to go through five stages of grief in five minutes at the end of “The Other Woman,” whereas here he’s able to see Peggy for the first time as a professional equal he can talk shop with. There was no taking credit for everything she’d earned, no demonstrations of what the money was for – he admitted she did the right thing by leaving and finally told her he was proud of her. And that felt about as close to a happy ending as this season’s permitted.

Cory: As long as Peggy remains a primary focal point in the coming seasons, I’m OK. I think Weiner knows how important she is to this story, so it’s not as if she’s going the ways of Sal, and putting her in the middle of a story that should see her pitch one of the bigger cigarette-related campaigns ever, I think we don’t have a lot to worry about. However, it will be curious to see how Don’s middling despair matches up with what could (maybe even should) be a story of triumph for Pegs. Or maybe I’m just hoping she triumphs; based on this show and her initial trip to Virginia, things don’t look especially great for our favorite rising-star copywriter.

On the tonal front, I’m super-intrigued about where this story goes next. Andy, you’re not the only one to note that this felt more like a series finale than anything else, but clearly Weiner knew that there would be two more seasons. With that in mind, one would think that maybe season five was one of transition. The firm is certainly in flux, with all sorts of great financial news surrounding Lane’s untimely demise. Theoretically, there’s more story to tell there. Personally, I have no problem watching two more seasons of Don and Pete being substantially miserable, if only because the actors portraying those characters are fantastic, but the way the story is constructed right now, won’t it be more of the same? Pete is getting his NYC apartment and is fully self-aware about his problems now, but does that change anything? Now he just has less restrictions and even more temptations. I can’t see him settling down and being happy after all.

And for Don, that final scene terrifies and excites me all the same time. He spent the entire season trying to convince himself that this was it, that he was happy. After a slew of tumultuous events and even more stressful, intense conversations with his wife, there he is, watching her screen test. I’d love to hear what you guys took away from that scene. For me, it felt like Don was seeing the woman he wanted to have, the image of that great wife. And in that moment, he actually felt something and decided to give Megan the commercial opportunity.  But as soon as he actually sees her preparing on the set, that all goes away, replaced by darkness. Unsurprisingly, and as we predicted throughout the season, Don is not happy, and he’s mostly alone. …And now it’s time for a three-way.

Les: Well, Cory, I can’t speak for Andy but I’m certainly flattered, although I think there’s certain bounds of agency propriety that… Oh. You were talking about Don and the women at the bar. Um, well.

In any case, I’m equally thrilled to see what the hell happens next. We spent a lot of time talking about when Don was going to get his advertising mojo back, but there was another, darker side to him that was also repressed in his love leave: the amorality of his libido. After bedding five different women last year, Don was monogamous all season (stranglings aside), really committed to making it work with Megan. And now that he’s seemingly acknowledged it’s not going to work the way he hoped – much as Megan acknowledged she’d have to ply connections and work in commercials as opposed to making it in entertainment right away – are there any of us who doubt he’ll take those women up on their offer? Matt Weiner told the New York Times as much when discussing Don’s last expression in the finale: “But you recognize that guy when he looks up. We haven’t seen him in a while.”

So, we’ve gone on at length about the meanings and ramifications of the finale, let’s talk specific stories. I’d like to spend some time on our perennial favorite Pete Campbell, president of the Howdy Doody circus army and resident punching bag. He finally gets what he wants in another tryst with Beth, but of course it’s not the way he wanted it. Beth’s getting her depression shocked away* and doesn’t even remember him when he goes to see her in the hospital, leading him to spill his guts in a way he’d never do to his wife or the partners. And of course, so torn up by his ruined fantasy, he picks a fight on the train with Howard and the conductor, losing both in five minutes** and going 0-for-3 in the ring this season. Trudy takes so much pity on him coming home late that she agrees he needs a city apartment, and despite getting that gift he’s got no one to take there – just a place to put on his headphones and zone out, another temporary bandage on a permanent wound.

*First Angela Chase on Homeland, now Rory Gilmore on Mad Men. Is there some cable drama clause that if you were a teenage girl on network TV, you have to get ECT at some point? Who’s your prediction to make it a trifecta?

**Pete punchings are the new Joffrey slaps. I want an endless loop of both.

Andy, what’d you think of Pete’s storyline this episode? Was his speech and behavior part of the episode’s general lack of subtlety, or (like me) do you think that’s exactly what he’d say and do?

Andy: …wait, he was talking about Don? So what the hell did I get this drunk for??

First, I find it interesting that Cory thinks Peggy ended the episode on a down note. She sure looked awfully content to me when she settled onto that mediocre bed in that crummy mid-range hotel room with the dogs schtupping in the alley. I read it at as a moment of solitude in the midst of a challenging, empowering assignment, and a study in contrast. Peggy can find more peace holed up in the Richmond-Norfolk Holiday Inn just yards away from a gritty reboot of Lady And The Tramp than can Don with all the world before him, or Roger taking in the view from a luxurious Manhattan suite or Pete ensconced in his status-symbol speakers.

Ah, Pete. Only capable of opening up to someone even more deeply psychologically damaged than himself. I enjoyed him pouring out what passes for his heart to poor addled Beth, and not only because Vincent Kartheiser danced a very tricky dance superbly with such heavy-handed lines. I got a kick out of the contrast between the introspective melancholy of his delivery and the pathetic dimness of the speech itself. It played as, if not quite a parody of, then at least a knowing variation on, the ostentatiously poetic soul searching that only characters on TV do.

Was this intentional? Or was the show trying to play it straight and get us to empathize with Campbell? Who knows, maybe Weiner wrote that number and leaned back and said, “Golden Boy, you’ve done it again!” Doesn’t make it any less entertaining to me.

Cory, before I ask you to weigh in on your boy Campbell, I’ll cast a vote for Les’s electroshock prediction pool: let’s say Melissa Joan Hart in Magic City.

Les: Also, my pick for the electroshock prediction pool would be Mischa Barton on Breaking Bad.

Cory: The more and more I think about this, I realize that I’m the only person on the planet who feels something other than hatred (at varying degrees) for Pete. I don’t want to say I felt bad for him throughout this episode, but I was certainly…sad? I understand that Don is the cool one and Pete is the deformed, rejected version of him where all the cool machismo was replaced by scummy, blind ambition, but in a lot of ways, Pete is a much more interesting character to me at this point. Like Don (at times), he’s miserable beyond belief. He thought that certain things (promotion, nice office, nice house, hot wife, baby, etc.) would make him happy and now he’s realized all of that was empty wishing that’s been filled with nothingness.

But unlike Don, Pete can’t — or at least won’t — just start completely over. At one point in this episode, he asks Beth to move to California with him, almost as if he’s begging someone to let him pull a Draper. Clearly, he’s too weak to do it himself, which makes his decisions and overall existence less admirable than Don, but I sort of awkwardly admire Pete’s inability to just drop everyone and everything like Don would and could.

Moreover, at least Pete knows what his problems are. For years, Don’s been staggering — albeit confidently — through the world, trying to find meaning in his life. The problem is that he doesn’t really know what that meaning is, could be or should be, and so he just brazenly fills the void with whatever it is that comes up. Pete tried to do the same, but is now willing to admit that it was just a temporary band-aid. I’m not sure where he goes from here, but I do think it will be with more self-awareness and honestly than before, which is sometimes more than we can say for Don.

Keeping with our story focus, what did we think about Megan getting her break, and perhaps more importantly, screwing over her friend and cashing in a husband favor to get there? I thought that showed some real ambition and the sort of edge that Megan lacked in the initial episodes after she turned to acting. Of course, she also spent a chunk of this episode drunk, wallowing and telling Don all that she was good for was sex. She’s a handful.

Les: That might have been one of my favorite moments in the entire episode, when Megan’s friend asks her to talk to her husband about the commercial, and Megan turns around and asks for it herself. I had to shake my head and say “Megan, you are a terrible friend.” As you say Cory, it gave her an edge she’d been lacking, but in keeping with the theme of things rotting from the inside (that was a thing this season you guys, did you catch that?) it seems some of the cynicism of the office rubbed off on her in the way she’s achieving her goals. You can take the girl out of SCDP, but you can’t take SCDP out of the girl.

Megan’s been a little bit short-served for the back half of this season, the consequence of moving out of the agency’s orbit that a lot of characters fall victim to – Planet Sal’s way off by Pluto, and the transit of Kinsey only happened after a season and a half. Don’s gravitational force has kept her somewhat anchored to the action, but her various acting plots haven’t been the strong point of the season. Truthfully, this move interests me more because of the potential conflicts it brings back to the agency – Ginsberg’s earlier comment about how she comes and goes as she pleases is still in the front of my mind, and given his apparent problems* with being the head writer there’s plenty of frustration that could boil over.

*Between his hyped-up demeanor now coming across as desperation, mustard stains on his shirt and Stan openly needling the way their dynamic works without Peggy keeping them in line, I foresee a rocky road for Mr. Ginsberg in season six.

As to her drunken rant to Don, I think that’s part of the big picture in the season, that the two are trying to get past the honeymoon stage of their relationship and really make it work. Both of them have their own ideas about the relationship and hers keep changing, which confuses and upsets a Don Draper who doesn’t deal well with any sort of change. I don’t think Don actually wants her to be a kept woman, but he doesn’t want the other side of the equation where she doesn’t need him. It’s a process, and the fact that they made it so much a process after Don and Betty were living a lie for years has been interesting to watch.

And how about the meanness of Marie Calvert? She tells Megan she’s chasing a phantom and “Not every little girl gets to do what they want… The world could not support that many ballerinas,” and just encourages Don to “nurse her though this defeat and you shall have the life you desire.” Probably a good thing Roger didn’t convince her to take acid, as that would’ve been a bad trip.

Andy: For the record, Cory, I feel something other than hatred for Pete – as a character on my TV program, he’s terrific, even if as a human being he’s basically the gunk that gets stuck on your shoe when there’s gum on it.

Megan clearly wasn’t happy to see sa mère back in town, seeing as Marie had recently taken a course at the Katherine Olson School of Maternal Encouragement. But someone else washappy: Roger even went and learned, like, three words of French for her (making him officially 50% more pretentious than I was in the previous sentence). I have no particular opinioin about his dalliance with Mrs. Calvet, other than luxuriating in the charm of their banter. But I know that at least one of us was adamant that we discuss…let me see if I have this right in my notes…”Roger Sterling man-ass”?

Les: Hey, when at the start of the episode they put up the disclaimer “this program will contain adult content/nudity,” I think it’s worth at least mentioning. It may not be the full Rory I know you’ve been hoping to see for half the season, but we can’t have them all.

In any case, I just wanted to touch briefly on Roger’s clear desire to go back to the positive feelings instilled in him by his initial acid trip, first trying to get Marie to join him and then deciding to take the plunge himself in rather stark (naked) fashion. We knew that he admitted his enlightenment “wore off” last week, and we knew that even when he was happier he was still the same rat-bastard in a lot of ways, but the fact that he’s so willing to go back indicates that maybe we can take him off the suicide watch list. Being a ridiculously self-centered individual and a lazy one to boot, he’s more likely to keep popping dosed sugar cubes to keep the feeling going as opposed to implementing real changes in his life.

And I’m very interested to see how they’ll treat this new indulgence becoming a regularity, given the Summer of Love’s only a few months away. When we come back next year will Roger have quit the firm and run away to California, and we’ll see him in a tattered mud-stained suit around a drum circle at Woodstock?

Cory: I know that we’re looking to let cooler heads prevail and think about the bigger picture for a podcast coming “sometime next week,” but I wanted to close with a quick gauging of your guys’ thoughts on the season as a whole. The opening half of the season was really tremendous, and the second half had a smorgasbord of powerful scenes and moments. I liked so much of the dread. And yet, I’m struggling to really figure out where this one lines up against the rest. Obviously, it’s early, but I think maybe it’s way too early, as in we won’t know until the next season, or maybe the final one that comes after that. Maybe giving season five of Mad Men the “transitional” tag is too easy or too kind, but it feels appropriate, at least right now. Where do you fellas stand? And clearly, thanks for doing this with me over the last dozen weeks. It worked out better than I could have imagined, and I think readers enjoyed it well enough too.

Les: It’s tricky to decide where this one fits into the grand scheme of Mad Men right off the bat. There were certainly some spectacular episodes this season (I’d slot “Far Away Places” as my pick for the best) and plenty of moments that will stick with me weeks or months down the road. I’d like to say it’s the best yet because I don’t think I disliked a single episode we saw, but that’s because I’m in the camp that thinks Mad Men‘s that rare show that gets better the longer it gets on. Don, Peggy, Pete, Roger, Joan – the history between these characters only gets deeper the more time we spend with them, and the bad decisions they make hurt all the more for it. Objectively though, I’ll say I don’t think they lost a step from season four (my favorite) despite more overt messages, and this season’s certainly going in my top 5 of 2012.

And though it goes without saying, this season’s been made even better by having these discussions. More than any other show on TV, Mad Men invites discussion and debate, and it’s been as rewarding to get deep into the show with you gents as it’s been to watch it.

Andy: As the first season I watched live and as the first season I wrote about, number five did dig deeper into my brain that previous ones have. As a whole, I agree that it was mostly successful. I enjoyed the first half or two thirds of the season quite a bit more than the final stretch, when the grimness became more and more pummeling. I’m curious to see where the show plans to take not just our main characters but also the new ones, Ginsberg and Dawn, whose experiences and perspectives would be intriguingly different from the familiar ones and whose stories were only hinted at (if that) this year.

And I’ll round out the thanks to both of my roundtable writing partners this season, and to everyone who read at each of our blogs. It’s been enlightening, and not the kind that’ll wear off.

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