It's a pleasure to watch a show that carries itself with confidence down to the smallest gesture. Mad Men proved that it was that kind of show throughout season five. And it proved it again in its finale, "The Phantom," set in April, 1967, months after senior partner Pryce hanged himself in shame after getting caught stealing company funds.
Read the episode summary and it doesn't sound eventful. Joan takes charge of her new position as partner and urges SCDP, suddenly flush with cash, to expand to the now-vacant floor above them. Megan badgers Don for the chance to audition for a TV ad, prevails, gets the audition, and wins the part. Lane's company life insurance check comes through (a previous episode established that it paid off even in the event of suicide) and Don brings $50,000 of it to Rebecca Pryce; Rebecca tells Don it's scant compensation for the money Lane sunk into the business and the tragedy she believed was caused by Lane trying and failing to be like Don and SCDP's other carousing alpha males ("You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition!" she tells him). Peggy settles into her new gig working for Don's nemesis Teddy Chaough, randomly runs into Don at a theater that's showing the 1967 Casino Royale, reconciles with him, and seems to enjoy his company as a true equal for the first time. Roger lures Megan's mom Marie, who became smitten with Roger in "At the Codfish Ball", to a hotel room for a tender tryst. Pete has one last go-round (also in a hotel room) with his beloved, depressive Beth before she has her memory erased by electroshock treatment. Pete inadvertently reveals his infidelity to Beth's piggish husband on the train and gets beaten bloody. (As Community writer Megan Ganz put it, "Pete Campbell should think about getting a less punchable face.") On returning home, Pete lies to Trudy about having driven his car into a ditch, and is shocked when Trudy finally agrees that he should get an apartment in the city so that every trip home doesn't have to be, as once put it, "an epic poem."
But despite its slow pace and fairly sedate tone, this was an eventful episode, one that put paid to themes, images and bits of business that were introduced in the season-opening two-fer "A Little Kiss" and nurtured throughout the next eleven episodes. Twitter reaction last night was mixed, with some viewers calling "The Phantom" dull or disappointing, but I found it riveting, though not in as obvious a way as other recent chapters ("Signal 30", "Far Away Places," "The Other Woman"). Season five's nonstop intimations of death, separation, violence, and dread paid off here, even more so than in last week's grim, often bleakly funny episode. Mad Men's audacity this season made me worry it was about to pull a double-reverse fake-out, killing Lane last week after making us briefly wonder if it would get through the season without killing anyone, then taking advantage of our complacency this week to spring one last horrendous jack-in-the-box trauma. If the title "Tea Leaves" hadn't already been used by episode three, it would have worked here. Every scene and line seemed charged with portent of yet another character's demise: Pete, Roger, Megan, Peggy, Betty, Henry, Joan, Joan's husband; hell, everyone but Don could have bought it.
Would Pete and Beth's last go-round end in a mutual suicide pact? ("It's so dark, Peter," Beth told him, "that I get to this place and I suddenly feel this door open and I want to walk through it." "That's for weak people," he replied, "People who can't solve a problem.") Would Pete finally use that rifle against himself or someone else? Would his daughter die? ("Tammy could drown!" he blurts when Trudy shows him the sketch of the pool she wants him to buy.) Would Roger, who was trying to numb his grief with sex and affection, drop LSD with Marie, become convinced he'd grown wings, and try to fly? Was Harry Crane's stray comment to Joan about the vacant floor above SCDP a set-up for killing Joan's Army doctor husband — a death that I worried might have been presaged by Joan hurling a miniature airplane at the receptionist in "Christmas Waltz"? ("I heard that the parachute company got a big government contract and moved to Washington to be closer to the cemetery or something," Harry told Joan. Aieeee!)
When Don came home and found Megan drunk and depressed over not being allowed to audition for the ad, I thought about a friend's comment about that lingering shot of her standing on the balcony in "A Little Kiss" — something about how it was a "Chekhovian balcony," introduced in the opener so that someone could leap from it in the finale.
What we got, however, wasn't another epic death trip, but a summation of core Mad Men themes: the displacement of an existing order by a new one; the gradual, mysterious, outwardly imperceptible changes experienced by individuals, businesses, cities, and nations over decades; and the possibility of reinventing oneself and starting over, again and again and again. (The episode just had to be set at Easter.)
None of these changes are wholly positive or negative; they simply are. The long-beleaguered SCDP has gained a new partner, Joan (who takes parliamentary procedure as seriously as Stringer Bell), and is doing so well that it's about to add a floor, and maybe give Pete the corner office he wanted in "A Little Kiss." Peggy has reinvented herself at a different agency – one where she can boss around men! – but that account she helped land for SCDP, Topaz, now seems to be in trouble because she's no longer there to manage it. ("We've never had problems with this client before," Ginsberg says.) Don and Megan's marriage seems to have reached a mutually agreeable compromise after months of struggle, with Megan using Don's influence to get her foot in the door and then presumably kicking it open on her own. But the episode's last scene – Don being approached at the bar by a blonde* — hints that the old Don, the Don who flirted with Joan and then drove fast on the way home, the Don who in Roger's words "gets a hard-on when he hears the word 'no'" — is back, and will leave this new marriage in tatters. "One life for yourself and one for your dreams," Nancy Sinatra sings, reminding us of the season one Don Draper, who was one man at work and another at home.
The episode's closing-credits song, the theme to the 1967 James Bond picture You Only Live Twice, was hilariously right. It likened the show's main character, who has previously been compared with Batman and Superman, to yet another he-man hero with a secret identity; it re-emphasized the notion of ditching the life you've got and starting over; and it was a sly Jesus joke to boot. The privilege of re-invention comes at a price, though. (Yikes, I almost typed "a Pryce.") You can't be too sensitive. You have to be tough, self-interested, resourceful, maybe opportunistic. You have to do whatever you need to do, and keep moving forward. "Are you alone?" the bar blonde asks Don in that last scene. He makes no reply, but you know what he's thinking: Isn't everyone?
The shot of Don watching Megan's screen test reel was a deliberate (maybe too deliberate) callback to season one's brilliant "Carousel," down to the smoke swirling in the projector beam. It put a button on the end of the symbolically loaded business of Don's toothache, which was tied to his recurring visions of Adam Whitman (who hung himself in season one's "5G"). Both the toothache and the visions of Adam were manifestations of Don's guilt over driving Lane to resign and ultimately off himself – a guilt that propelled Don to Rebecca's apartment, check in hand, where he was coolly dressed down.
In the original "Carousel" speech, Don told Kodak reps that nostalgia was Greek for "the pain from an old wound," but in this projector scene the aches were from recent pain – his constant battles with Megan over her career and his expectations for her as a wife and helpmate; Lane killing himself because he was filled with unrealistic expectations and unattainable ambitions, qualities that Marie ascribed to Megan ("This is what happens when you have the artistic temperament, but you are not an artist"). You can't just numb this sort of pain – and was that champagne that Don used in the opening scene? [UPDATE: A colleague points out below that it was gin, not champagne.] — or ignore it and hope it fades. You have to attack it, extract it, purge it. Don does that by going to the dentist, finally. Then all at once he's over it — or "over it", which is good enough for Don. His demeanor in that very last scene at the bar hearkens back to another of Rebecca's lines: "It may be the differences in our culture, but we're not ones to wallow."
The episode is filled with doubled plot lines, scenes, and symbols. There are two James Bond music cues, two hotel room trysts, two scenes involving movie projectors, and lines that connect seemingly separate subplots and make them seem as though they're mirroring each other. My favorite is Marie telling Megan, "You are chasing a phantom" — a personal and career critique that also happens to be what her husband is doing all through an episode that is literally haunted.
The idea of forcibly removing or erasing trauma to allow oneself to move on, or start over, is expressed most bluntly in the Pete-Beth story line. Beth's shock therapy is an eraser that wipes her mental slate clean. She says it's not the first time she's had shock treatment; hell, maybe she's done it three or four times and doesn't remember.
The scene of Pete pouring his heart out to Beth, who has no clue who he is and thinks he's visiting "a friend" in the hospital and entered her room by mistake, is one of the series' most devastating. It gives Vincent Kartheiser – who's been extraordinary this season – a monologue that comes close to summing up this often wrenching season. Pete tells the tale of his affair with Beth to Beth as if it happened to someone else — which, in a sense, it did. When it was all over, Pete tells her, his "friend" realized that 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."
"Don't worry," she says. "They'll fix him up here. They're very good."
"He'll be fine," Pete says, then heads for the door, adding, "It was nice to meet you."
"Good luck with your friend," she says.
It's as if none of it ever happened.
* This post has been corrected, as I originally mistakenly thought the blonde who approached Don at the bar was Megan's scene partner, Emily.