For the past few weeks, as season 5 of Mad Men has approached its conclusion, I’ve wondered about the Big Theme of this season. I should have just waited because the season finale made it abundantly clear.
As Megan lays in bed despairing over the lack of progress in her acting career, her mother Marie tells her to stop feeling sorry for herself. When Megan asks Marie why she isn’t more encouraging, Marie tells her that she is chasing a phantom.
It’s true for Megan, just as it is for Don and Pete, and to a lesser degree Peggy and Roger, who don’t get as much screen time this week. Each of these characters is chasing after something elusive, beyond their reach. The final episode is a microcosm of what the entire season has been about. Next week I’ll apply this idea to the entire season, but for now, let’s look at episode 513, The Phantom.
The episode opens with Don doctoring a toothache with cotton balls and liquor. Don will refuse to see a dentist until the pain becomes unbearable.
While Don gets ready for work, Megan gets the paper and the mail, which contains a film reel that she hides until after Don leaves. Megan’s mother Marie, visiting for the Easter holiday, notices this and calls her out on it, ironically telling her she shouldn’t keep things from her husband (what about Roger Sterling? Does Emille know about him?). Megan is embarrassed because she realizes she’s been tricked by a company promising, for a fee, to shoot a film reel and shop it around to agents and other casting types. Her resolve to make it as an actress is starting to fade, even though she’s only been at it a few months. Marie refers to Megan as hopeless, but covers the slight by claiming bad English. Marie, who cloaks her cynicism in a stoic realism, refuses to view her daughter through rose-colored glasses, a position that will lead to conflict later.
On the train to work, Pete gets a surprise when Howard and Beth Dawes sit with him. Robert re-introduces them and explains that Beth is going to visit her sister. When Pete asks where that is, Beth excuses herself to the smoking car. Howard follows, explaining under he breath that she’s in a mood. As Howard makes his way down the aisle, Pete reaches out and touches a scarf of Beth’s that hangs from one of her bags. It’s as if he’s caressing the mist the way it glides past him.
At the office, Harry shares an elevator ride with Joan, noticing that she’s hit 38 instead of 37. She claims a mistake. He asks if the rumors of additional space are true, but she gives him nothing. As they exit the car, Harry asks for an office with a window, claiming scurvy.
Behind them is Don, and as he leaves his car he sees a familiar face – his dead brother Adam dressed in a suit and coat. Don calls his name, but the man stares back at him blankly until the door slides shut, leaving Don bewildered. In the wake of Lane’s death, it’s interesting that the ghost, or phantom, that haunts Don is not the Englishman, but his own brother, who also hanged himself. I think this is significant because it points to Don’s deeper guilt and deeper shame – his stolen identity and what it has cost him.
In a pitch for Topaz, we get the first glimpse of wobble in the orbit of SCDP, post-Peggy, as Stan and Ginsburg strike out. Art, from Topaz, hates the tagline, and makes reference to an obvious lack of a female point-of-view. Ken sees Don out in the hallway, and waves him in to save the day, which he more-or-less does. But the most interesting thing about this scene is Stan’s line at the end, as they are cleaning up. Stan and Ginsburg are alone, bitching, and Stan says, “I tell you, I’m so bored of this dynamic.” How’s that? Is he referring to Peggy, his onetime nemesis? It’s the first we’ve heard of anyone at SCDP bemoaning the absence of Peggy, and it makes sense that it’s Stan, who worked more closely with her than anyone. It’s a nice, subtle touch.
Later, Pete gets a page from his secretary saying his sister-in-law is on the phone. He takes the call, only to find that it’s Beth. Pete doesn’t want to take a chance on his secretary eavesdropping on the call, and sends her to the lobby for a pack of Life Savers. Her response provides another nice touch. She annoyingly asks him what’s wrong with the machine, providing another point of contrast between Pete’s make-believe version of himself and the person the rest of the world sees.
Beth asks Pete to meet her at the Hotel Pennsylvania, the same place he waited for her in vain. He’s a jerk to her, but when she tells him it could be their last chance, it’s more than he can take. She tells him she’ll be checked in under Mrs. Campbell, underscoring a fantasy he’s most certainly played out in his mind and will even suggest when he’s with her.
We catch up with Peggy in her new office chewing out a couple of copywriters who look like they could still be writing for their high school paper. “Why is this so hard,” she asks, sounding like Don. “It has to be 125 words, and 15 of them have to be Ajax.” They are saved by Ted Chaough, who brings Peggy a challenge. He tosses a plain white cigarette carton filled with plain white packs of cigarettes to Peggy, explaining that it’s Phillip Morris’ new top-secret women’s cigarette that Leo Burnett considered too small to fight for. Ted makes it Peggy’s job to make Leo Burnett regret the decision. When Peggy asks for information, Ted has 3 cartons of research and tells her, “smoke it, name it, sell it.”
Cigarette companies were big billers in the sixties, so this innocuous looking cigarette carton comes loaded with pressure. It’s an early litmus test of Peggy’s ability to live up to the reputation she earned while working under Don’s tutelage.
Joan conducts the partner’s meeting, reporting a huge profit – the best quarter in SCDP’s history. Despite this good news, the mood is anything but jubilant. Pete is distracted by the call from Beth, Don is hurting from his toothache, and Joan is still nursing guilt from the way she rejected Lane the Friday before his suicide. Joan adopts Lane’s role as the group’s contrarian, the balancer of his salesmen partners, trained to always point out the sunny side of any disaster. “I’m sorry, but I feel someone has to voice the negatives,” tells them, suggesting that they should wait for another positive quarter before going on a spending spree with added space. It turns out Peggy isn’t the only one missed at SCDP. The meeting falls into confusion, with Joan trying to reinforce Robert’s Rules of Order. Pete fires off a crack – “What is this, Parliament?” – that seems aimed at Lane, but before anyone can answer, he gives his proxy to Don and excuses himself, citing other business. End of meeting.
Pete goes to Beth and treats her coldly until he finds out she isn’t going to her sister’s, but to the hospital, where Howard has checked her in for electroshock therapy. This news alarms Pete. He tells he she’s not crazy, but as she explains what shock treatment does (she’s done it before), he’s repulsed. She tells him that it erases chunks of memory, and she doesn’t want to forget him or what they’ve done. She asks him for one last fling, as though an insurance policy against forgetting. Her confession and request obliterate the fantasy he’s created, and at first he’s angry. But as she repeats her request, his resistance gives way to desire, and sleep together once more. Afterwards, as Beth dresses to return to the hospital, Pete concocts a new fantasy – escape. “Let’s go to Los Angeles. I’ve been there. It’s filled with sunshine.” He seems to believe that she’s only sad because she lives with an oaf like Howard, and that a change of venue, and husbands, will change everything. He aims the fantasy at her, but it’s as much for him. It’s also an eerie echo of Don’s earlier experiences: begging Rachel Menken to escape with him, his trippy sojourn in LA and the desert, and his trip there with Megan and the kids. Los Angeles represents, like it did in the 19th century, a place to go and start over, to re-invent oneself. Beth says she can’t do it. When Pete asks why, she tells him, “it’s so dark, Pete. I get to this place, and I see this door open and I want to walk through it.” “That’s for weak people,” he tells her. “People who can’t solve a problem.”
When she asks him to zip her dress, he grabs her playfully. “And then you’ll leave,” he says. “And what if you forget you love me?” “Oh Peter,” she says. “I don’t you, and you don’t me. We just happen to have the same problem.” She sees what’s really going on, referring not to love, but to their emptiness or even mental illness. “I know,” Pete says, misunderstanding her point. “But we’re only sad because we’re apart.” “Oh. Then I was wrong,” she says, underplaying the moment. She says she needs to go, and when Pete asks why, she tells him the shock treatment works.
As this plays out, Megan and a new girlfriend, Emily, read through the casting notices at Megan’s place. They gossip about Julia, jealously dismissing her short stint on Dark Shadows that ended up with her getting fired after three episodes, then edited out of the show.
After Marie makes an appearance, Emily asks Megan for a favor – to ask Don to secure an audition for a commercial for Butler shoes. Megan tries to sidestep the request, but Emily is determined. Finally, Megan promises to ask.
Later, when Don arrives home from work, Megan makes her move, but instead of asking Don to help Emily, Megan asks him to audition HER. In her desperation, she betrays her friend and asks Don to do something that puts him in a tricky spot.
Don reacts predictably, torturing her until she asks if he realizes how hard it was for her to even ask. He responds by asking if she knows how hard it would be to ask the owner of the shoe company to hire his wife. Further, Ken, Stan, and Ginsburg will be there, and they know who she is.
These reasons Don gives Megan for not hiring her are curious when you consider that he had no problem with nepotism when he was trotting her into work every day, leapfrogging her over people with more time on the job, if not more talent. He proudly promoted her fledgling copywriting skills at the American Cancer Society gala. But that’s when it served his purposes. Now that she’s moved on, this is something he can withhold.
She gives up, telling him to forget she ever asked. But she tosses in a line that you wonder whether it was said as one last ploy. “It’s just been…so hard,” she tells Don. Is this good acting, or is she sincere? Don says he does know, but tells her she doesn’t want to make it this way. She wants to be the discovered one, not the boss’s wife. She agrees with the logic, but you don’t sense she really buys what he’s saying.
The phone rings, and Don answers as Megan goes to fix him a drink. It’s Roger, faking a French accent, asking for Marie. Marie picks up the living room extension, and quickly shoos Megan out of the living room and back to Don. Don takes the drink and tells Megan he’d hire her if he could, but he can’t. She agrees and excuses herself to take a bath. Once the bath water is on, she breaks down in tears.
Roger invites Marie to have dinner with him at his hotel. She knows what he wants, and makes him promise to lower his expectations before she agrees to the offer. Roger promises, of course, and they make a date.
This sequence ends with a shot of Don alone on the bed, the same as before, with a drink in hand. The sound of bathwater can be heard behind the shut bathroom door. It’s a picture of isolation. Could it be trouble?
The next morning, Don arrives to a crowded office. People are everywhere. As he walks down the hall, he glances into an office and his brother Adam glances back at him, sitting at a typewriter.
Don gets no time to consider the image because Joan is waiting for him in his office. When Don asks what he can do for her, she beats around the bush, citing the space issue as the reason for her visit. She quickly abandons office space, and gets into money. First, she tells Don that she has been trying to be the cautious one, but it doesn’t seem to matter because money is falling from the skies right now. “That’s the idea, isn’t it?” Don asks, sensing there’s more.
Next, she presents Don with an envelope containing Lane’s death benefit, which proves just how wonderfully sneaky Matthew Weiner is. In episode 508, Lady Lazarus, Pete is presented as a red herring when his company life insurance policy is used to get closer to Beth Dawes. At the time, I saw it as some foreshadowing of Pete’s mortality, but it was Lane.
Joan tells Don the check is for $175,000. ‘What’s your question?” he asks. “Why would he do this?” “You’ll never get an answer,” Don says. “You can’t think about that.” “But I do, and then I can’t stop it. What could I have done?” “Nothing,” Don says, displaying his trademark detachment that allows him to reinvent and move on. Joan confesses her guilt, thinking that if she’d just slept with him, he’d still be alive. “And now there’s this, this profit,” she says, waving the check.
Don moves into problem solving mode, asking Joan how much Lane had to put up after Lucky Strike left. She tells him $50,000. He tells her to cut a check for that amount to Rebecca, Lane’s wife. He’ll deliver it. She asks if they should put it to a vote, and he says no. She seems relieved to have shared her guilt and to have a man taking care of her.
Meanwhile, Megan can’t drag herself out of bed. She’s too sad to get up. I’m sorry, but isn’t acting supposed to be tough? She just quit SCDP and went back to school a few months ago. What does she expect? Marie comes in to get her up, thinking these same thoughts. She tells Megan to get out of bed and stop feeling sorry for herself. She even seems to take Don’s side, accusing Megan of withholding children from him. When Megan asks why she isn’t more encouraging, Marie tells her she’s chasing a phantom. “Not every little girl gets to do what they want,” Marie says. “The world could not support that many ballerinas.” “Is that what you tell yourself?” Megan asks, getting her dig in. Marie calls her an ungrateful little bitch and leaves her to her self-pity.
Don goes to see Rebecca Pryce, and we learn that no one from the agency flew to England for the funeral and Rebecca refused the offer of a company memorial service. She’s bitter, and she has no money, but she maintains a polite façade, asking Don to sit. When he presents her with the check, she rises to signal that the meeting is over. Don won’t let it go, telling her it’s enough money to really help. But Rebecca sees the money for what it is, a guilt offering, and tells Don he had no right to fill a man like Lane with ambition. She really lays it on Don, accusing him of frequenting brothels, and to his credit, he takes it, never telling her the truth about her husband. She leaves him with a cryptic farewell, telling him that “It was more than $50,000 that already belonged to him. So don’t leave here thinking you’ve done anything for anybody but yourself.”
That evening, Pete arrives home to find Trudy feeding Tammy in the kitchen. She shows him plans for an in-ground pool that they’ve considered. Pete cracks open a beer and stares at the rendering, commenting on how permanent it is. Trudy agrees, pointing out the family in the drawing. Pete looks at the little girl, who stands at the edge of the pool, and says, “Tammy could drown.” As if on cue, the baby cries and Trudy scoops her up and takes her out of the kitchen, telling Pete she’s tired of his somber mood.
Marie finally makes it to Roger’s hotel, and they end up in bed. Roger uncharacteristically breaks the mood by bringing up Lane. “One of my partners, he ended it all,” he says. “You’d have to be so sure you were going someplace better, wouldn’t you? I think maybe that place is here.” “Why are you saying this?” Marie asks. “Would you take LSD with me?” Marie says no, and asks Roger not to ask her to take care of him. She, like he usually is, is only in it for the sex. But Roger is chasing a phantom of his own – he wants to replicate that great experience he had with Jane. LSD gives him temporary relief from the pain of regret that must surely dog his steps.
While Roger pitches LSD to Marie, Megan is home getting drunk. This is how Don finds her when he gets home from work – sprawled out on the couch in the clothes she wore to bed the night before. She tries to get up, but falls on the floor. He helps her up, and gets her to bed. On the bed, she pulls him to her, but he holds back. She tells him that sex is all she’s good for. “This is what you want, for me to be waiting for you,” she says. “It’s why you won’t give me a chance.” She’s referring to the audition for Butler shoes. He tells her that’s not true. “I know, I know,” she says. “It’s either that, or I’m terrible. But how the hell would you know?” He tells her to sleep off her drunk, and leaves her in bed, where she falls into crying.
If there’s a false note in this episode, it’s how quickly Megan has fallen into despair over not making it as an actress. A couple of episodes ago, she was lecturing Don about how she wasn’t giving up, no matter what. And now she’s in a tailspin of depression and boozing? I think the key is Emille, who seems to have encouraged her dream of being an artist. The tensions between Emille and Marie were likely played out with their children, as though the kids were chess pieces in a lifelong game of marital chess. Megan seems like a spoiled child in this episode, and spoiled beauties aren’t used to having to grind things out. They’re used to being given what they want when they want it. So, Megan’s behavior in this episode might best be viewed as a sophisticated temper tantrum.
Don encounters Marie in the living room. She’s just returned from Roger’s. He accuses her of negligence, for leaving Megan alone and drunk. Marie shrugs off the comment. “She’s married to you. That’s your job. She left my house a happy girl.” “And you show up, she’s miserable,” Don counters. “I know it’s hard to watch, but this is what happens when you have the artistic temperament but you are not an artist,” Marie tells him, referring to both Megan and Emille. “Take my advice. Nurse her through this defeat, and you shall have the life you desire.”
Based on the evidence we’ve been given, Emille appears to be an impractical dreamer. Living with him has taught Marie, by necessity, to be practical, if not a little cold. It’s interesting advice she gives Don, and his application of nursing Megan through this defeat in order to have the life he desires may not match up with what Marie implies.
The next day, Don goes to the dentist, where he is scolded for waiting so long to get attention. As the dentist numbs the area around the soon-to-be-extracted tooth, he tells Don he’s lucky he didn’t lose his jaw. A mask is fitted over Don’s nose, and he’s told to breathe. The dentist leaves the room, and Don closes his eyes. A shadow passes by Don’s face, and when he opens his eyes, he sees Adam standing there, dressed in his workman’s clothes with a rope burn around his neck. Don’s shock is muffled by the drugs. “You’re in bad shape, Dick,” Adam says, calling him by his real name. “What are you doing here?” Don asks. “I lost my job when I died,” Adam says. “I’m gonna do you a favor and take it out, but it’s not your tooth that’s rotten.” Don can hardly keep his eyes open. He begs Adam not to leave him. “I’ll hang around,” Adam says with a straight face before breaking into a smile and asking Don if he gets the joke.
It’s interesting that Don asks Adam not to go away. With Don, you’d expect him to cuss out the phantom and tell him to beat it, that he has better things to do than wallow in the past. Could this signal a change in Don, brought on by the shock and guilt of Lane’s suicide? Might this be a cue to another level of change that Don will go through next season? It seems to. This season, Don has seemed like a model for a catalog, posing as a husband and father, rather than actually being one. The first half of the season was Don desperately trying to emulate a happy, domesticated husband, but when Megan left, the façade began to crumble and fall apart. Their fights became more frequent. Don nearly shacked up with Joan. Lane’s suicide seems to have tightened the downward spiral of Don’s marriage.
Later, Don wakes from the drugs, dried blood on his lips, missing one tooth. The dentist tells him to take it easy the rest of the day and lay off the cigarettes for 24 hours.
The saddest moment in this somber episode may be the encounter with Pete and Beth.
Pete bluffs his way into the hospital, claiming to be Beth’s brother. He’s brought to her room, and quickly finds that what Beth feared about the effects of shock treatment have come to pass. She doesn’t know him. This realization is a shocking blow to Pete, who had found one person who seemed to know him for who he was, and yet didn’t reject him.
Pete Campbell is an easy guy not to like, but this scene is so beautifully written and performed by Vincent Kartheiser that your heart can’t help but break for the guy, despite the circumstances he describes.
Beth, eager for company, asks Pete to stay and talk to her. He has told her that he’s there to visit a sick friend. When she asks about the friend, Pete tells her a story – his story.
“He got involved with another man’s wife,” Pete says. “Is that what put him in the hospital?” “No…the complications.” “Why did he do it?” “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 knew something, that all this aging was worth something because he knew things young people don’t know yet.” He pauses. “He probably thought it would be like having a few tall drinks, feeling very, very good, and then he would go back to his life and say, ‘That was nice.’” “But then he got sick?” Beth asks. “When it went away, he was heart-broken. And then he realized everything he 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.”
It’s a story much better than anything we got from Ken, his rival, but Pete, like Don, isn’t in the business of dealing with his deepest motives unless forced to.
Beth tells Pete not to worry. “They’ll fix him up, here. They’re very good.” Pete tells her he’ll be fine, and then excuses himself.
With doctor’s orders to take it easy, Don goes to the movies, an old habit. As he makes his way down the aisle, he spies a familiar person – Peggy. When the scene cuts to her, it’s interesting that she sits with her left arm across the top of the seat next to her, a cigarette dangling from her hand – an inversion of the Mad Men logo that shows Don seated in a similar pose. Peggy has so modeled her life on Don that she apes the tiniest gestures. At this point in her development, she is still figuring out who she is. She’s still laboring under the shadow of her mentor. The decision to move was a healthy one, and time will be the best shaper of her true identity – the further she gets away from Don, time-wise, the better chance she’ll have of becoming the person she wants to be.
Don and Peggy share a warm hug, and he sits with her. It’s awkward, but they both seem genuinely happy to see the other. After Don gets settled, he asks Peggy if she’s lost her job. “No. Did you?” she asks, flipping the joke. They share some small talk before he comments that she hasn’t been on the new job long enough to need to avoid the office. “Just knocking out the cobwebs,” she says. “Someone told me this works.” She’s referring to Don, of course. “So, it’s going well?” Don asks. “Yeah. Is that okay?” Don pauses. “That’s what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on.” “Don’t you want them to?” Peggy asks. Don looks at her and smiled. “I’m proud of you. I just didn’t know it would be without me.” This must be huge for Peggy to hear. Don’s like a father to her. “Well, put me on your call list,” she tells him, attempting to normalize their relationship.
Pleasantries aside, they get to what they love – the work. “What are you working on?” Don asks. “We’re trying to get that women’s cigarette you were after.” “God, I miss that easy money,” Don says. “It’s easy to have,” Peggy says. “It’s not easy to win.” Don looks at her again as if seeing her anew. “You’ll beat it,” he says. It’s as if he’s acknowledged her as an equal, fellow soldiers who have shared the same battles. It’s a beautiful scene, sure to set up future encounters between these two.
On the train home, Pete is awakened from sleep by Howard, who is happy to be free to do as he pleases for a few days. He invites Pete to go back to the city with him, to get into trouble. “You’re the most disgusting person I’ve ever seen,” Pete tells him, not caring about hiding his secret. “How could you do that to that woman? You just couldn’t wait to get her in the hospital and erase her brain.” The cat out of the bag, Howard tells Pete, “she always spreads her legs for the first chump she can find.” At this, Pete lunges and Howard and they roll around the car, fighting, until Pete ends up on the floor with Howard over him. Howard lands a punch to Pete’s face before being pulled back by other passengers.
The conductor banishes Howard to another car. He tells Pete to calm down, then go and apologize to Howard. Pete refuses. The conductor reminds Pete that they are fellow commuters and that there must be peace on his train. Pete loses all control and winds up insulting the conductor in a fit of blue-blooded. Pete shoves the conductor, reminding the man that he works for the commuters. At this, the man punches Pete in the eye and kicks him off the train. It’s been a bad day for Pete.
At home, Trudy waits for him, dressed as usual in a long gown. She gasps at the sight of him. “Were you in another car accident?” she asks. It’s a wonderful moment that brings a much needed dose of humor to his bleak situation. He improvises a lie about a an accident. Trudy cradles Pete in her arms. He’s a pitiful sight. “I can’t live like this,” she tells him. Just when it seems like he’s going from the frying pan into the fire, she tells him that first thing in the morning, they’re going to find him an apartment in the city. She’s under the illusion that his frequent “accidents” are a result of falling asleep at the wheel. This is surely a set-up for next season.
Back at the office, Don watches Megan’s audition reel. It’s dated 3/20/67. She’s stunningly beautiful, and as Don watches, it’s hard to gauge his feelings. His look appears to be tender. What is he thinking?
Later, The partners go up to the 38th floor to look at their new office space. It’s an empty shell of a space, and Joan marks the location of a stairway to their current offices, a floor below, with a can of red spray paint. Pete, recovered from his beating, feels well enough to crow about his soon-to-be office. “I’m going to have the same view as you, Don.” It’s a brief scene that ends with a shot of the five partners fanned out in single file with their backs to the camera – at the beginning of a new chapter.
The episode ends with a brilliantly constructed sequence of events that begins with Don and Megan on the soundstage of the commercial for Butler shoes. Megan has the role of the Beauty in their take-off on Beauty and the Beast – a fairytale princess. A gaggle of costumers and make-up artists attend to her, and even Charles Butler Jr. takes a moment to compliment her on how perfect she is for the role. It’s like a dream come true, and Megan glows like a kid on Christmas who got everything her wildest dreams could concoct. Don watches all of this with a smile. He’s the author of this fantasy, and as a voice calls out for a rehearsal, the camera pulls back to reveal the immensity of the soundstage on which this scene is constructed. The illusion of happy fantasy is broken. The set grows smaller, as through receding in a rear-view mirror, until finally, Don turns and walks away, leaving Megan to her attendants, never pausing to look back.
As he walks away, the first notes of Nancy Sinatra singing You Only Live Twice play. It’s a great choice of music, dramatic and evocative of an earlier version of Don Draper – the womanizing playboy, not too unlike James Bond. Don enters a bar, and for the first time this season, he orders a neat Old Fashioned and lights a cigarette. As he sits at the bar, a montage of images appears – Peggy, alone in a hotel room in Richmond, Virginia, happy at having the opportunity to score big with Phillip Morris; Pete alone in his living room, listening to music on a pair of headphones, so as not to disturb his sleeping family; Roger, naked and presumably tripping on LSD, standing on a chair in front of his hotel window, spreading his arms what might be an attempt at flight.
And then we’re back to Don. A pretty blonde asks him for a light. She engages him. “I’m sorry, but my friend down there, she was wondering…are you alone?” There’s a pause, and then Don turns to her and flashes a look we haven’t seen at all this season – that predatory Don Draper leer that confirms what I’d suspected. He is alone, now.
With that, the scene cuts to black, and the season is over.