Mad Men, Ep. 5.13, “The Phantom”: You only live twice, Mister Draper
Mad Men, Season 5, Episode 13: “The Phantom”
Written by Jonathan Igla & Matthew Weiner
Directed by Matthew Weiner
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on AMC
Having set such high standards, it’s disappointing to find that the season finale doesn’t live up to the same quality as previous episodes. ‘The Phantom’ isn’t necessarily a weak 50 minutes of television, but for the first time this season, Weiner’s renowned plotting lets him down.
That said, the fifth season has demonstrated that Mad Men is still the best character drama on television. It’s probably the strongest season thus far. Its writing, acting, direction, editing and costume design has been supreme. Other competitors will have trouble matching the writing for ‘Signal 30′, ‘Mystery Date’ and ‘The Other Woman’. The performances from Hamm and Moss in the emotional ‘The Other Woman’ and Vincent Kartheiser in ‘Signal 30′ are due strong praise. You won’t see much better direction than Jon Hamm’s directorial debut in ‘Tea Leaves’ or John Slattery’s ‘Signal 30′.
The final episode of the much lauded fifth season focuses, appropriately, on the theme of loss in the wake of Lane’s death. We’ve skipped forward in time, after his suicide, to March 1967. The partners still seem to be feeling Lane’s loss, something that is highlighted probably a little too obviously by Weiner’s direction in the partner’s meeting.
Mad Men has never been one to tread the obvious path, however this time perhaps they should have. Killing off a character requires the most deft treatment, otherwise it runs the risk of alienating or distancing an audience. In ‘Commissions and Fees’, the motivation leading to Lane’s suicide was nicely built. It was believable. They foreshadowed it a number of times throughout the season, particularly in Lane’s interactions with Pete and Joan. What Lane’s story lacked is the solace of a tight conclusion, where the peripheral characters would have had to deal with the confronting issue: not only a colleague dying, but choosing to end his life in a collective workspace.
In this sense, the time lapse isn’t conducive in allowing the audience to fully resolve their grief. However, it’s understandable that time needs to have passed in order to show the progression of certain characters; Peggy in particular. Furthermore, by jumping forward in time, the writers avoid some of the emotional baggage that would no doubt have made Megan’s job hunt feel more inappropriate. This way, we can still explore the aftereffects of Lane’s death, and broach character pursuits as well.
The repercussions of Lane’s death still torment Don. He begins to see his dead brother Adam, who also hanged himself, everywhere he goes; haunting him like a phantom. The fact that the writers had to employ a time lapse in order to make these arcs work suggests a flaw in Weiner’s plotting, and indeed, this season’s overall arc. Unfortunately you can see the strings being pulled, and not at all subtly.
Nevertheless, Pete finally gets his hotel room with Beth. Mind you, he may as well have gotten it in ‘Lady Lazarus’, except for the fact that she is due to receive the contentious Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and in all likelihood will probably forget all that’s between them. She admits “last time I lost months” of memory.
Upon his visit to her room post ECT, Pete discovers that she doesn’t recall their affair. This paves the way for a slightly heavy-handed chunk of exposition from Pete, explaining his feelings and motivations behind not only his affection for her, but of his womanising the entire season. Pete reveals, “He needed to let off some steam. He needed adventure. He needed to feel handsome again. He needed to feel that he knew something. That all this ageing was worth something, because he knew things young people didn’t know yet.”
And with this, the audience is flatly given an explanation that they already knew, or at least suspected. In probably the weakest moment of writing this season, the dialogue only aids the writers’ attempts to frame Pete’s vulnerability and reach some sense of redemption for his character. They probably felt it necessary, having played Pete as the villain the entire season. To make matters worse for himself, he then reveals to Howard that he has been sleeping with Beth. Once again this leads Pete to another physical confrontation and another physical defeat. Inadvertently, the bruises sustained in this fight prompt Trudy to grant Pete permission to buy the city apartment he’s been longing for the entire season.
Meanwhile, several subplots featured earlier in the season returned, ones which we’d either forgotten or cared little about. Rebecca discovers Lane’s picture from ‘A Little Kiss’ and questions Don, adding very little to character or story. While Roger continues his affair with Marie (how did Megan fail to recognise Roger’s attempt at voicing her father?), there’s seemingly very little conclusion or suggestion of where things may go; this may as well have occurred next season. Unless, of course, Marie is seen as a plot device for assisting Roger accomplish a new state of existence – a drug-taking escapist.
Conversely, Megan’s season arc is well plotted and paced, although it ends in a disappointing place for those viewers championing female empowerment. For a woman who has cast aside any apparent compunctions and has appeared so steadfast and strong in her career aspiration, her divergence in ‘The Phantom’ is somewhat saddening. She seemed destined to forge her own career, as Peggy has done, but as per the final sequence, Megan has resorted to nepotism. In fact, she has lost so much self-confidence that she retorts to Don that being a housewife is “the only thing I’m good for”. This is a far cry from her early season confidence, and near arrogance, as a copywriter at SCDP.
Finally, Don is posed the question we’ve all been asking the entirety of this year: Is he still the lone-wolf or truly committed to Megan? Over Nancy Sinatra’s Bond theme ‘You Only Live Twice’, we’re left to ponder what we’ve learnt this season. Don lectured Pete in ‘Signal 30′ – “You don’t get another chance at what you have”. Sinatra’s track would suggest otherwise. As we take in the lyrics of John Barry’s fourth Bond song, several notable characters are experiencing their second “life”. The allusions to Adam Whitman remind us of Don’s duplicity in gaining his identity, having lived as both Dick Whitman and as Donald Draper. It also serves as a reminder of both Don’s marriages. For Megan, it’s a shot at another career, finally, perhaps flourishing. Peggy’s career as top copywriter at CGC is crudely symbolised by two dogs in coital activity. She’s the top dog now. Pete sits on his couch relaxing, having been granted his new apartment in the city. Lastly, Roger’s continued experimentation with drugs exemplifies his world of escape, for which he can ‘live’ a second time.
It’s been a season of continuous excellence. We’ve had emotional endings for characters and amusing introductions. Not once has it been dull. Rarely has it been predictable. Here’s hoping Weiner and his team of writers can sustain this for the sixth and likely seventh seasons.