As far as titles go, ‘The Phantom’ seems to have obvious ties to the unexpected departure of Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) during last week’s ‘Commissions and Fees.’ On the other hand, it could be argued the title refers to the specter of doom that hung over much of Mad Men season 5, and as the closing piece to this particular run, works to create a sense of cohesion between the many amazing stories told in the last 12 episodes.
Yet somehow, when it comes to Mad Men, the notion of a phantom comes up with too many interpretations to be relegated solely to the concept of something as foreboding and singular as a person’s death – impending as they all are. The phantom is also need; it is desire. The phantom is that person ambition drives us to become. Even though, as badly as a person may want to achieve their dream, it simply may not be in their make up to attain such aspirations.
Perhaps Marie (Julia Ormond) says it best: “Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world could not support that many ballerinas.”
In Mad Men, however, ambition is want, and everyone eventually gets what they want. How long they hold onto it, is another matter altogether.
Perhaps the suicide of Lane Pryce serves as a reminder of that fact, but then again so does the constant prompt that as sure as a person creates for himself some semblance of stability, others are ready to knock it right down – not necessarily out of spite (or even awareness of the fact), but rather out of a need to make room for themselves. After all, want is nothing if not universal.
Season 5 started with an intimate look into the lives of some very successful people, who, despite the heights they had reached, still pondered what more could be waiting out there. It was evident, though, as Don (Jon Hamm) celebrated his fortieth birthday that all the success in the world wasn’t worth squat when it came to the ambitions of those heading up the ladder behind him. The world was changing and in his complacency (brought about by romantic satisfaction), Don was about to be left in the dust. For all intents and purposes, Don had achieved his goal of becoming a new kind of Don Draper (reinventing himself again, if you will), but it was a victory contingent on others playing along. Unfortunately, Don had married a woman intent on living her own life.
If anything, Megan (Jessica Paré) has been the counterbalance to Don’s progressive descent into mediocrity, freely climbing up and down the ladder of success, while her husband wallowed in contentedness. Don only became aware that things at SCDP weren’t as rosy as he’d believed after Megan descended the lofty perch he had provided the two of them. And so, time and time again, Matthew Weiner and his crew of writers make reference to those offices as both the dream so many hope to achieve and the prison that refuses to let those who truly have ascended back down.
But like Don says to Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) when they run into one another at the movies, “That’s what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on.” While Megan exited in pursuit of yet another ambition, SCDP also saw the departure of Peggy, as she moved on to make a name for herself without the benefit of the being Don Draper’s protégé.
While much of the season hinted at the progression of time, and the inevitability of growing old and being replaced by the young, Peggy’s move, and the earlier hiring of Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) affords the realization that the children aren’t so much the future, but rather, the children are the competition. There is a finite amount of success to be had, and everyone, young and old alike, will be searching for their piece of it. It is evident in the passive discouragement Megan receives from mother Marie, and it’s even more prevalent in the relationship between rivals Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and the nemesis walking the halls of SCDP under the name Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser).
The subject of many fantastic stories, Pete has been a consumptive force for much of season 5, frequently crossing over into near-despondency at the thought of all the things he doesn’t have – even in the face of unimagined success.
For one reason or another, Pete has it in his head that Beth (Alexis Bledel) is the answer to all of his woes, and although he is at first reluctant, agrees to see her for what he later learns will be the last time. Though he pleads with her to run away to Los Angeles with him, Beth opts to have another round of electroshock therapy, as that seems to help her when she’s “blue.” Although the therapy has positive benefits, its comes with the unfortunate side effect of creating a grey cloud over Beth’s memories – the result of which leaves Pete revealing his unhappiness to a woman who no longer recognizes him. The painful realization is that Pete’s left to return home to a wife that does not truly know him.
Mad Men then answers the question: How many times will Pete Campbell be punched in the face before the season is through? The answer: A lot. But even in that seeming defeat, Pete manages to find a small victory as Trudy (Alison Brie), believing the bruises on his face to have been caused by an auto accident, relents and agrees to let him get an apartment in Manhattan. Even in the face of repeated failure (or punches), Pete Campbell finds a way to get what he wanted.
And so does everyone else. In the wake of Lane’s death, the agency is doing record business, and will be expanding its offices – affording Pete the same view as Don. Roger is further expanding his mind with the help of LSD and Bert (Robert Morse) is finally getting an office.
Meanwhile, Megan finds it difficult to deal with the fact that she may not be good at something. That’s why, when her mother suggests it is somehow cruel to give hope to the hopeless, that the notion of failure hits Megan particularly hard. So, instead of pursuing her art, which she quit the world of advertising for, Megan pleads with her husband for a part in a commercial. Proving Marie’s point that Megan has an artist’s temperament, but she is not an artist.
Don, however, is suffering with a nearly abscessed tooth, the pain from which leads him to see his dead half-brother Adam (Jay Paulson) in the building housing SCDP, and later at the dentist while getting the offending tooth extracted. During the procedure, Don silently comes to terms with the fact that his nature is not going to be fixed by having a rotten tooth removed, or by marrying whom he thinks may be the perfect wife.
In the end, Don relents, using his influence to get Megan cast in the commercial she so desperately wanted. In doing so, however, and as the song ‘You Only Live Twice’ plays over the scene, Don seems to be starting over as the Don Draper of old, lighting up a cigarette, drinking an old fashioned and entertaining the advances of two very attractive young women.
Ultimately, the fifth season of Mad Men was a dark and complex one, filled with as many quotable lines as unforgettable watercooler moments. It’s no stretch to say that Mathew Weiner has created one of the best shows to ever appear on television. Given the rare feat of producing a fifth season that tells as strong a story and is as immaculately performed as the seasons that have proceeded it, Weiner and the cast could be looking at another well-deserved Emmy for their impressive efforts.
Mad Men will return to AMC for season 6 sometime in 2013.