“The Phantom,” Season Five’s brilliant finale, hung a lantern on several aspects of season five that make it different from previous seasons. I almost noted last week that we’d gone the entire season without a notable flashback or dream sequence, and this week Don started seeing the spectre of his suicided half brother Adam Whitman, obviously brought about by the trauma of Lane Pryce’s suicide last week. Don’s flashbacks and visions were a major touchstone of seasons 1-4, so season 5 is notable in withholding them from us until the very end. Likewise, in our season 5 “precap” I asked how many episodes we could make it before Don was unfaithful to Megan, thinking 5 seemed too far. But as the last shot of “The Phantom,” draws our attention to, Don just made it through an entire season of MadMen while remaining faithful to his wife. This ought to be a cause for celebration, but the tricky nature of the last shot led us to wonder if Don’s monogamy streak might be coming to an end. These two season long streaks were very deliberate on the part of Matt Weiner and the writers, and using them together to great effect gave a fitting impact to Don’s story in the finale.
The first shot of the episode was of Don putting a whiskey soaked cotton ball on an abscessed tooth. He’d spend much of the episode avoiding the dentist, but in obvious pain that he could not hide from Megan. What should’ve been as obvious to us as Don’s pain was that the tooth was symbolic of something else in his life. When Megan exhorted him to go to the dentist, at one point he said, “It’ll get better, it always does.” Most of us are familiar with the form of denial that keeps us from getting medical attention when we need it. But a thing that will get better because it always does is equally a thing that will always come back and cause more pain. And when he finally does seek attention for it, once he’s breathed the nitrous oxide, a vision of his dead half-brother tells him explicitly what we all should know, that the tooth is just a manifestation, or symbol, of a larger problem. (See this article’s epigraph.)
So what is the deeper problem of Don’s that ‘will go away’ because ‘it always does?’ I submit that it is his well explored pathology of depression and philandery, and for that reason the answer to the “will he or won’t he?” question posed in the final scene is likely to be, “he will.” Let’s look at the same question from another angle.
Don and Peggy had a wonderful scene this week wherein both had escaped work to an afternoon movie to “knock the cobwebs loose.” Don busted Peggy’s balls a bit, but the tone of their conversation was collegial, until Don became morose. Speaking of Peggy leaving the nest, he said, “That’s what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on.” But it was clear that he did not have full faith in this statement. Keep in mind he tried to help Lane last week and Lane moved on to the grave. He’d tried to help Adam in season 2 and Adam took his own life. So when he said this innocuous thing to Peggy, was he really trying to pitch himself on this idea that he can help others successfully? And from there Don reverses his decision on letting Megan star in a commercial. So having come to whatever realization he did when he said to Peggy, “That’s what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on,” he decides to help Megan. Then, help given, he walks right into a bar and makes googly eyes at the first pretty young thing to saunter up to him. Is he helping Megan so he can keep her, or helping her so that she’ll “succeed and move on?” That’s a question we’re meant to be asking ourselves until next spring.
In the closing montage, as Don has left Megan to her work and bellied up to the bar of destiny, we only get season ending shots of four characters: Peggy, Pete, Roger and Don. Peggy’s on her first business trip, learning how unglamourous business travel really is most of the time, Pete’s listening to headphones trying to shut out the rest of the world, and Roger is naked in a window, presumably having dropped acid again. After these we see Don’s final scene, which begs the question of his continued fidelity to Megan. It is my fervent hope that the closing focus on these four characters is an indicator of what we can expect next season, a tighter focus on these four who’ve always, for me, been the lifeblood of the show.
Peggy’s return was touching, and encouraging to those who would be crushed if she left the show for good. It seemed to indicate that we’ll continue to follow her exploits at her new firm in upcoming seasons, and I’d say it’s reasonable to believe that Peggy will eventually be the person who names Virginia Slims and gives them their famous tagline, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Which would be fitting, because in the show’s five seasons, who’s come a longer way than Peggy?
Pete’s story this week was complex and dark. He saw his former paramour Beth Dawes on the train, and she later called him at work hoping to arrange a tryst, but when they do meet she informs him that she’s shortly going in for Electroconvulsive Therapy, and not for the first time. This shocks Pete, (pun intended,) who’d have thought he was at least twice as depressed as Beth was. But Beth is a smart cookie and too far gone to fall for Pete’s ad lines. Note the following exchange, after Pete declares that he ‘loves’ Beth:
Beth: I don’t know you and you don’t know me. We just happen to have the same problem.
Pete: I know, but we’re only sad because we’re apart.
Beth: Oh, then I was wrong.
Pete has a sort of longing for his lost youth, a desire to feel new love and feel it returned, so Beth’s presence is enough to cure his unhappiness or her absence enough to cause it. (Not unlike Don’s tooth.) But Beth has clinical depression. Though her affect around Pete is normal, if she’s willing to endure shock treatment, Pete’s not really bringing her out of her depression, even temporarily.
When Pete goes to the hospital to visit Beth after her treatment, she doesn’t recognize him, he’s been consigned to the “grey cloud” that the treatments put around her recent memory. But in the guise of an anonymous visitor, Pete is suddenly able to give away more of himself than he has all season, in one of his most tender and touching moments. His long self-examining speech to her (pretending to be speaking of a friend,) doesn’t look like much on the page, but Vincent Kartheiser brought a surfeit of meaning to the words: “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.”
Pete would later get into a fight with Beth’s husband Howard on the evening train home, the bruises of which have the unintended consequence of causing Trudy to relent to Pete’s need for an apartment in the city. For a moment, as Trudy was consoling him at the end, I thought she was going to say that their family could move back to the city together, which would’ve been ideal for Pete, but instead she stops refusing to allow him a pied à terre, which sad to say, he will almost certainly use for cheating on her. I’ve made no secret that I’m a Pete fan and always hope the best for him, but this week’s episode did not make him look like the hero of the show, or even the hero of his own story. Instead he’ll now run the danger of turning Trudy into another Beth, abandoned, sad, and lonely in the suburbs. We’ll simply have to hope against evidence that his outrage at Howard’s treatment of Beth informs his own actions in the future.
Roger’s story this week brought him back to classic Sterling form, the jokester, riding above the inconveniences of life. He even pretended to be Emile on the phone to get in touch with Marie. Once he had her to speak to though, we realized it was not just a hook up he wanted, but for her to accompany him on his next acid trip. When she declines, we’re led to believe that he goes ahead and trips solo, but the real puzzler here is what is going to become of Roger next season? Will he be in a Nehru jacket or a Tie-Dye? LSD is obviously a very seductive drug to it’s adherents, but Roger is a very rich New York republican. He still wears three piece suits and tie clips. How will he reconcile his newfound hobby with the subculture that is going to spring up around it starting in 1967, aka season 6? It’s sure to be the beginning of some strange times for all, but for Roger, perhaps, in particular.
Though season five is at an end, I’ll put another column in this space next Thursday with some closing thoughts on the season as a whole and a cursory look forward to season six. Thanks for reading. It’s been both a business and a pleasure.
Odds and Ends:
Peggy’s absence was seen to hurt the dynamic within the creative staff. Ginso lacks the tact that is necessary to deal with clients, which was one of Peggy’s greatest talents. I love Ginso, but his talent needs to be counterbalanced by something or someone if he’s to remain at SCDP.
Don’s scene with Rebecca was moving, but odd. It’s happened a few times that the women of MadMen seem over eager to blame Don for problems with their men. Mona blamed Don for her divorce from Roger, for example. I suppose this is the cost of being Don Draper, and that the blame and scorn heaped on him by these women occasionally is the flip side of their unspoken desire for him.
The music that played as Don and Peggy’s movie started was the theme from Peter Sellers’ Casino Royale. I truly hope that’s the film they saw together, it would’ve made for a great date.
I doubt season six will start in the SCDP offices, but I’d bet big money that the first shot in the SCDP offices prominently features the staircase Joan roughed out in the new office space.