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The Phantom: Thoughts on the Season Finale of Mad Men

"Are you alone?"

I had a feeling that there would be some discontent among the viewers of Mad Men when faced with the finale of Season Five, after such a breathtaking and momentous episode as last week's "Commissions and Fees," which saw the death of one character and featured startling and concrete change. Airing directly after, the season finale ("The Phantom"), written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner and directed by Matthew Weiner, could feel a bit anti-climactic.

To me, however, "The Phantom" offers a necessary coda for the fifth season, paying off the season's diverse themes and allowing the viewer to see the after-effects of the suicide of Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) on both Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and the firm as a whole, exploring the ways in which we seek out what we believe will offer us happiness--however temporary or fleeting--in order to assuage the rot inside us. Once we achieve the thing that we dreamed about and wanted so desperately, it's only then that we realize that it doesn't make us happy... or whole.

(Aside: A few weeks back, I discussed the notion that this season of Mad Men was less about a subtle manipulation of themes than it was a detour into outright symbolism. Where before the series had delved into subtext, Season Five was about making it part and parcel of the text itself. No longer would one need to take a deep dive in order to explore the hidden themes of a particular episode; they were there on the surface, sometimes spelled out without need of a critical compass or magnifying glass. Of course, some had complained that previously the show was too inscrutable, proving that you can't please everyone always. Thanks to Netflix, many new viewers came to the series during the long hiatus, and there's a sense that Season Five perhaps tried to be more generally accessible in ways that the previous seasons weren't. While I loved the first four seasons, I didn't hate Season Five and I don't think that the current season was somehow flawed for its efforts to shift the thematic underpinnings.)

As a whole, Season Five depicts the journey of Don Draper from his "love leave" and his honeymoon period to his return to form at the end of the season, the gathering darkness that has permeated the fifth season taking root inside his soul once more. Don's storyline in the episode revolves largely around the painfulness of life, symbolized by a "hot tooth" with which he is avoiding a confrontation. It's when he finally goes to see a dentist that he learns that he has an abscess. The tooth is rotten, threatening to overtake his jaw. He's rotting from the inside out and the only way to stave off the infection is to extract.

"It’s not your tooth that’s rotten." The notion of extraction lingers throughout the episode, from Don's surgical visit to the dentist--which leaves a single bloody tooth sitting next to him--to the temporary erasure of memory after electroshock therapy. There's a falseness to the determination of Beth Dawes (Alexis Bledel) when she believes that electroconvulsive therapy is a panacea for all of her problems. By extracting Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), she may be able to temporarily hold the dark clouds at bay, but her mental illness will return. She will remember again. Pete speaks of putting a bandage on an old wound, but he doesn't speak of the festering rot that can occur under the white expanse of a surgical band-aid. His idealized notion of escape--that they can somehow be happy together--separates him instantly from Beth, something he can't see before or after their hotel room tryst. Beth is trying to hold onto a piece of happiness; Pete is trying to recreate a fantasy that's separate from the own idyllic nature of his family life.

The "doom and gloom" that Trudy (Alison Brie) recalls has infected them all this season and Pete's visit to Beth in the hospital is a reminder once more of just how alone he truly is. He saw Beth as an escape hatch from his own personal troubles and is shocked when she doesn't even remember him in the hospital. He's become a stranger, a phantom who has materialized in her hospital room, unknown and unknowable. The possibility of happiness between them is as rotten as Don's tooth, a realization that the fantasy he concocted in his head--of Beth somehow rescuing him from the mundane routine of his existence--is as impossible to attain as a fairy tale. Like Don and Megan (Jessica Paré), he's Beast to her Beauty, but there is no happy ending here for either of them. Even the moment of happiness he had attained with Beth in the hotel room turns to ash when Howard (Jeff Clarke) tells him that she "spreads her legs" for anyone. That memory too becomes rotten to the core.

But just as we can't extract the pieces of ourselves that we don't like, rejecting that within us that turns to darkness and decay, we also can't fill the void within us. That dark, hungry maw is always craving another sacrifice, and the things that once sated us and kept that figurative darkness at bay can't fill the emptiness. Don looked into the void when he chased after Megan, coming face to face with a vast darkness as deep and dangerous as an elevator shaft. One misstep and you go plunging into the emptiness, loosing yourself and your life. But his decision to help Megan with her career, landing her the Beauty and the Beast shoe commercial, has the same effect in the end. When he sees her, surrounded by a production crew and almost glowing from within, Don leaves the light of the fabricated set to return to the darkness, stepping off the set, past the lights and the cameras, into the blank space of the studio and then directly into the hungry embrace of the darkness itself.

The honeymoon is most definitely over. Don is on his own again, and we get the sense that each of the characters in their own way is cast adrift in exile: Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) sits not in Paris, but in a shabby motel, gazing out not at a dramatic city view but something sordid and pedestrian; Roger (John Slattery) stands naked at his hotel window, high on LSD, without a guide to hold his hand or point the way; Pete cuts himself off from the world by silencing it, putting on his HiFi headphones and withdrawing into himself. And Don enters a darkened bar, where he's asked the same question that each of the characters ask themselves: "Are you alone?" His reply is unspoken, but the question itself also doesn't require an answer. We know that he and the others are alone. They attempt to establish some sort of emotional equilibrium by feeling "alive" for fleeting moments of joy through their respective vices: women, wine, work. But these things don't fill the emptiness within; "a temporary bandage on a permanent wound" that conceals rather than heals the true wound beneath the surface. Even Don attempts to dull his pain with alcohol, turning to a cotton ball soaked in whisky to treat his toothache. But the rot continues to fester in the darkness.

It's Don who wanders through the darkness of the night, a stranger appearing at a bar, a wanderer, a hungry ghost. He's one of the titular phantoms who turn up in the episode unannounced, bringing dark tidings. Even a chance encounter with Peggy at the cinema results in Don feeling solitary once again, remarking on her success and how proud he is of her, but acknowledging that he didn't know her advancement would come "without" him. Pete haunts Beth's life after her treatment, while Lane's empty chair at the partners' meeting contains not his ghost but an emptiness. Don's arrival to deliver a check to Lane's widow, Rebecca (Embeth Davidtz), is another haunting. Don's dead brother, Adam (Jay Paulson), is yet another, turning up unexpectedly wherever Don travels in the finale, a constant reminder of his failings to save both Lane and Adam from their respective suicides. Both die from hanging themselves, and both could have been saved if Don had read the clues they presented him. There is guilt there, eating away at Don from the inside, a darkness that can't be extracted with a tooth. It's fitting that it was Don who cut down Lane from his place of death last week, and who placed him on the couch, but it doesn't absolve him of a sense of culpability that may be nagging him as much as a physical toothache. (In losing his tooth, does Don also lose his bite?)

Joan (Christina Hendricks) feels some sense of guilt as well, wondering whether Lane would still be alive if she had given him what she believed he desired: herself. That too would have been a temporary bandage. Lane carried around a picture of someone else's girlfriend in his wallet, which Rebecca discovers after her husband's death and believes her to be his mistress, demanding her identity from Don. Likewise, Joan represented an oasis from Lane's life, but any sense that she would somehow make him feel complete is illusory. These things are distractions--Roger's entire existence is best summed up as the distraction of sex between reality--but they don't fix the problem, don't save any of them from the true issues at hand. They are alone in the darkness and those brief points of light may remind them that they are alive, but they also remind them afterwards of just how painful it is in the first place.

Megan is "an ungrateful little bitch" in the eyes of her mother, Marie (Julia Ormond), who also refuses to "care for" Roger when he asks her to do LSD with him, clearly looking for someone to share the experience. Marie's withholding nature has doomed her relationship to her husband, but also to Megan as well, and her advice to Don that he "nurse her though this defeat and [he] shall have the life" he desires is false guidance. If he lets Megan truly fail, there's a sense that she'll turn out to be Betty (January Jones), a failed model in a world filled with failed "ballerinas" as twisted and bitter as Marie herself, who transfers her own sense of failure onto her daughter. ("Not every little girl gets to do what they want," Marie says. "The world could not support that many ballerinas.") But in choosing to help Megan, Don also sees how easy it to get lost in the darkness. He chooses to cut himself off from Megan than remain by her side, basking in her reflected light. "Beauty" it seems is not enough, not anymore. The happiness he thought he could attain by marrying Megan hasn't resulted in the life Don envisioned.

There's a sense that the final scene of the season is a return to the Don that has been held at bay all season: someone who loses himself in sex and booze and who stays away from the wife at home in order to avoid confronting the pain. But running from a toothache doesn't negate it. Avoid it for too long and you risk losing an even bigger piece of yourself in the process.

Mad Men will return for a sixth season to AMC in 2013.

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