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Mad Men Season Finale Recap: I Am   Leave a comment

Season 5, Episode 13: The Phantom. Recap and analysis.

We open the close of Season 5 with Don numbing the pain of a rotten tooth. The cotton balls are darkened with tonic as Megan’s screen test reel arrives to cast a shade on her dreams. Marie Calvet is there. She insults Megan’s coffee-making and maybe it’s a good thing Megan doesn’t wait tables when she doesn’t work then. Don won’t see a dentist though his tooth is too tender to eat an egg. “It’ll go away. It always does,” he says of his toothache, but we always come back to a quote from the first scene of an episode by the end of it, and this is probably it.

The screen-test sellers were supposed to send Megan’s reel to agents, but didn’t and Megan gets down on herself. “It’s a great sin to take advantage of hopeless people,” encourages Marie, correcting it to something more tactful in her native French when Megan looks injured. Marie only does nasty things with her mouth.

Pete Campbell  sits on the train and Howard the life insurance salesman joins him. Howard’s wife Beth of Pete’s office fantasies, is with him. Howard says she’s off to visit her sister in the city before she gets up and leaves. Pete fondles her colorful silk scarf as it dangles out of a suitcase when Howard gets up to follow her. It’s pathetic. Don would be ashamed of you, Pete. This is not how it works if you’re a boss.

Harry Crane joins Joan in the office elevator, and on this rare occasion, the thing that sometimes isn’t there when you push the button that calls it is headed up. Harry inquires about rumors that SCDP is buying more office space that just opened on the floor above. He’s nosy. Complains about the office he was secretly paid $1000 to move into. Remarking that Joan didn’t want the now-empty office he was offered either is obnoxious and insensitive. Seems like he was just paying Paul Kinsey to go away when he acts like this.

Don thinks he recognizes someone getting onto the elevator. “Adam?” he says aloud, seeing the face of his long lost half-brother who hanged himself when Dick Whitman refused to let him re-enter his life. It’s almost a surprise that Don would only know two people who had hanged themselves, but the Don-centered catastrophes that preceded both Adam and Lane’s demises are certainly linked in Don’s mind. Hallucinations aren’t new to this series. Don’s seen his dead dad and told him to shut up. Betty saw her recently deceased father as she was going into labor with the child she’d name for him. Don choked an old flame to death just earlier this season.

Michael Ginsberg and Stan Rizzo are pitching Topaz panty hose. “Always less expensive. Never cheap,” announces Ginsberg and the client hates it. We’ve never seen Ginsberg struggle before and he doesn’t take the criticism well. “You say the word, you put it on their mind” says the client rightfully about using the word “cheap” in the copy. It’s true. It associates Topaz with cheap.  “Clearly it states the exact opposite,” Don tries to explain, but he doesn’t get it.

The client leaves unhappy and the only guy who knows that modifiers — even negations — are paid no heed by consumers. “Up to 50% off!” is true as long as nothing’s more than 50% off. Could actually be a markup, but all people see is the 50%. Don wants 100%, but Stan is “so bored of this dynamic.” The client complains that he wants a woman’s opinion and that that used to be a given at SCDP. Clearly a reference to Peggy, but does anyone besides Don miss having Megan at work?

Clara informs Pete that his sister-in-law is calling. “Hello, Judy?” answers Pete with a comical earnestness. He was ready to be concerned with what Trudy’s sister had to say. Beth answers and Pete sends Clara off for some fresh Life Savers so he can speak to his life saver in private. She says she wants to meet him at the hotel where she left him waiting last time and he tells her he expects to return the favor. Nobody believes you Pete. You can’t wait to have her and we know it. “This may be our last chance,” says Beth and though she means it, she also knows what saying that does to this man.

Peggy’s voice is ordering  Stan and Ginsberg around. Wait, that’s not right. It’s strange to see her working with Ted Chaough and not Don. As creative chief, it’s her job to annoyed at her juniors’ incompetence. Ted pops in and tosses Peggy a carton of unmarked cigarettes. “Smoke it, name it, sell it,” Chaough orders her after she says she doesn’t smoke. Ted’s familiar with her work having seen her book when he hired her at the diner so he knows her Popsicle copy was “take it, break it, share it, love it,” and I can only guess that’s what he’s playing at. How’s Paris, Peggy?

At the partner’s meeting, Joan Harris informs the others that the firm has had its best quarter on record. There’s more money than ever and projections tell her to expect only further improvement. They discuss the need for more office space and Joan names Harry Crane as the culprit preventing her from visiting the prospective new floor that morning. Lane’s work got them where they are and his empty chair sits at the conference table, drawing from Joan a solemn gaze. They can’t fill his empty office, but he’s given them the means to acquire more room. Peter has an appointment to get to and ditches the partner’s meeting giving Don his proxy. “We can do that?” asks Don as though he’d ever willingly give up an ounce of power.

Beth turns off the TV and answers the hotel door. She’s dressed in a pink sailor outfit, and did we mention Life Savers earlier on? She looks good. She reveals to Pete that she’s not actually visiting family, but being forced to undergo shock therapy that takes chunks out of her memory. “I’m very blue,” she tells Peter, at that moment still clad is candy pink. She talks about a kind of  “gray cloud” that blocks out her recollections and that she doesn’t want to forget Pete. Pete seems genuinely concerned, but then hesitates to embrace her, acting indignant and principled. We’ve seen Pete wait until he hears what he wants to hear before jumping into bed while at the brothel with Bazooka Joe from Jaguar. “Please. Please give me this,” pleads Beth and that’s what Pete wanted to hear, moving in to kiss her and sighing, “Oh God.” 

Megan and some foreign blond are sitting on the couch complaining that red heads are in demand. Someone calls the apartment and hangs up to Megan’s annoyance. Maybe they were calling for Marie who offers Megan’s foreign friend a “bon chance” on her way out the door. “She’s so elegant and encouraging,” a disgusted Megan is told. She knows that’s not how her mother is. The blond turns to Megan and straight up asks her to get her an audition for Butler Shoes’ Beauty and the Beast ad since SCDP is their agency. Megan agrees.

Pete and Beth have recently finished and lie together, a satisfied look on Pete’s face. “Don’t tell me you’re not happy right now,” says a dreamy Pete to Beth as she says she has to go back to the hospital. He wants to run away with her to California and he kind of really is copying Don at this point. “It’s full of sunshine,” he pitches, but Beth refuses. “I don’t know you and you don’t know me. We just happen to have the same problem,” Beth tells him. “We’re only sad because we’re apart,” replies a Pete who isn’t pondering what she’s pondering. “Oh, then I guess I was wrong,” surmises Beth with a sad look.

Five more minutes,” Pete refuses to let go though Beth is dressed again and ready to sail off into that gray cloud. She reclines and they cuddle together a few breaths more. Pete’s being pathetic and a horrible husband, but he’s so happy when he gets what he wants. He asked for much more — a new life across the country — but one more go with Beth is what he wanted. What he fantasized about in his office. Happiness is the moment before you need more happiness.

Don promises his tooth feels better as he returns home. Before dinner, Megan asks him about the Beauty and the Beast ad for Butler. She asks for an audition for herself. That blond foreign girl was just a girl from class, not a close friend or anything, but it still seems pretty desperate of Megan. “I thought you hated advertising,” a pouting Don asserts. “It’s not art,” and when did we decide Megan was an artist? I don’t know what Megan expected, but Don is always a bit cold when it comes to Megan and advertising, though she notes how hard it was for her to even bring it up.

Don has plenty of good excuses. He can’t ask the client to hire his wife, the SCDP guys who will be at casting know her, the girls who want this job are doing it for the money, which Megan married plenty of. “You don’t want it this way,” assures Don, and that’s his best defense against her request. But is there another way in acting? Don didn’t want Jaguar to be won with the help of prostituting Joan and is still upset about it. He knows Megan will feel better about landing her first acting gig without nepotism. Should have gone with that pitch first.

The phone rings. Megan refuses to answer. Don picks up and hears a bad French accent he mistakes for drunk. It’s Roger Sterling calling for Marie, but Don is none the wiser and puts Marie on the phone. He reveals his identity to Marie, but she continues to speak French until Megan leaves the room. “I’ve used up all the French I know,” a confused Roger says and Roger makes a habit of using everything up. Marie somehow knows what Roger’s up to and demands he lower his expectations if they are to meet. Sex is on the table, but nothing more. It’s a strange progression from Jane to Marie to coat check girls and back to Marie. She’s old. She’s wicked. But she knows about things. Enough to know Roger wants more than her body.

You know I would if I could,” Don tells Megan, being a good husband. She goes to the bathroom to cry in secret. Since Megan’s departure from the firm, she’s been on a downward spiral. She feels disrespected and has been unsuccessful and her self esteem has just eroded to the point where failed actresses are generally found. That’s not good and her acid-lipped mother is no help. Megan is falling.

Don walks into the office and sees Adam’s face again, this time on shoulders of some nameless freelancer. That’s twice. Joan is waiting in Don’s office and they’re not the same since her partnership. She’s come for comfort, to express that she feels guilty that the firm is doing so well since Lane’s departure, and wondering why he did it. “You can’t think like that, you’ll never get an answer,” assures Don, and it’s practical advice if not the most comforting. Joan is very upset and wonders what she could have done to prevent it.

“Nothing,” says Don. He’s made himself incapable of rendering other scenarios and can only move forward. “Why didn’t I give him what he wanted?” asks Joan, referring to Lane’s advances and suggestive comments. Since it got her a partnership and a car account for the firm, Joan thinks her sexuality can even stave off death. Maybe Herb Brennet from Jaguar told her that. Don loathes the thought. It is so easy for him. His tooth is really hurting him and Joan refers him to a dentist. There will be no drinks and offers to dance.

Megan won’t get out of bed. Marie chides her at noon that she hasn’t. Megan’s really unhappy. She asks her mother why she’s so supportive of others but is so cruel to her. “Because you are chasing a phantom,” Marie tells Megan in French. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical won’t debut until 1986, so Marie’s not just talking about a part on Broadway. She’s talking about Don’s favorite thing: happiness. And everyo9ne’s chasing it and it is a phantom, but Marie with her aging elegance and cheating communist of a husband, doesn’t believe in it. And she doesn’t want her daughter to have what she knows she can’t.

“Not every little girl gets to do what she wants. The world cannot support that many ballerinas,” says Marie without comfort in her voice. Megan reveals that she knows of her mother’s unhappiness and gets called an ungrateful bitch for the observation. “Thank God my children are not my whole life,” huffs Marie as she marches out the door. We know where she’s going but does she have other children?

Joan and Don agreed to payback the $50 thousand collateral Lane put up to his wife out of the life insurance policy pay out. Don arrives at the Pryce apartment and is greeted coldly by Lane’s wife. She’ll take the money, but she’s very sore at Don and the whole company because she blames them for Lane’s final deed. “You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition,”  she insists, telling Don what she thinks of her late husband. She confronts Don with the picture of some girl Lane kept in his wallet — Lane’s first theft of the season — and Don honestly tells her he doesn’t know anything of it. “Think of all the brothels you frequent,” Mrs. Pryce demands, and Don’s the wrong guy to bring up brothels with.

He’s nonetheless cordial and sincere in his apologies for her loss. Lane’s wife just doesn’t get it. It’s understandable that she’s grieving and lashing out at phantoms, but she’s always been aloof and unbearable. She seems to think that Lane had more than the fifty thousand in his name, which we know to be very untrue, and so that Don only helped himself by delivering a fat check and splattered with accusations of death and brothels, which happen to the conditions that brought him into existence. Lane committed suicide in large part because he was broke. This lady doesn’t get it.

Flip from the English Channel to the Campbell household. We haven’t seen Trudy in a few episodes and here she is, showing Pete plans for a backyard pool. “All this doom and gloom, I’m tired of it!” shouts Trudy as Pete is hesitant about the pool, suggestion Tammy could drown. Who doesn’t love Trudy? She’s always so positive. But she doesn’t recognize that doom and gloom is the substance of her husband. There’s a chasm a swimming pool can’t fill.

Roger and Marie tumble onto his hotel bed. She hopes that’s all it is, but knows there’s more. Roger tells her about Lane and philosophizes on death. “You’d have to be sure you were going someplace better,” surmises Roger in absolute rather than relativistic terms. He asks Marie to take LSD with him because he needs it again to “appreciate this place” since his enlightenment wore off. Marie tells him not to ask her for anything, making clear she’s only there for her own pleasure. Roger is not allowed to be her child.

Don returns home to a sad drunken Megan. She’s a mess and stumbles onto the floor. Don picks her up and puts her in bed. She’s falling apart. She wines about her mother abandoning her and Don wanting her to fail, so he tells her just to sleep it off. Marie returns and Don’s incredulous that she’d knowingly leave her own daughter alone like that when she’s obviously in need of support. Marie says it’s not her responsibility. “Take my advice. Nurse her through this defeat and you shall have the life you desire,” Marie advises and I think it’s both sincere and correct. Marie knows much of the world, but cares about no one. Don definitely hears her, but is then brought down in pain from his tooth. He relents and visits the dentist.

Don’s a stubborn man and has always been able to rely on his body. His wife, his work, and partner decisions have all been outside his control this season but finally his body betrays him. The dentist extracts the aching tooth and its roots extend far. Long in the tooth. I get it. Don hallucinates on laughing gas. For the third time this episode, he sees his brother Adam. “You’re in bad shape, Dick,” Adam tells him. “It’s not your tooth that’s rotten,” he reveals just so we’re certain he’s not talking about Don’s physical state in either case. Am I the only one who thinks Don’s been on the best behavior we’ve ever seen of him this season? His version of compassion was factored into both Adam and Lane’s decisions to hang themselves, and he hasn’t been as supportive of his wife as he could be, but he’s not doing any lying or cheating as far as we see. So it’s not actions, but heart where Don’s been deficient.

Don wakes up and is told to do a bunch of things for his recovery. For the second episode in a row, Don must wipe blood from his mouth, this time literally.

Pete visits Beth in the hospital and I’m guessing it’s safe to say she told him beforehand which hospital. The nurse announces Pete to Beth as her brother, agreeing that they have the same eyes. If not the same problem. Beth is cheerful and kind, but she doesn’t remember Peter. She had electrodes strapped to her brain, but Pete’s the one shocked at this. “I’m here to visit my friend,” says Pete in realization and as per the episode’s title, this friend is a phantom. He spills his soul to Beth, simultaneously realizing and articulating the source of his dissatisfaction with life. About his insecurities and need to know that he knows something young people don’t in exchange for his aging. That his family is a “temporary bandage on a permanent wound,” and that he’ll be fine, though never happy. Pete now knows himself better, but not what to do.

Don walks into a movie theater and sees the back of a haircut he recognizes. He’s not hallucinating. It’s Peggy. They hug. At first it seems like Peggy might be high again. We’ve seen Peggy here before, but I don’t know why Don’s here alone. I guess he’s not. He’s been a stranger even though Peggy told him not to do that when they last said goodbye. Don seems genuinely happy that Peggy’s doing well, but he misses her. “That’s what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on,” he notes and while he’s talking to Peggy, Megan and the Butler shoe ad must be on his mind. Megan’s on Peggy’s mind too and she tells Don to say hi for her. She seems to really miss Megan and maybe it’s just the French connection.  “It’s not Paris,” says Peggy of her upcoming business trip to Richmond, Virginia and Paris is Peggy’s phantom. She’s still chasing it.

Howard meets Pete on the train and suggests they go get into some trouble since he’d rid of his wife. Pete knew he’d see Howard on the train and didn’t avoid him. He can’t help himself. He calls Howard disgusting and reveals that he’s been sleeping with his wife leading to Pete getting punched. He refuses to apologize when the conductor breaks up the fight and carries on a hilarious rant before getting punched in the face again and thrown off the train. Pete already lost a fist fight to Lane earlier this season and keeps getting beat down. He”s not a fighter. Or a lover.

Pete comes home bruised and battered, telling Trudy he fell asleep driving and ran into a ditch. That’s not true; he got punched in the face, but who said he’s talking about his injuries and not his life. The car doesn’t have a scratch on it. Trudy is so caring and loves her man. When she says “I can’t live like this” she means worrying about Pete and his condition when and if he comes home, but Pete’s thinking those exact words with only himself on his mind. She agrees that he needs an apartment in the city, knowing not what he wants it for. She wastes her love.

Still in the mood for cinema, apparently, Don watches Megan’s screen test at the office. During the movie and now, the physical Megan is nowhere to be seen. Don knows she’s a wreck and escapes to do these things anyways. He’d rather spend his time with the projection on the screen, a beautiful and confident woman, than the heap of mess at home. She’s stunning on the reel and Don smiles. “It takes us to a place we ache to go again,” said Don in the Season 1 finale as photos from his first marriage were projected onto a screen. Again, it’s late at night and he’s not home.

The partners head up the elevator to the new floor. Joan sprays a big red X where she wants the new staircase. Are we to see less of the sometimes-not-there elevator next season then? The space is empty and every partner gets to envision whatever he wants in it. The “limbo” dream state from the film Inception comes to mind. “I’m going to have the same view as you, Don” says Pete envisioning his new office, at least. The camera zooms out and shows each of the partners’ silhouettes against the unconstructed dream space.

Megan’s made up in some medieval  red dress, happy and excited. The Butler shoe ad is in production and Ken, Stan, and Ginsberg didn’t stand in the way of her casting. If she’s Beauty, Don’s obviously the Beast. What has he done? He saw beauty in a projection and cast his wife in a fairy tale. “You know I love you,” she tells him as she pecks him on the cheek. Don walks off the set. Then into a bar, ordering an old fashioned and lighting a cigarette. It’s like a flashback. Might not even be real.

A montage begins. Peggy coming out of the shower in her Richmond hotel room, seemingly pleased. She looks out the window expecting the Eiffel Tower and sees two dogs humping. It’s not Paris. Pete looks restful as he listens to his tiny orchestra through some headphones. The outside world is unimportant to him during his personal time. A buck naked Roger raises his arms and looks at his reflection. I can’t see anyone on the bed next to him, but we are to assume he’s on LSD, naked as he came into this world, looking for a reason not to leave it. Back to the bar where old school Don is approached by a pretty young blond. She asks for a light, and Don obliges knowing that’s not what she’s there to ask for. She drops the pretense and asks on behalf of her pretty young friend across the room, “Are you alone?” I think it’s a smirk that flashes, but before i can be sure, the credits roll.

We have to talk about Don, Marie, and Megan. Marie’s presence in this episode was unexpected and she’s there to make men feel weak and make her daughter feel hopeless. She’s pretty awful. She told Don to nurse Megan through her defeat and he will have the life he desires. Don didn’t ignore this advice. He gets Megan cast in the shoe commercial like she so desperately asked him to. Is this Don following or rejecting Marie’s advice? Does knowing she got this role because of her husband subject Megan’s confidence and make her ever reliant and waiting for Don? Or is this the “they succeed and move on” when you help someone thing as per Peggy? If Don did this to help Megan get her foot in the door to the acting business, he can only expect her to move on. Does that free him up to tell the girls at the bar that he is indeed alone?

It’s very difficult to take any Mad Men quotes that stand out as meaning only one thing. “Are you alone?” doesn’t mean then and there at the bar, or whether he’s married. In context, Don is being tempted with his old ways of infidelity. He’s thus far avoided it in this marriage, but as he was told in last season’s finale, he “only likes the beginning of things.”  Does a wife who gets her first acting gig through nepotism deserve his fidelity in Don’s mind? Is this the life Don desires? It’s the last line of the season and a question Don must answer himself with all the departures that happened this season. Is he alone, at work, at home, in his life and is he destined to be forever? We know Pete is, but Don’s not Pete. It’s a question we all need answered.

Megan got what she asked for — her husband helping her land a job. For the second time, but this time one she really wanted. But did she get what she wanted? She seemed genuinely happy to be shooting and appreciate of Don for doing that for her. But Megan has shown herself to be able to shift moods quickly from angry to horny and from hating Don and his orange sherbet to walking hand in hand with him into the office. With each character we have to examine what they want and what they ask for and to what degree happiness is the moment before they need more happiness. Don and Megan are the two main characters this season. Don had a specific intent in getting Megan cast as Beauty whether or not we can be sure of what it is right now. We’ll see if he gets what he wants. And if Megan does, post-fairy tale.

“Are you alone?” Don is asked.

“I am,” is the only thing I can hear him saying.

This was a great season! I can’t wait to see what’s in store fore season 6!