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Monday, June 11, 2012

Mad Men: "The Phantom"

Coming on the heels of the back-to-back sucker punches to the gut that were “The Other Woman” and “Commissions and Fees”, the finale of Season Five could be deemed uneventful, and perhaps even lackluster if we’re being completely honest. But in the closing sequences the episode gave fans much to look forward to in Season Six.

Let’s start with the ending, which gives us as much of a cliffhanger as a show like Mad Men ever will. While it seems highly unlikely that next season’s premiere will pick up with Don’s answer to the beguiling women at the bar, that pause of contemplation does give fans their own pause. Will Season Six Don be back on the prowl?

It’s a disconcerting moment, since it comes right after we see Don cave in and give Megan what she wants, a chance at the Butler shoes commercial. We are not shown to what extent Don had to push for Megan or whether she earned the job through her skill, but it seems pretty clear that Don has had to do something to get her in the spot. If so, we know that would mean Don had to give up something of his precious image. Don values being the calm, cool, collected man above the fray, the guy who doesn’t want anything and never needs a favor. It’s the Don Draper persona, the suit he puts on in the morning to keep anyone from seeing the whore’s child Dick Whitman.

It’s telling that it took so much for Don to get to this point. Not only did Lane have to kill himself, in a way that essentially made Don feel partly responsible, but his dead brother Adam had to appear before him in a dentist-induced hallucination, and he had to see just how messed up wife’s relationship is with her mother. He also had to hear Joan’s heartbreak over Lane’s suicide, including wondering whether she could have made him happy by giving him what he wanted, the same thing that the Jaguar dealer wanted. Finally, he had to see his wife’s smile on the projector and realize that if he had it in his power to make her happy he should do it.

Given that realization then, what is he going to tell the blonde? Is he alone? Well, yes, but so is everyone, really. Don’s decision will depend on whether his new philosophy to make people happy extends to himself. Perhaps he will realize that he’s not happy in a monogamous relationship, or perhaps he will realize the opposite, that a happy wife makes him happy.

Don’s not the only person struggling to find happiness, and to do it without hurting other people. Roger is finding bachelorhood wanting, but he can’t convince Madame Calvet to drop LSD with him. Peggy seems to be a little stressed over this whole women’s cigarette thing. (I assume these are Virginia Slims, and it seems fitting that Peggy might be the one to come up with, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”) Of course, Megan can’t get what she wants without screwing over the blonde bombshell who asked her for the favor in the first place.

And then there’s Pete Campbell, who gets knocked out for the second time this season, this time by someone who seems far too egotistical to go hanging himself in his office. Howard Dawes is the kind of man who doesn’t seem to broken up that his china doll wife is off getting shock treatment in the hospital, and even though Pete is essentially guilty of the same crimes, he takes offense, baiting his fellow commuter into a fight he must know he can’t win.

The scene where Pete pours his heart out to the recently wiped clean Beth is the first time in a while that the show has succeeded in making us see Pete as a somewhat sympathetic figure. Pete’s self-realization, that his marriage and family are just a temporary bandage on a permanent wound, serves as a nice serve-up to the audience. Pete’s shallow need for attention, gratification, and even adoration obviously all go back to a lack of parental love and support. Pete’s father was openly dismissive of his advertising career and his mother seemed to think of it as an amusement. They both felt it was beneath his blue-blood pedigree.

It’s another way in which we see the similarities between Pete and Don, however little Don would credit the idea. Witness how chipper Pete is when informing Don that, thanks to expansion, Pete will soon have the same view, and Don’s gruff, unimpressed reply. Don’s response to a childhood short on love was to burn the bridges to his past and create a whole new persona, one that needed nothing and no one. Pete instead tried to earn the love that was not forthcoming, and in doing so wound up becoming needy and insufferable. But somehow they seem to have reached the same conclusion, that they are not the men they think they are, that the lives they’ve built are cover stories, and that maybe it is time to let the real men out.

It’s a testament to the brilliance of the show that the final music cue of the year is so apt. “You Only Live Twice” both encapsulates the theme of the episode (everyone is negotiating the space between their real life and the life they dreamed of) and establishes the comparison of Don, the impossibly suave ladies man, to that other fictional creation, James Bond. The question as we head into Season Six is, will Don be a double agent?

Other Thoughts:

-“What is Regina?” Roger gets line of the night yet again.

-I’m sure someone smarter than I am can explain the thematic relevance of the scene where Peggy watches two dogs going at it. Also, are we to take Peggy’s going to bed alone as a sign that Abe is out of the picture?

-When the “brief nudity” disclaimer popped up before the show started, how many would have bet on Roger Sterling’s ass being the occasion?

-The moment when Pete, and by extension the audience, realize that Beth doesn’t remember him at all was extremely well-executed.

-Next year, on Mad Men: Cooper gets an office! Harry Crane provides exposition! Megan Calvet is cast in the off-Broadway production of Hair, leading Don to have a heart attack! Pete Campbell gets punched again!

-It’s been really fun writing these reviews, and I’ve been really pleased with the number of people who are reading. Thank you all, and please, feel free to leave comments, ask questions, etc. I love talking about Mad Men with people who love the show. See you all in Season Six.

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