TV Talk: MAD MEN 5.13 “The Phantom” - Meredith’s Take
And thus ends one of the best seasons of television I have ever seen, in a visually stunning and narratively perfect episode written and directed by Matthew Weiner. Not with a big, dramatic event - that happened last week - but with a series of small character moments and quiet stories. And that's just as it should be. Mad Men Season Five held a tremendous amount of change: Megan and Peggy left SCDP, Lane committed suicide, Joan got a divorce and a partnership, Sally got her period, Roger's a free man, the business almost failed and then flourished. And all the while our stoic anti-hero, Don, has been trying to stay afloat through the tumult. This week, he almost went under, but he just might steady himself. I hope he does.
Hulk wrote in his terrific post on the finale that Season Five was about the solipsistic journeys of each of our characters, and that the final montage of this week's episode demonstrates that more than anything else. And while that's definitely true - each character strikes out on his or her own in some tangible way this year - I think for some characters, that solipsism is a very good thing. For almost all of the women, certainly. Peggy and Megan have forged brave new paths for themselves. While they both flounder a bit this week, fearful of that vast unknown, they both come out on top. Megan may have needed Don's help to land the commercial, and she is probably ashamed of that. Don is probably a little ashamed for her. But as we see her in the spotlight in her fairy tale trappings, doted on and glowing, we know that she will thrive here. She's never been supported by her parents in that fundamental, emotional way we all need. A little bit of support from Don, and Megan is luminous. I wish she hadn't stolen the idea from her friend to use Don to land that commercial, but it was a rare selfish move on Megan's part. Everyone's allowed a little selfishness occasionally.
Peggy may have struggled a bit with her new freedom and responsibility, but she is still taking the lessons she learned from Don and clearing out the cobwebs. As Don says, she'll beat it. She always does. And as Peggy stands alone in that hotel room in Richmond, Virginia, hoping for a beautiful view out of her window and instead seeing two dogs humping, she still beats it. She smiles with satisfaction and sits on her hotel bed, queen of all she surveys. I traveled for work for the very first time recently, and I felt proud. I felt significant. Peggy has a job where she is important enough to be the one who travels for the first time in her life. And it suits her just fine.
Joan suffered an indignity to win a post that she should be able to rightfully earn, but now she's a partner. And she is great at it. She is proud and competent. She's still doing the jobs the other partners don't want to do, dealing with real estate and opening the mail, but she is the newest partner, so I guess that's fair. But she's growing into the role with ease and she remains strong and unrelenting around the other partners, refusing to cow to their typical bullying.
And Sally's a woman now. She's got a boyfriend, and her period, and a fancy grown-up dress and waiters bring her coffee when she asks for it. Betty, in her few short scenes, has even grown this season. She is learning to be a good wife to Henry. And now she knows her daughter needs her, and that means something to her. These women have all come into their own this season, and the men are struggling behind them. Well, except for Roger. He's naked, free, tripping, all alone and loving it.
But the way the women on Mad Men are rewarded for their bravery and independence, and the way the men labor to break even in their wake, is more than anything what Season Five has been about for me. The phantom in "The Phantom" isn't Megan's acting career, or Peggy's trip to Paris, or Joan's equality at work. They're chasing those goals, and some of them may be further off than others, but I have no doubt they will all get there. The men are the ones doing the phantom chasing here.
Lane suffered the most from this dynamic, unable to tell his kind, strong wife how badly he'd bungled his affairs. Lane's phantom was to be considered indispensable. That could manifest itself through prosperity, or through the photo in his wallet of a woman who flirted with him on the phone once, or for his wife to admire him rather than coddle him. But he never caught that phantom. His wife told Don, "You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition." Lane always knew deep down that he was a man like that, one who can't even be trusted with ambition.
Pete's phantom is to be liked and important, to be needed. Beth was depressed and that had nothing to do with Pete. To use his wise analogy, he was the temporary bandage on her permanent wound. But she was vulnerable and she needed something, and he wanted her to need him. But nobody ever needs Pete. Pete wouldn't know what to do with someone who does.
Ginsberg's phantom is to be respected by Don. He knows his work merits it, and his fiery temper and utter lack of social niceties make him explode whenever Don dismisses him. Stan may be tired of that dynamic, but I can't wait to see where it goes next season.
And what is Don's phantom? Don Draper is nothing but phantoms. He wants absolution, but Lane and Lane's widow and Adam and Anna and his mother and his own bottomless guilt, creating an abscess in his heart like that rotting tooth caused in his mouth, will never absolve him.
And Don does not want to be alone - except for when he just wants to be left alone. He does want Megan on his time and his terms, and he married a fierce person who will not bow to that. As he watches Megan's reel, he battles with pride, love, regret and fear in a staggering performance from Jon Hamm. Perhaps he doesn't want to get her that commercial because he thinks she doesn't want it that way, but I think mostly he simply doesn't want to lose her. She is Megan Calvet - not Draper - in that bright light that leaves no room for him. It's just what he said to Peggy: "That's what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on." "Don't you want them to?" "I'm proud of you. I just didn't know it would be without me."
So what do we think of that last scene with Don and the girls at the bar? Surely he is struggling with his oldest instinct, to abandon before he is abandoned, as Hulk said. And surely he appreciates being admired moments after he left Megan in the admiring hands of those working on the commercial with her. But we haven't seen any woman approach Don in a very long time, for as often as he sits alone at bars, looking inexpressibly handsome. Maybe having the strength to give Megan her freedom and his support - and the strength to leave that rotten tooth on the counter - gave Don a little bit of his swagger back. Let's hope he does good things with it.
For all the sadness in this season of Mad Men, I think it ends on an ultimately hopeful note. After all, what could be more hopeful than the partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce standing in that big, empty office, overlooking downtown Manhattan and all of the promise therein?
Read this season's Mad Men TV Talk posts here.