Mad Men recap: The Phantom

Sorry I’m a couple weeks late with this post, but I’ve been terribly busy  and I haven’t gotten a chance to watch the season finale of Mad Men until last night – and you know what they say about something being worth the wait: this episode was probably my favorite of a season which I think was the best so far. Some expressed disappointment at a POW! cliffhanger – instead, the season closed with a quiet whisper (definitely not a whimper).

As most of you remember, this was a season of huge changes: Betty got fat, Lane killed himself, Joan made partner, Peggy left SCDP, Sally had her period, Megan returned to acting, Roger’s on LCD, Pete’s been going through an early midlife crisis, Kinsey came back as a Hare Krishna and Don’s lost his “it” factor. So, it seems fitting that the season closer is a bit more subdued.

Don’s got a nasty toothache – or as he called it, a “hot tooth.” He’s nursing it with cotton balls and booze, ignoring the pleas of his wife and Joan to see a dentist. The toothache of course makes him irritable – more so than usual. It’s interesting that Don finds himself with this uneasy ennui because the firm’s doing great. Unfortunately, some of that good luck is a result of Lane’s suicide: death benefits keep rolling in. Don wants to appease his guilt over Lane’s death by handing back the initial $50,000 Lane invested to his widow: it doesn’t go well, as Rebecca Pryce is understandably bitter and angry – not only is she dealing with her husband’s death, but she also has the pleasure of discovering things about her secretive husband in the wake of his death (she didn’t know about the $50,000 investment). Instead of taking Don’s condolences with grace, she lashes out at him and throws him out of her apartment.

It’s too bad because Don needed something to assuage his guilt. Unfortunately, Lane’s suicide is also bringing back memories of Adam – his long lost brother that also hanged himself. Don’s not responsible for Adam’s death either, but he’s connected to it – and so he now has to contend with his guilt manifesting in hallucinations of Adam everywhere. When Don finally goes to a dentist, in the haze of the nitrous oxide, his doctor’s transformed into Adam – complete with a nasty purple bruise from the rope he used to kill himself. Don’s a mess because in both cases, he feels he couldv’e done something to prevent these men’s deaths, and he feels he fell short: when he reassures Joan that there was nothing she couldv’e done to stop Lane from killing himself, Don was trying to convince himself, as well. This is classic Don Draper: trying not to deal with feelings by blithely explaining them away and then drinking himself numb.

Pete’s had it rough, too. Throughout the season, his sense of self has been severely shaken and so he takes up with a buddy’s wife to feel virile and handsome again. The affair doesn’t last and Beth ends the affair to Pete’s chagrin. In this episode she calls him – he’s petulant because he’s Pete. In a funny moment, he orders his secretary to run out for some Life Savers. She reasonably asks him why he couldn’t go to a vending machine, and he tersely responds, “I like them fresh.” Fresh Life Savers. If there ever was a more Pete-like response, I never heard it. On the phone, Beth asks to meet Pete at a hotel. He’s not happy, but he complies. In the room, he finds out that this is one last hurrah: Beth is going in for electric shock therapy. I don’t know much about this controversial treatment, but apparently, it often wipes memories clean – it doesn’t seem to treat depression, so much as helping the patient forget she was depressed in the first place. Pete’s appalled at this idea, but Beth is resigned: she’s a vet at this, and she knows it’ll work. For a while. Later, Pete’s on the train, and Beth’s louse of a hubby, Howard, is on the train. Pete can’t hide his disgust and it bubbles over in an argument that turns into a fist fight, which Pete loses; he then turns on the conductor after being ordered to apologize, shoving the guy and gets socked in the face by him as well. Another thing we learn this season: Pete’s not great at fighting and he’s continually getting the garbage beat out of him.

I started to feel warm about Pete – he’s gallant, after all, fighting to save the honor of his girl. Then I remembered that Pete’s already got a girl – a great one, Trudy. He comes home, his face looking like raw hamburger. He lies and says he fell asleep at the wheel of the car – Trudy’s mind is made up, he gets an apartment in the city – and PRESTO CHANGO! Pete’s turned into Don.

As for the ladies of Mad Men, it’s Megan that’s got the bulk of the episode. Her terribly chic mother, Marie – played by the fabulous Julia Ormond – is visiting. Ever since she started her recurring role, Ormond’s been nothing less than fabulous. She’s the right mix of prickly hauteur. She should be promoted to full cast member if the show’s producers know what’s best. While her mom’s in town, Megan’s had some bad luck with her acting career – she’s hit a wall and her only hope is an audition for a commercial that SCDP is filming. It’s interesting how Megan learns about the commercial: her friend asks her to ask Don for an audition; Megan double crosses her and wants the audition for herself. Don’s surprised because he always thought that Megan felt advertising was slumming; he rightly pointed out that she should be pursuing her career on her own, instead of using her marital connection.

I always found the Megan plot lines to be a bit, well, blah. I like the character enough, but I find her to be a bit virtuous which in the Mad Men universe translates to a bit dull. It’s good that she’s gotten some of her less attractive traits out in this episode, it makes her more interesting: for example, Megan backstabbing her friend. Or her almost-childish reaction to her stalling career – her simpering “it’s hard” perfectly encapsulates what Marie meant when she called her daughter spoiled. And the relationship between Marie and Megan is obviously full of baggage – it doesn’t help that Marie seems to be borderline verbally abusive to her daughter.

But Marie doesn’t hang about the Draper apartment all the time. Roger calls up the house repeatedly throughout the day, hoping to catch Marie – instead each time Megan answers, he hangs on the phone and Megan starts to think she’s got a pervert calling her (how apt she turns out to be, huh?). Finally when Don, tired and dazed comes home and answers the phone, Roger puts on a broad, fake French accent that would make Pepe Le Pew blush. Don thinks it’s his father-in-law and calls for Marie to get the phone; she hurries to a hotel and the two pick up where they last left off. He then puts the brakes on, and asks that she take LSD with him – she refuses, reminding him that what they have is NSA. Satisfied with that, he continues to make love to the evergreen beauty.

While all this misery is going on, there’s light: Peggy’s new job. She’s adapted well as head of creative, barking orders at her minions. She’s been assigned the future Virginia Slims and she gets to travel (!) to Virginia on a business trip: it’s her first time on an airplane. It’s touching to see just how far Peggy’s moving and how her talent’s really blossomed. Don and Peggy have a surprise date at the movie theater. During the day he ducks into the theater and sees Peggy, blowing off steam. The two hug and start talking – I’ve missed these Peggy and Don moments – Elisabeth Moss and Jon Hamm play the scene beautifully – there’s still regret and sadness in Don for losing his protegé. There’s also a sadness with Peggy, but a steely strength, too. When he says he’s proud of her, we believe it – the only thing is Don was sure he’d be around to witness Peggy’s meteoric rise.

The final moments of Mad Men seem to heal us from all the turmoil of the past season. Peggy’s in her hotel room, in Virginia. She looks out the window to the grand view of the parking lot to see two dogs mating. It seems fitting that even though she’s moving ahead, she’s still not where she wants to be – but there’s no self-pity with Miss Olson.

Joan shows the other partners the new space for the offices. A new beginning – it’s nice that something fresh will come out of the angst of the fifth season.

Don watches Megan’s film reel and sees that she has magnetism and that the camera loves her. We all knew she’d get the job and it’s confirmed when she’s prepping for a scene, dressed as Beauty for a “Beauty and the Beast” concept for Butler Shoes. He leaves the shoot and ends up in a bar, only to be propositioned by a woman – and we’re left wondering if Don will go back to his caddish ways.

The fifth season was a tremendous season – again, I’ll repeat myself, it’s the best season so far. There are some wishes though for the final season – namely Betty and Sally – I would’ve like to have seen what happens to their characters. Betty gaining all that weight really took away a huge weapon in her arsenal: her beauty (not that she wasn’t stunning even as a heavy person – it’s just that she looked so different). Sally, on the other hand has matured into one of the most interesting characters in Mad Men.

If Emmy voters are reading this, please take note: Hamm and Moss both deserve leading acting nods; Jared Harris should get a supporting actor nomination for his wonderfully bruising performance as the doomed and damaged Lane Pryce; Christina Hendricks should get a supporting actress nomination for her versatile performance as Joan – she’s had a lot to do and did it all perfectly: she was at turns, funny, sad, angry; Kiernan Shipka also should get a supporting nod for her scene-stealing role as Sally; and January Jones did some great work as Betty – because her role is greatly reduced, I think she should compete with Hendricks and Shipka for supporting actress; finally the grande Ormond should not only be nominated but win for her work as Marie in the guest actress category. Also, it should go without saying that the show should get nominations in writing and directing – the dialogue on this show is miles ahead of any other drama on network TV right now.

Aside from the stellar acting and writing, this season’s also attacked gender roles like it never did before; the women ofMad Men from Peggy all the way to Sally have all gone through transformative changes that will impact the show: Peggy’s always represented change and it was obvious from her constant tussles with Don that she was indicative of a shift that Don wasn’t prepared for. Not only did she blaze a trail for other women at SDCP, but she was part of a youth culture that Don was slowly being alienated from. Her departure, while inevitable, was still shocking and sad: as her abilities grew, she became more and more like Don (professionally). Don couldn’t have handled having a woman be his equal, no matter how much he respected and loved her – Peggy would also always be Don’s spin off and never her own show. So, she had to leave.

Joan’s elevation to firm partner came at a huge personal cost. She prostituted herself to secure an account for the agency and to secure a future for herself and her child. Like Peggy, she’s representing a shift in culture – she’s a single mom, her estranged husband off to war in Vietnam. Unfortunately, her professional advancement has archaic baggage: while she takes one step forward professionally, she also takes two steps back: she’s partner, but she didn’t become so because she was terribly bright, uber-competant or hard working (all of which she actually was), but because she’s gorgeous and a sleazy ad exec wanted to sleep with her.

Like Joan, Megan also lives with a tension – a desire to break out on her own and become a working actress, but falling back on sexist crutches – her husband. Unlike all of her struggling actress friends, she doesn’t have to eat out of tuna cans and share apartments with crowds of ingenues – instead, she’s the kept wife of a rich Mad man; and while, in her core, she’s a decent, kind person – she still falls back on her envious circumstances – particularly her connections with Don, when things get difficult for her.

Unlike the other female characters, Betty’s self-worth has always depended on Don; because she’s no longer married to him, she’s left adrift, trying to figure out what she wants. Her growing waist only mirrors her growing dissatisfaction with her stable, if unremarkable marriage. The Lady Macbeth routine of past seasons hasn’t been completely eschewed: she’s still devious and quick to hurt people around her – including her children – to inject  her stunningly boring life with some life.

And finally, we come to Sally, who is starting to discover that the grownups  who are supposed to be responsible and accountable are fallible. Her mother’s aborted act of sabotage a few episodes back, backfired: not only did Sally emerge victorious when Betty spitefully mentioned Anna Draper, she earned some battle callous when she realized that her mom did not hesitate to stoop so low as to use her as a way to hurt Don. She also is growing up, very much Don’s and Betty’s daughter, inheriting some of their uglier qualities including his meanness and churlishness and her pettiness and vindictiveness. I know a lot of people laughed when Sally spun idyllic tales of Don sharing stories and pictures of Anna to spite Betty: I gasped and a chill ran down my spine – Sally could be just as awful as Betty.

Even though the female-driven plots were most interesting, Pete’s and Lane’s stories were also fascinating, and I wonder what the next season will do with them. The fallout of Lane’s suicide hasn’t really been discussed yet – except for a sad look at an empty chair during a meeting, it appears business as usual. Pete’s fecklessness also has to be addressed, as does his depression.

So, I hope you enjoyed my recaps of Mad Men.


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