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'Mad Men' finale, 'The Phantom' recap

Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Kartheiser, in a

Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Kartheiser, in a gallery portrait for “Mad Men”, Season 5. Credit: AMC

And so we come to the fifth season finale of “Mad Men," "The Phantom,” with Don sitting on the chair he's most comfortable in - the barstool - staring into the middle distance and possibly taking up an offer he couldn't refuse.

The fourth season ends with Don proposing to Megs; the fifth ends with the realization that the marriage is over.

The meaning of the title, “The Phantom,” is reasonably obvious: the reappearance of Don Draper half-bro Adam Whitman, played by Jay Paulson, last seen in the first season before he committed suicide.

He appears as a phantom in various scenes- a manifestation of Don's guilty conscience. But “phantom” also in the broader sense - of chasing dreams that are ever receding. I guess the episode could just as well been called “The Mirage.”

How good was this finale? On a scale of 1 to 10 - 10 being just flat out incredible; one being pretty flat out awful - I'm going with a six.

Not great, certainly, but proof again that we, the fan, invest far too much in season finales.

This really was, just another episode... What was lacking however has been much the same as the rest of the season - a certain passion, or emotional resonance. It all felt terribly chilly and remote - characters in service of Matt Weiner's grand overarching themes, as opposed to an episode in service of their hearts.

Peggy gets her first business trip ever? Whoopee! Except...oh right, she's gotta take up smoking and visit a client that traffics in mass death.

Megs get her big break? Oh right, for Butler's shoes...and screws over her girlfriend in the process...

Pete gets Beth? Oh right, she remembers nothing...

Roger gets his LSD groove back on? Oh right, by front of a window...

 Everyone is chasing phantoms, and that's just what they are. It all started to feel like a finale that told viewers, “just in case you didn't get what was going on the previous twelve episodes, this should make it clear..."

There was a certain remoteness to the whole affair - Pegs sitting in a darkened theater because someone told her that's how “to clear the cobwebs” and - unsaid - where she can find some other lonely soul for a sexual liaison.

And who should sit down next to her just as the cobwebs start to clear? Don... (At least it wasn't Bert.)

So, let's break this all down quickly and move on with our day, shall we?

* Marie Calvet - Julia Ormond - is back! Yes, the mother-in-law is staying with Don and Megs...More about her in a second. But her presence sets the tone for the entire episode - remote, cynical, cold Marie is an iceberg in their midst and a reminder to Don, as if one's needed, of Megs' future foretold. “You shouldn't keep things from your husband,” she tells Megs, meaning nothing of the sort. Keep everything from the blighter - husbands are meant to be kept in the dark.

*...On the train. Trains are to Pete what elevators are to Don - the transportation of choice for their existential despair. Howard and Beth drift by, and Pete grabs at her scarf - another phantom. Don't worry Petey. She'll be back soon enough. Pete later gets decked by a conductor on the Metro North to New Haven; I think he's been dropped three times this season so far.  

* Don sees Adam, fleetingly...and Art Garten - Jon Manfrellotti - back, ever so briefly. Let's start with Garten, last seen in “Tomorrowland,” last season’s closer. He's the Topaz (pantyhose) client, who doesn't like the word “cheap.” Fleeting glimpse of Adam and the reference to Topaz? Meaning? Not entirely sure, but the last time we got deep into Topaz - a few episodes back - Don was working on the campaign, when he left the office sick, returning home to meet another phantom, the ex-flame whom he strangles in his nightmare. And then there is Adam...who will be hanging around this episode for a while... If it's not clear yet, it should be now - when Don appears sick in an episode, he is going to have an apparition of some sort appear. The most famous instance of this in “Mad Men” history? Last season in “The Suitcase.” Don feels ill, goes to the bathroom to throw up, later spends the night with Pegs, when who should appear? The ghost of Anna Draper. Again, repeat after me: When Don gets sick, he sees ghosts. He's got a toothache in this know where that's going. 

* Peggy is back! Well, that was quick. Come on: No one expected Peggy to be gone for long from this show. There is and was a way to fold her back into the action - simply see how things are going with old Ted Chaough. Clearly, Pegs is thrilled to be top dog, even if it means pitching the “top lady cigarette..." Ted bounds in and demands that she takes up smoking..."you're a woman and you smoke...what do you want!” It's a rehash of that old line Don or someone used early in the series' run - just what do women want? The reason, or putative one, she was folded into account work at the old Sterling Cooper in the first place, because presumably she - being a women - would know what women want. The scene makes Ted look like the second-rater we all know him to be. (Plus, don't forget the ad that Don wrote when he announced the “resignation” of Lucky Strikes - that there are plenty of agencies out there that will take tobacco advertising, like Ted Chaough's schlocky outfit; the line was meant to be a swipe at Ted's outfit, and now Pegs is working for him and working on the tobacco account. It's an inside joke, and the on Pegs.

* Joan, as the new partner: This may have been my favorite of the entire episode - Joan perched there looking for all the world like the partner she was cut out to be. (Nice glasses, by the way, Joan.). She glances ruefully at poor Lane's empty seat as if a ghost - his ghost, and another phantom were sitting there. Revenues are great! But she recalls, bitterly, Lane's long-standing attention to parsimony, and that on some level, she too should always be looking out for that cloud behind the silver lining ("we shouldn't overextend ourselves...") But money's good enough to move upstairs, and all Bert Cooper wants to know is “have you found me an office...?" Wonderful. The office - which defines their souls. Poor Lane - he may as well never have existed at all, as far as these pirates are concerned.

* The girlfriend... Megs' friend begs her to ask Don for the part in the Butlers' ad... "All I want is an audition.” The scene is crucial because somewhere, unseen, an idea clicks in Megs head. We'll see a little bit more about that idea in a few minutes.

* Pete and Beth: The Pete/Beth story line now - it is clear - becomes the core narrative of the entire episode. Pete gets his dream, but the only problem - she's going to scrub her memory so Pete will vanish forever, like a phantom. It's a cruel twist even for this bumptious martinet. He even knows it - “Let's go to Los Angeles! I've been there. It's filled with sunshine!” Those are of course the three funniest lines in the entire episode - Pete's idiotic conjecture of a preferable alternative to electroshock therapy.

* Don and Megs and Megs and the commercial: Back at the apartment, Megs reveals her true character, which is Marie's true character. Rather than pitch her friend for the ad, she pitches herself. “All my friends would kill for it!' Yes, all her friends would. Megs is an actress - probably not a good one, and in fact, probably a very bad one. But she is good enough, as usual, to con Don. He resists - “You want to be someone's discovery, not someone's wife..." She probably agrees, but if it takes being someone's wife to be discovered, that's a perfectly fine pragmatic solution.

* The ghost of Lane. Joan, trying to be Lane, is guilty at the sudden newfound wealth of the agency, and more so by the fact - odd indeed - that Lane signed his death benefits over to the agency. And quite a tidy sum it is - $175,000... Now why would he do that, a puzzled Joan wonders? Why indeed: A parting blow to Don, and just a post-death reminder to him. “Oh, so you sacked me over a measly $8,000? Here! Take 175 k instead. I hope your guilt destroys you..." Lane, in death, is surprisingly vindictive. But he misreads his man: Don peals off $50 K to give to his wife. The rest goes to the agency (and Don's pocket.) Guilt, if there is any, is fleeting.

* Marie and Megs: This is a pivotal scene, and a bleakly arctic one. Mother and daughter, without love. As barren a relationship as any in this show about barren relationships. You are chasing a phantom, Marie informs...Not every girl gets what she wants...."You are an ungrateful bitch. Thank God my children aren't my whole life..." A line meant to cut. but does Megs bleed? No. She has phantoms to chase and time's awasting.

* Don visits Lane's wife, Rebecca. With its love of symmetry, “Mad Men” has twinned this scene up with the Megs/Marie one and there are parallels. But this is Don trying to slip out of his guilt - a payoff, and a measly one at that. Rebecca has been nursing regrets - and she has a few, notably a picture of some floozy she's recaptured from Lane's wallet. That of course is Delores, whom Lane played footsies with, as it were, on the phone a few episodes back. He never actually met her - he just liked the idea of her. “Don't leave here thinking you've done anything for anyone other than yourself.” She's right, of course.

* Don and the dentist. I do love the sight of Don with a gas mask - an elephant's trunk attached to the face. Adam wanders by - “I'll be hanging around - get it?” Yeah, we get it.

* Pete and Beth, part two (or is three, or four?) Pete turns up to her hospital room and - as promised - the poor girl doesn't remember much of anything. Pete then begins to temporize- for want of anything better to say, speaks of himself in the third person, explaining to Beth what their fraught love affair amounted to. It was a startling scene insofar as Pete emerged as someone entirely self-aware - startling because he's gone through five seasons without any self-awareness, apparent or otherwise. This was, to my mind, the weakest of the entire episode -- bathetic, melodramatic, and not particularly believable.

* Revenge best served cold, or served in a bar, Megs' friend, Emily, -- I believe that was her name -- approaches Don in a bar. (This scene, by the way, is oddly reminiscent of a key one in “Smash,” of all shows.) It's the last one of the season, and appears to be the coda for that entire Don/Megs -- undone in an instance. Don knows its over, knew it when he was sitting there watching her screen test - best scene of the episode. Knew it was over when he was watching that mysterious smile of hers, in the service of shoe ad...knew it was gone when he walked away, as she's busily prepping for the commercial... That old Nancy Sinatra song whispers in the background... "You only live twice or so it seems...One for yourself, and one for your dreams...This dream is for you, so pay the price. Make one dream come true, you only live twice..."

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