11
Jun
2012
Mad Men: Season 5, Episode 13
The Phantom
Jordan
At the end of the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper gave perhaps his most famous speech--the Kodak pitch. It remains vaunted among fans of the show, both as arguably the greatest pitch the show has ever given us, and as an excellent capper to the first season of the show. Don's discussion of nostalgia, and his references to the power of family, the purity of love and the passage of time hit home after we had watched him struggle with many of these same questions over the course of the show's first season. Don didn't just convince Kodak during that speech, he convinced us, and perhaps most importantly, he convinced himself. It was the kind of speech that resonates across episodes and even seasons, the kind of moment that ties up a lot of the show's ideas in a neat bow without doing so too obviously, or at least while packing enough emotional punch to disguise how clearly it underlines the show's themes.

There are a few similar moments throughout "The Phantom," none of which distill as cleanly as the Kodak speech, but several of which seem to tie up some of the themes the show has focused on this season. One of them comes as part of the dissolution of Megan Draper as we know her, when her mother tells her, in the exchange that gives the episode its title, that she is chasing a phantom by pursuing an acting career, because not everyone can fulfill every dream and she should be happy enough to be wealthy and married to Don. The other moment, which is less organic but no less powerful, is Pete Campbell's speech when he goes to visit Beth in the hospital. Electroshock therapy has robbed her of her memories of their affair, and Pete gives the cliche "my friend" speech, laying out his reasoning for their affair and how empty it has left him feeling. In my favorite turn of phrase in the entire hour, Pete calls his efforts to attain happiness through infidelity (and likely through his work, driving class, and all other meager attempts he has made this season) a "temporary bandage over a permanent wound." In both instances, as in Don's tooth this week, there is something rotten at the core, and no attempts to paper it over will actually fill it up. These characters are plagued by an emptiness they can't escape, and it drags them slowly downward.

This idea of emptiness is one that has always been at the center of the show, though not often so obviously. As I have often discussed, Mad Men is a show about the facade of the American Dream and the emptiness of that ideal when it is matched with reality. It is a show populated with characters trying to obscure their misery, to misdirect their malaise, and to create their perfect existence by projecting a vision of perfection outward, even as things curdle internally. It is a show about how no single thing can ever fill the void at your center, even as its a show about a firm full of people whose job it is to convince you that this one product, this one idea can make all the difference in the world, can transform your emptiness into that American Dream you try to project to the world. In making these themes more explicit this season, the show has turned out likely the best run of episodes in its history, but it has sacrificed some of its classic mystique in the process. In the season 3 premiere, Don advised Sal to "limit your exposure," and that was the show's modus operandi for much of its existence. Now, though, the cracks are showing through more obviously. What used to be a glance has become a soliloquy, and where before there was subtext, there is slowly becoming text. For some, this may leave a feeling that the show is losing it just a bit, that the old magic is disappearing in its later years. But I don't think that's the case at all, and if it is, I think it is being done purposefully.

When I review Community, I often talk about the way that show uses change as a means to both drive its stories and to retain a status quo. Television characters cannot change too much, lest we feel we are watching a different show entirely, and Community does an excellent job of showing its characters taking tiny steps forward before hurdling backward. It fits the structure required by the medium, but it also reflects a fundamental human truth: change is hard, and mostly people try to change and end up reverting to their former selves. Over the course of this season, I have referenced The Sopranos quite a lot, and that show did mostly the same thing. It was a television series about how nothing ever really changes because people are too weak, selfish, and set in their ways to change it. It was a show about people who thought the best times were behind them, and were largely right only due to their unwillingness to make the future brighter. While Community and The Sopranos used the medium's stasis as an element of their stories, I feel Mad Men is using the general structure of a series to illustrate its themes. As a show gets on in years, it often grows more broad, underlining its themes more clearly and drawing its characters neatly where before there was room for ambiguity. I may be giving the show too much credit here (as I have been known to do), but it seems to me that Mad Men might be using this tendency in its favor, might be recognizing this likelihood and turning it into a thematic exploration all its own. Episodes like "Signal 30" and "The Other Woman" were more obvious in their themes than the show has been in the past, and yet both would be in consideration were I to make a list of my favorite episodes the series has ever done. At this point, Mad Men is an aging television series, but it may just have devised a way to make its last years its best.

Thinking of it in this way makes it easier for me to stomach the obviousness of a conceit like the return of Adam Whitman, who haunts the edges of Don's life throughout the evening. As I mentioned last week, it makes sense that Don would think of Adam, seeing as he gave Adam and Lane similar speeches and it lead them to similar ends, but I did not expect the show to make that connection so explicit. The Mad Men of yesteryear would have left us to piece that together ourselves, and while this new way of viewing the show might excuse a lot of the broadness that this season occasionally dabbled in, this felt too over-the-top for me to really go along with. Adam appearing spectrally throughout the SCDP offices would probably have been fine with me, but when he shows up at the dentist, bruised neck and all, to tell Don that not just his tooth is rotten, it felt like the show talking down to me in a way I'm not used to and in a way I'm pretty sure I don't enjoy.

If last year's "Tomorrowland" was a finale that suggested there was hope in the future, "The Phantom" tells us there is a rot at the core and it is spreading. While I do have complaints about a few of the less than subtle moments the episode threw at us tonight, its closing moments are nothing short of exquisite, a montage set to "You Only Live Twice" (a near perfect music cue in a season chock full of excellent choices) that shows us the emptiness stil lfelt by all of our characters. Roger tries to plug the hole with LSD. Peggy realizes she still might not have the job and the respect she wants. Megan has the job she dreamed of, but got it in ways that will eat at her. And Don is headed back where we always knew he would be, the mysterious man in the bar, always ready to pick up his next woman and convince her, for as long as he can, that he is who he would like to be. For all the blaring underlining in the scene at the dentist's office with Adam, the closing line, when the woman asks Don if he is alone before a cut to black, is perfect in what it leaves unsaid. We all know where this is going, and the show trusts us to get there ourselves.

The show circles back to the idea it has danced around all season, this feeling that the dream of more, the dream of better, is something that plagues even the entitled, but it is ultimately an empty notion, that it leads (as Don laid out all too clearly in his pitch to Dow) to a ravenous hunger for "more, more, more" that will eventually devour you entirely. Megan thinks she wants her big break no matter what it takes. She screws over her friend, asks, then basically demands a favor from Don, and triumphantly grabs at the next step in her career, never caring who she is stepping on to get there. Don tells Megan that what she wants is to earn her career for herself, but he quickly discovers that what she really wants is more and that turns him against her, even if ever so slightly. Don's pledge of fidelity crumbles, and whether it is because he has discovered Megan is as empty as himself or because he has finally given in to his own desire for more is for each of us to decide. That scene where he walks across the darkened studio away from his wife, dressed in fairy tale garb, is note-perfect. Don tried to give himself happily ever after, and even if its taken him all season, he has finally learned that this marriage is as empty as his last, that the fairy tale is just a story he and Megan tell themselves to cover up the void within themselves and their marriage. And so Don retreats, leaving his attempts to force himself into a better life and retreating back into the life he lived throughout his first marriage. The man tried to integrate Dick Whitman into his life more fully, to live a more honest life and a happier one, but now he is as willing as ever to retreat into Don Draper, to be the facade that pretends to be a man, the emptiness that obscures rather than defining, that eludes rather than being present.

I feel confident now in saying something I have been thinking for quite a while: this was the best season of Mad Men yet, and that makes this one of the finest seasons of television I have ever seen. It wasn't perfect, though as the show has taught us again and again, striving for perfection leads only to dissatisfaction. In that cut to black, the show leaves us with the point it has made all season and really, throughout its entire existence: its characters, like many of us, are chasing phantoms, trying out different versions of ourselves and throwing ourselves into different projects in a desperate attempt to fill the void. But the center never holds, the target is always moving, and as long as we strive for more, we will feel that gnawing emptiness at the center. Until we recognize this fundamental truth, everything we try to do will be little more than a temporary bandage on a permanent wound. And even if we somehow manage to heal it, there will always, always be a scar.

Grade: A-

Notes:

-While I was never of the mind that Elisabeth Moss would be leaving the show, I will confess to breathing a huge sigh of relief when she showed up tonight.

-"What is this, parliament?" "Is this meeting over yet?"

-"I know, but we're only sad because we're apart."

-"You want to be somebody's discovery, not somebody's wife."

-"What is Regina?"

-"Every day I open the mail and there's more money." "That's the idea, isn't it?"

-"Put that on your face, not in a drink."

-"Not every little girl gets to do what she wants."

-"You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition."

-"Stop being demure, you're already on the bed."

-"I'm proud of you. I just didn't know it would be without me."

-Pete Campbell just CANNOT win a fight. Fortunately, watching him lose is always a pleasure.

-Best Pete line of the night, I think (outside his monologue in the hospital): "I'm going to have the same view as you, Don." And Don's curt response: "Congratulations."

-And the perfect quote to end things on (until we meet again in season six): "My friend over there. She was wondering. Are you alone?"
Tags: Mad Men
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