Season finale review: ‘Mad Men’ – ‘The Phantom’

A review of tonight’s “Mad Men” season finale coming up just as soon as I’m president of the Howdy Doody Circus Army…

“I thought it would go away.” -Don

This has been a transformational season of “Mad Men,” in terms of both what’s been happening on screen and how the show has chosen to depict it. It’s the first season of the series where it feels like society itself changed significantly from the beginning to the end. It’s a season that barely featured Don Draper’s first wife while turning his second wife into the second most prominent character on the show, that saw Peggy leave the agency and Lane leave this mortal coil. And it’s a season that experimented formally more than any previous one, whether the fever dream atmosphere of the Richard Speck episode, the trippy nature of the entire episode where Roger first took LSD, or the Beatles montage at the end of “Lady Lazarus.”

And because of these changes in content and style, this has felt like a more divisive season of the show than the previous ones. If you didn’t like Megan as much as Matt Weiner obviously did, or if you thought some of the more high-concept episodes were too far out there, or if you felt the subtext wasn’t being quite as submerged as it used to be, then it’s easy to imagine you finding parts or all of the season to be off.

I’ve taken issue with the season here and there – questioning, for instance, whether Joan’s decision felt natural, or like something where Weiner came up with the end-point and reverse-engineered the rest – but have for the most part applauded the formal boldness of it. Some of the most memorable scenes and moments of the series’ run occurred over these last three months, and I look forward to revisiting many of them during the long break before season 6. And, I’ll be honest: as someone who has had/chosen to stay up late each Sunday to write these reviews, I haven’t exactly minded that the themes have been more overt than in previous seasons. It’s all fine and dandy for the meaning to be hidden when I’ve got days and days to dig, but when 2 in the morning is staring me in the face, it’s a relief to be able to say, “Oh, the codfish is a metaphor for disappointment!”

That said, “The Phantom” was an episode that seemed to take some of the smaller earlier missteps and magnify them. If not for a great final 10 minutes or so (from Don and Peggy in the movie theater until the last close-up of Don), I’d be going into that hiatus feeling much more sour about the season than I should.

As obvious as some of the season’s previous themes and symbols were, none of them felt quite as blinking neon as Don’s bloody, rotten tooth, which stood in for all the problems that Don and other characters wished would go away on their own: Don’s marriage (and, before it, his relationship with Peggy), Pete’s feelings of ennui, Lane’s disconnection from his own life, etc. The symbolism was clear well before Don chatted with the dentist, but then to follow it up with Adam Whitman’s ghost(*) telling Don that it’s not his tooth that’s rotten? “Mad Men” is a show that by and large trusts its audience to be smart enough to figure things out, but between Glen’s conversation in the elevator with Don last week, Adam’s hallucinatory visit and Pete spelling out his entire inner struggle in Beth’s hospital room, it’s felt like Weiner’s trust in us isn’t as strong as it used to be.(**)

(*) I appreciated Adam’s appearance on the heels of Lane’s suicide, given the clear parallels between the two deaths (and Don’s reaction to them), but wish it had been confined to those brief glimpses of him as Don walked through the office.

(**) Which isn’t to say that “Mad Men” has always been a paragon of subtlety, even in its best episodes. Season 2’s “Maidenform” is one of my favorite episodes of the show ever, but if you didn’t pick up on all the mirror symbolism, you had your nose buried in a book the entire time.

Beyond that, “The Phantom” frustrated me with which characters it chose to spotlight in our last glimpse of these people for many months.

Pete’s frustration with the life that should on paper be so satisfying has been a running thread all season – one of the first scenes of the premiere was Pete on the train with Howard, complaining about Trudy – but using the affair with Beth as the breaking point never quite worked for me, because Beth as a character (or maybe as a performance) never did. I appreciated the parallels to Betty – parallels that continued this week with the suggestion that Beth, like Betty, is getting severe treatment from psychiatrists when her biggest ongoing problem is that her husband treats her badly – but never found her as someone I wanted to spend time with at the expense of other characters, even if she was there to showcase Pete. And the scene in her hospital room was so clunky that I was too busy thinking about it to take any real pleasure in Pete winding up on the losing end of two different fights on the same train ride. (Lane Pryce is dead, but Pete’s punchability lives on.)

I took no issue with the overwhelming Megan-ness of the first half of the season. Given the place Don was in in his life, it made sense that we’d be spending so much time on his new wife. The tension created as the lines between his work and home lives blurred was interesting, as was the idea of Megan as some kind of middle ground between Joan’s idea of feminine power and Peggy’s (or an entirely different direction). But when Megan quit the agency, she fell prey to the same unfortunate problem that the previous Mrs. Draper has frequently struggled with: the pulse of the show comes from the agency, and Don Draper’s wife simply isn’t as compelling as the people who work there. The last two episodes featured Megan less prominently than many previous installments had, and though I didn’t agree with everything that happened in them (again, see the mechanisms used to get Joan to prostitute herself), they were raw and powerful and alive. And to go from Joan’s unseemly road to partnership, Peggy’s professional divorce from Don and Lane’s suicide to Megan being frustrated over the state of her acting career felt like a real comedown. 

All of my engagement with the Megan story this week came on Don’s end of it. I didn’t care about tensions with her mother, if Megan got the part in the commercial, or that she screwed over her friend to do it (one last “every man for himself” act to complete the cycle for the season). I did, however, care that seeing Peggy at the movies, and his earlier visit to Rebecca Pryce, reminded Don of how easily the people in his life can leave him. And I loved the parallel to the Kodak pitch from “The Wheel.” Once again, we see Don Draper in a conference room as a projector shows him flickering images of the wife who’s slipping away from him, but where he never quite knew how to satisfy Betty, here he’s able to give Megan exactly what she wants, even if it leaves him feeling a little dirty and very disconnected from her. Don began the season doting on his wife and unwilling to even entertain the idea of stepping out on her; he ended it walking away from her commercial dream come true and into a bar where an attractive woman came to hit on him for her attractive friend. Whether you take Don’s reaction to the question of whether he’s alone as completely ambiguous or not, the very fact that his response isn’t to publicly pledge fidelity to his beloved wife is hint enough. Don has temporarily healed the problems in his marriage, but he’ll now live in constant fear that Megan might leave him in the way that Peggy did, and the transactional nature of his solution takes some of the purity and joy out of the relationship, in the same way that Joan can no longer take pleasure out of fending off advances at work.

When the lights go down at the movie theater where Don and Peggy are delighted to bump into each other, you can hear the opening chords of theme to the “Casino Royale”(***). And as Don walks away from the soundstage and into the bar, we hear the Nancy Sinatra theme to “You Only Live Twice.”

(***) Hat tip to my old partner Matt Zoller Seitz for pointing that one out, as it’s been so long since I’ve seen that version of “Casino Royale” that I had long forgotten. Here’s Matt’s “The Phantom” review, by the way; he liked it much more than I did.

Both James Bond films came out in 1967: “You Only Live Twice” as a straightforward entry of the official film series with Sean Connery, “Casino Royale” (the one Ian Fleming book which the traditional 007 producers didn’t at the time own the rights to) a spoof starring David Niven, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. They were two James Bond films with two very different tones and different approaches to the character. (“Casino Royale,” in fact, dealt with the lack of Connery by having half its cast play characters either named or code named “James Bond.”) Same name, different men.

For most of the series, our hero has been torn between being Don Draper and Dick Whitman, and the impulses that rule each persona. In marrying Megan so quickly, and changing his personality so utterly in the wake of their whirlwind courtship, Don seemed to be following Dr. Faye’s advice to merge the best parts of each identity into the same man – even if it was  a man who didn’t seem to care much about work, and whose kindness and relaxed demeanor threw Peggy for a loop early in the season.

But as much as he tried to convince himself that this marriage was perfect, and that this new combined personality was real, real life is more complicated than the fantasy he built in his head. Megan’s not French-Canadian Barbie. She wants things that Don either doesn’t want for her or simply doesn’t understand. And though he looked happier in last season’s finale, and at various points this season, Don Draper seems destined to not be one whole man, but two incomplete men sharing the same body. The double life – Dick Whitman’s vulnerability and Don Draper’s will, the picture-perfect marriage and the many women on the side – is who he is. Even if he resists the advance in the bar on this night, he’ll keep going to bars until he can’t resist anymore.

And it was in that final “You Only Live Twice” montage – Don taking that incredibly long walk through that darkened soundstage (Megan’s dream lit up in bright colors, Don in shadow), Peggy getting a less-than-glamorous view out of her hotel window in Virginia, Pete sadly listening to his enormous hi-fi system through a compact headset, Roger going on another acid trip all by his lonesome, and then Don at the bar going back to being Don Draper – that “The Phantom” finally felt like “Mad Men” again to me. This is who Don is, and this is what the show can be at its best – which it was for so much of this season, and unfortunately for me wasn’t for most of its final hour.

Some other thoughts:

* After Don severed the agency’s ties to tobacco with his New York Times letter, I wrote that it was a shame they would never get the Virginia Slims account, “since ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’ is so much the story of Peggy Olson that she deserves to be the one to write it in the ‘Mad Men’ universe.” My guess is that Weiner agrees, and that at least part of the motivation for having her jump ship is so she could write it without magically undoing the Times letter. And yet as relieved as I was to see Peggy back on screen, I still don’t know how confident I feel about her continuing to be a regular part of the show. Will there be time for a parallel narrative when we return next season? Was this just the epilogue to Peggy’s farewell story, in that it gave us a sense of what she’d be doing upon leaving Don’s orbit? Or will the usual between-season time jumps allow us to return close enough to the launch of Virginia Slims (summer of ’68) that Peggy can have this huge success on her resume and the ability to return to SCDP on much more equal footing with Don? I’m supposed to talk to Weiner later this week; we’ll see how open he’ll be about discussing future plans like that, even on a basic “Is Elisabeth Moss still a regular castmember?” level. But even though it makes more narrative sense for her to stay away, I’m having a hard time imagining a “Mad Men” without both the actress and character. The show has become as much Peggy’s story as Don’s. He’s the one being left behind by the changes of this decade, while she’s the one being carried up. Who’s going to illustrate that end of things if she’s gone? Ginsberg?

* Not only do we get a nod to the first season finale (which, like all the finales, including this one, was directed by Weiner) in the projector scene, but John Manfrelotti reprised his role as the Topaz exec we last saw in the fourth season finale – and his irritation with Stan and Ginsberg is a reminder that as much as Ginsberg’s light has shone this season, Peggy isn’t so easily replaced.

* For all that we’ve worried about Sally Draper being the regular character to get caught up in the drug wave of the late ’60s, it’s old man Roger Sterling who’s starting to seem dependent on them. Last week, he admitted that whatever effect the LSD trip had on him had worn off, and here he sounds desperate to get that feeling back, even if he winds up doing it both alone and naked. (And did John Slattery just break that particular nudity barrier for “Mad Men”? I can’t instantly recall a male or female character on the show being so exposed in that way before.)

* Trying to recall if we’ve seen Joan wearing glasses at work before. (Though she’s had them on at home from time to time.) The specs link her to the man whose job she’s now doing, but also help to distance Joan from the sexpot image I suspect she’s eager to cast aside forever – or, as much as anyone who looks like Christina Hendricks can – after the events that got her the partnership.

* Several of you reminded me last week that Lane’s company life insurance policy was there to protect the company, not his wife. And, indeed, SCDP gets $175,000 from his death, while all Rebecca gets is repayment of the $50,000 capital injection he would have been entitled to get back down the road – maybe even sooner rather than later, given the firm’s soaring prospects.

* Lane’s fixation on the woman in the wallet photo finally pays off, sort of, with Rebecca assuming it’s the image of a woman her husband slept with. But even though Lane was with other women over the years (the chocolate Bunny, the prostitute on his bender with Don), Delores’ picture is just another stand-in for the American dream that Lane so desperately wanted but could never quite hold onto.

* How beautiful was the shot of the five surviving partners looking out the new windows on the second floor of the agency? I also appreciated the payoff of a running gag from the season 4 premiere, where they kept lying to everyone about the office having another floor because no one wanted to publicly admit how small-time SCDP was. The empty space is just a mirror of what they have below – Pete laughs that he’ll now have the same view as Don – but it represents how far they’ve all come from the brink of disaster, even if there was a lot of blood and betrayal on the way there.

* When I interviewed Jared Harris about Lane’s suicide, he pointed out that he was given subtle clues to Lane’s impending doom in the way that his wardrobe began having stains on it, and when he complained, the costume department told him, “Yeah, that’s what we’re doing this season,” which made him think, “Yeah, that’s not good.” Ginsberg’s never been the well-groomed chap that Lane was, but it was hard to look at the big stains on his clothes in the Topaz scene and not think of poor Lane.

And that’s it for this season, review-wise. Again, I’m tentatively set to interview Weiner later this week. Without a contract mess to deal with, this hiatus should be significantly shorter than the last one, even if AMC decides the show’s place is now in the spring. Whatever issues I had with the finale, or a few other points this season, I will dearly miss having “Mad Men” to write about for a while, even if I had to stay up to the wee hours each Sunday night to do it.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at