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Friday, 5 of March of 2021

Mad Men – “The Phantom”

“Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world could not support that many ballerinas.”

Pete, Don, Joan, Bert, and Roger stand in their new office space.

The five partners audition for a part in Dark City. Later, Roger goes the extra mile.

That was a finale?

Call me jaded or spoiled but I expect more of a cliffhanger or at least something a little more shocking in my Mad Men season finales. There were no major shifts with the business (adding real estate doesn’t count). No head-scratching proposals. No dynamic changes at all.

With last week’s shocking (if not surprising) episode, it almost felt like we got a breather week but with nothing afterward. That’s not to say that this week’s episode wasn’t good-to-great. Upon further inspection, you can see that it wraps up the season-long thesis of loneliness. Everyone’s life sucks and they’re isolated and they’re alone because no one understands them in this world that’s leaving them behind. Come back for more!

We may leave this season without shocking revelations but we find them in greater misery than they were at the end of any other season. The show plumbs new lows in order to establish that this is the darkest timeline. And the end-of-episode montage tells me that this was the end of the season. It just doesn’t feel that way.

Let’s take a tour of the sad.

The season has come down on both sides of the argument of whether Pete Campbell has a heart or a cold dark stone that’s also a prison for hopes and dreams of children with cancer. Sometimes, he’s a man who has passion and sympathy for an innocent woman married to a jackass; sometimes, he is also that jackass. He doesn’t have any friends; his ego is so large and abrasive even Lane wants to knock him out. He has this family that loves him; he tries to pimp out Joan to clients. And I mean pimp out in the conventional sense where he offers her sex for someone else’s money. You see how things are complicated.

The season finale seems to side with Pete not being a bad guy, just an ambitious one that can’t understand why no one deigns to offer him the crown. The only person this season that allows him to demonstrate the passion that makes him less monster and more human is crazy Beth. Before, you just thought she was nuts because she would sleep with Pete but it turns out she’s a little more bonkers than that. It explains a lot.

But she’s his muse. She’s the person he wants to impress, the woman for whom he would like to plunder victories and to whom he would like to offer the heads of the conquered. His imagination is rampant with images of her being in awe of him, aided by the fact that she can manage to stay away from him so that his inner tension and frustration grows, like so many of his goals. In fact, Beth is, more or less, a metaphor for his requited and unrequited ambition: beautiful and ripe for his plucking from a distant vantage but, once he gets there, has strings attached and isn’t nearly as pure as he’d hoped.

Sadly, his last meeting with her turns into a Notebook situation where she doesn’t remember him but gives him the opportunity remind her or at least woo her with the story of their love. But there is no grand story. It’s just a chapter marked by betrayal, depression, and pathetic whimpering. In the end, as he admits, it’s just another reminder of how isolated and lonely he is and even the crazy woman that seemed to understand him deserts him.

But Pete’s not alone in loneliness. Marie descends from Canada to ensure both Roger and Megan know they are alone in this world, Roger because Marie wants nothing to do with him that doesn’t involve his wiener and Megan because she constantly reminds her that not even her mother believes in her ability to succeed. Mark that with Marie’s own feeling of isolation (our brief history with her shows that even when she’s with Emile she’s not with him) and you have a three-fer.

Don walks into a movie theater.

Is that the dude from the first episode that smokes the Old Gold cigarettes or am I just racist?

Don, however, should be our focus. As he deals with the ambiguously symbolic pain in the back of his jaw (it is love? is it monogamy? is it a feeling of belonging even though he should cursed with loneliness?), he tries to do right the entire episode, only to realize he can’t make himself happy. He tries to tell Megan that she doesn’t want a job because she is the ad guy’s wife and he tries to make a gesture toward Lane’s widow on behalf of the company by offering the collateral Lane put up for the start up. Both blow up in his face.

Complicating matters is how he’s being reminded of his first season self. The obvious reminder is Don seeing his hanged brother everywhere, a vision to which he admits how lonely he feels. In the last season finale, I noted how I think Megan and Betty are the same person, just at different points in their lives and how being with Don with put Megan on the Betty track. It didn’t pan out exactly like that but to equal effect for Don. The biggest problem with Betty wasn’t her juvenilia or her cold-hearted nature disguised as proper etiquette. It’s that they led such separate lives. Don wasn’t involved in the domestic sphere beyond an external force with the final say on things. Betty wasn’t anything more than a sounding board for Don’s problems, if she was even that. They lived independently of each other.

Don and Megan were a team. Megan intimately understands what Don does, how the business runs, and who is involved from an insider’s perspective that Betty never had. They worked well together and worked well off each other. It was a symbiosis Don enjoyed, to join with someone that is beautiful, talented, and impressive. But Megan’s desire to chase a dream beyond Don severs the conjoined nature. True, Don does want a woman to whom he can come home, a wife that understands him. The issue isn’t so much that he doesn’t want Megan to work as it is that Don doesn’t want Megan to have a universe in which he isn’t involved. Probably not any less sexist but he wants a best friend and he feels like everyone is pulling away from him.

Particularly now that Peggy is no longer in his life. Their meeting at the movie theater is bittersweet in a way. They talk as peers here, colleagues, and, even though the conversation is warm, it lacks the same connection you’re used to with Don and Peggy. Peggy telling Don to give Megan her love (and that “we should all get together”) just before the movie starts is heartbreaking. It makes reference to their distance, to her removal. While I feel like Don is truly happy Peggy is making it work over at her new company (the scene where she gets to be Don to those sorry copywriters is priceless), it only compounds how lonely he is.

So, in the end, he lets go. He lets Megan audition and win the job of Beauty (which makes Don “the Beast” — wonk wonk) which will almost certainly kickstart her career. And Don ends up in a bar, ordering an old-fashioned, being propositioned by women. You get the sad sensation that he is back where he started except you feel worse because Megan is not Betty. Betty is incorrigible, heartless, and cold. Megan is a good person with a dream and is very much into Don. If there is a cliffhanger to this episode, it is wondering if Don truly feels the way he did when we first met him or if Megan has made him any different.

I suppose that’s what makes this a season finale. Though there’s no breath-taking stunt that can be distilled into a pithy tweeted question, you get the feeling that so many people are on the brink of disaster. Will Don slip into his old adulterous ways? Will Pete come to terms with the fact that his family is only a symbol of success and doesn’t make him happy? Will Roger come to terms with the fact that his “freedom” is actually prologue to dying alone? The pace and tension of this episode is misleading because we’re media-conditioned to understand what a season finale is supposed to entail. But will the questions we’re left with bring us back next season anyway? Of course. We don’t need a the question of assassin’s identity or a choice between Ben and Noel to inspire our continued allegiance. Just the singular promise that we’re about to see a train wreck on all levels will suffice.

Other things:

  • Sentimentality on Pete (letting the scarf run through his fingers) is creepy.
  • HARRY: “I need a window, Joan. I’m getting scurvy.”
  • People get to work and have hissy fits where they bang and hit stuff. Ginsberg isn’t handling his role minus Peggy very well. Pete isn’t handling his role with Beth well either. Both are babies.
  • STAN: “I’m so bored of this dynamic.” Because Stan’s been a bystander for much of Don’s interactions with head copywriters. Peggy, at least, made it interesting. Getting Ginsberg’s goat is like shooting fish in a barrel.
  • DON: “We can do that?”
  • Beth’s excuse for sleeping with Pete again (“I might not remember this”) is the equivalent of “I’m shipping out tomorrow.”
  • Raise your hand if you thought the heavy breathing on the phone was Glen.
  • Megan: cutthroat! Taking her friend’s gig! Also of note, Don telling her that she doesn’t want it this way. There’s a theme developing for Don at the end of this season, seeing things happening in a way that grates against his principles. He’s never able to stop them, even after he lodges complaints or tries to defuse situations. It’s interesting how powerless he’s been in these latter episodes.
  • ROGER: “What is Regina?”
  • I love how uncomfortable the concept of sex with Joan makes Don. It’s exacerbated after how she became partner but they’ve always had a relationship that had nothing to do with that aspect of their lives (other than Joan choosing Mrs Blankenship so that Don could keep it in his pants). It’s adorable.
  • MARIE: “Because you are chasing a phantom.” Name-checks the episode so it’s worth noting that she’s talking about a future that Megan can’t have. Megan chases the phantom of acting success, Pete chases the phantom of happiness, Don chases the phantom of marital bliss. Roger is chasing something but it’s usually tail.
  • REBECCA PRYCE: “You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition.” That’s the saddest of truths. Lane died because he wasn’t the personality everyone else is. He didn’t have the constitution for it. He didn’t really have the constitution to be a shoe salesman, to be honest.
  • Did they intentionally push the hair off Pete’s giant fivehead more than usual so he’d look older? He looks like he’s about to ask Beth if she got the pears.
  • A lot of satisfaction this season with people smacking Pete.
  • Trudy! Stop thinking the world of Pete! Just stop it!
  • Watching Megan’s reel (particularly without sound) is poignant and will only reveal its power with the next season. Did he just watch something that reinvigorated the faith in his wife? Or was that a memorial for what used to be? Megan using Calvet as her stage name along with Don’s exit from the stage (walking away from the performance of his life) then going into a bar to be hit on by women would lead one to believe the latter. But you hope for the former.
  • Last but not least: some Slattery butt for the ladies, some Rory Gilmore sideboob for the gentleman. Actually, appreciation for this is gender-neutral. It’s enough for anyone to appreciate.

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