TV Korner: Mad Men 5.13 – “The Phantom” (Bill’s Take)

By bill - June 13, 2012

Or, the one where SCDP starts making real money, Megan starts acting, and everyone comes to realize they will be alone forever.

Mad Men Season 5 came to a close with an episode that offered less plot than the frenetic pace of the past few weeks, but some even closer looks at this ongoing character group-portrait, and a surprising amount of closure to this tumultuous season.

SCDP’s quarterly numbers are in, and the company is squarely in the green for the first time ever. They are doing so well, in fact, that they plan to expand the offices to a second floor. Some of the money that came in was on behalf of Lane’s life insurance policy, adding to the mix one final tragedy for the lost numbers man– he proved to be a greater asset to the company after he died than when he was alive.

Most of the partners don’t seem to be bothered at all by Lane’s passing, except Joan and Don, who each carry their own guilt. Don is haunted over Lane’s death, and the similarity to his brother’s suicide back in season one– so much that he is seeing an apparition of his dead brother everywhere. Don’s attempt to remedy the situation? Throw money at it, it in the form of $50,000 he offers to Lane’s widow. She tells him off in one of my favorite scene of the night, forcing the ad man to admit that he’s only going through with this act of charity to make himself feel better. Joan regrets not acknowledging Lane’s advances. She brushed him off the same as she would any other unwanted sexual advances, but I think she’s come to realize Lane wanted companionship more than anything else… the chance to not feel so isolated and alone, and denying him that leaves Joan feeling remorseful.

Lane may have been the most reserved and secluded employee at SCDP, but he certainly wasn’t the only one dealing with heavy feelings of isolation.  I kind of figured a character as major as Peggy wouldn’t disappear when she left the agency, and this week proved me right, as we get to see an already more confident creative director in her new environment, chewing out some junior art designers and taking on a new client, a women’s cigarette.  All season long, Peggy was marginalized and ignored at SCDP so her finally being in a position where she is able to shine is a big deal, but one that’s bittersweet, especially when she reconnects with Don randomly in a movie theater. The scene is acted so well, as Draper is both incredibly proud of and just as hurt by his protege, while Peggy shares a similar mixed feeling of finally being appreciated… but really wishing it was by Don at SCDP.

Pete’s also been dealing with some loneliness, which has been the cornerstone of his relationship with Beth. While I agree with Adam’s review that their tryst was one of the comparatively low points of the season– and there was some fairly painful dialogue in their last meeting in the hotel room– the scene in the hospital as Pete discovers Beth, freshly after the eletroshock therapy her husband enforced on her, doesn’t remember him at all. Pete and Beth’s brief cover story as to why he was in the hospital sums up his arc this season pretty perfectly. Why did Pete get into this affair?

“Well. All the regular reasons, I guess. He needed to let off some steam. He needed adventure. He needed to feel handsome again. He needed to feel that… he knew something. That all this aging was worth something because he knew things young people didn’t know yet. He probably thought it would be like having two tall drinks and feeling very very good and that he’d go back to his life and say ‘That was nice.'”

“When it went away. He was heartbroken. And then he realized everything he already had was not right either. And that was why it had happened at all. And that his life with his family was some temporary bandage on a permanent wound.”

Megan is well on her way to becoming my new favorite character on the show, and this character, who has slowly revealed herself over the span of the last season and a half has come to be both a great foil for Don and also the best kind of person to support him. Since Megan quit SCDP to pursue her acting career, she’s been oddly sidelined in some ways, back to a world where she is struggling and failing, less confident in herself and her position in the world. Her inability to land acting work leads her to some compromises, and she finally snags a part… in a commercial which she sniped from an acting friend and had Don help her get. Megan’s season ends on the set of the job, dressed as a princess in a fairytale set. It’s a far cry from crying in her bathroom, after being dealt a harsh round of practicality from her mother (who’s every bit as antagonistic about her daughter’s dream as her father was for it)… and it’s just as telling when you consider Megan has been the personification of the cultural change going on in the late 60’s, threatening to move right past Draper and his fellow ad men.

Megan being sequestered to her small, boxy fairy tale set as Don walks away was a powerful image, and the real climax of Don’s journey this season. Draper has tried all season to change and adapt– he knows the world is changing quickly around him, and the pressure has been on to keep up or risk being left behind. That see-saw struggle has been a major part of the entire season, as the conflicted Don tries to adapt to the contemporary world and also be a better man, a better husband and a better father. In his mind, he’s failed at all these things– Lane’s death, his isolation from Sally, knowing he could lose Megan to her new career at any moment– have lead Don to make a choice. As he walks away from the cultural revolution, he punctuates his statement at the bar, confidently ordering a “big Old Fashioned,” confirming that he’s done changing and adapting… the world can feel free to go on without him.

This rejection of the cultural shift aside, Don isn’t happy as he walks away from Megan. More than any other character, Don has abandonment issues and can never deal with being alone. With Megan beginning to work her dream job, can Boston be that far away for her? And in a heartbreaking move, the season closes with Don apparently reverting back to his old ways completely, as he gives the eye to two women at the bar.

All our characters are alone in their closing scenes of the episode… Roger, once again using LSD as a crutch to “modernize” himself stands naked in front of his window, tripping balls. Pete sits in his emotionless home alone, wearing headphones. Peggy, who finally got to fly somewhere for work, watches two dogs doing it in the parking lot of her not at all luxurious hotel room. And Don, while surrounded by other patrons at the bar, has come to realize that even with a perfect woman like Megan– just like he realized during the Jaguar pitch– he can never own her. And from his point of view, that means he will always, truly be alone.

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