“My friend down there, she was wondering: Are you alone?”
Season 5 of Mad Men has come and gone in what feels like a flash. Much of this season, including last week’s episode, was a roller coaster of emotional outpouring, due to the loss of one of the show’s major characters. As has proved throughout the years though (with the exception of Season 3), the season finale is kept admirably low key. Falling once again into the hands of Matthew Weiner, who habitually both writes and directs each season’s final episode, “The Phantom” proves a deliriously satisfying end to a very, very good season of the finest show on television.
This episode is really an amalgamation of the season’s themes. I’ve said throughout these recaps over the past 12 weeks, that from the season premiere, the key theme of Mad Men this season is the tectonic shifts of the show’s geography, in both a physical and psychological capacity.
There have been noticeable changes in how the show works. We saw Peggy leave SCDP (which drastically affected her relationship with Don and the rest of the advertising world) and we also see Joan remaining as the sole strong female voice at SCDP. Of course, there are other changes at play but those are the two most significant.
Meanwhile, Pete’s importance in the work environment saw a massive increase this year as all the important accounts for the company were brought in and overseen by him. Pete is the leech that we all love to hate, his constant sucking up and smarmy attitude really does make him hateful but it also makes it more satisfying when he is punched in the face. Which happened not once, not twice, but three times this season. In this episode alone he got punched twice. And let me say this: For all the intellectual satisfaction, subtle storytelling, amazing dialogue, big themes and all the other stuff that Mad Men offers us, Matthew Weiner also knows how to provide premium entertainment. And nothing is more entertaining than seeing Pete Campbell get walloped in the face.
Lane’s death last episode also saw another change to the office space, both mentally and physically. In this episode, due to a new influx of money because of death benefits, Joan and the rest of the partners put forward plans for new space and offices. SCDP is once again expanding, but with blood on its hands. His ghost, hence the title, is metaphorically haunting the office, decisions seem to be tougher without him, and the partners can’t seem to string something together.
But most importantly of all, Don is a changed man. The events of Season 4 have played a big part in how the character has been portrayed this year. Don’s heavy drinking and womanising caught up with him and he made sure that his life saw a dramatic change; he became more open and married a woman who seemingly could provide everything he needed.
This season he has been faithfully committed to Megan, despite the fact that their relationship isn’t perfect. They had constant arguments and battles, but Don never betrayed his marriage. Had we seen arguments between him and Betty like this in the prior seasons, we would have seen him going to find pleasure with another woman.
We didn’t get any of that this season; Don’s life had presumably gotten better. He has a beautiful, spacious apartment which he shares with his gorgeous young wife and business seems to be running well for him. All that good will that Don now feels is completely shattered in very subtle ways this episode.
For all the rich texture of the supporting characters and the attempts to provide great story lines for people like Peggy, Pete, Lane and Joan, which have been numerous and in their own ways fascinating, Mad Men is an incredibly selfish show. No matter how hard they try, the show can only be and only ever will be about one person: Don Draper. Mad Men is entirely a show served to this character and this character alone. Don is an entirely selfish man concerned only with himself, despite his attempts to rectify that.
His selfish acts are scattered throughout the episode. For one, he takes some of the death benefit money to Lane’s grieving widow, who rejects the offer, telling him that it is only to appease his own conscience rather than hers, and she’s right. Don still believes that he may have some part in causing Lane’s suicide due to his decision to fire him. It’s quite ironic that he is giving money to Lane’s wife to help her out when he fired Lane for attempting to take money off Don because he was trying to help his family.
He also has a surprise encounter with Peggy when they bump into each other at the movie theatre. They talk about her career and he asks how her new job is going. When she responds that it’s good, he says: “That’s what happens when you help someone. You want them to succeed.” Don is effectively taking credit for her career which he started, but then sought to undermine at every possible turn during her creative period at SCDP.
If you hadn’t guessed, this episode is solely about Don, whether it be an arbitrary, chronic tooth ache or his guilt and ideas of his own importance. The episode’s title, “The Phantom,” refers not to the guilt of everyone affected by Lane’s death, but Don’s guilt alone. Juxtaposing the guilt of Lane’s suicide are Don’s visions of his brother: Adam, who hung himself after Don sent him away in the show’s first season. Adam comes to Don while he sits in the dentist chair, under anaesthesia. He tells him he will remove the thing that is rotten, which isn’t just his tooth.
What could Adam be referring to? Don’s heart? It’s possible. But as this isn’t the first metaphysical encounter Don has experienced throughout the show’s history (remember the ghost of Anna Draper in season 4′s The Suitcase?), I’m inclined to believe that Adam is talking about Don’s soul. During the season Don has remained the good guy, but underneath, this episode suggests that Don has never changed and won’t.
And while this season has postured ever lasting changes for other elements around Don, which would thereby affect the show as a whole, it is Don’s backsliding in this episode that makes us realise that the show will never change at all, because Don hasn’t changed himself.
Weiner is completely and utterly aware of this; the final montage even acknowledges it. As we see the changed lives of Pete Campbell, Peggy Olsen, and Roger Sterling, we see Don casually sitting at a bar. He drinks, he smokes and then two women approach him essentially looking for sex, and before we cut to black, Don looks at them in a way that tells us temptation has got the better of him.
This comes after a very interesting point in the show. Megan’s whining about her acting career not taking off may come to a close when an opportunity arises for her to star in a commercial for one of SCDP’s clients. Don is hesitant but after much deliberation he allows her to be in the commercial due to seeing her reel; he remembers his wife is a beautiful, young woman who can sell products. The problem this causes for Don is that Megan now no longer belongs to him; she belongs to all the people who see that commercial, and now the world. Her beauty is something that every man who sees that commercial will now desire and want.
This was his main problem with Betty; she was a model but quit when she married, as she belonged to Don. However, in the show, Betty returned to that work, meaning that, like Megan, Betty would not be his sole property. She would belong to billboards, women who wanted to be her, and men who wanted her; hence he had to go looking for his ownership of another woman elsewhere. He will experience the same with Megan, hence the temptation at the bar. Just before we cut to black, Don’s glance is the key signifier that his character is the same. A selfish, very controlling man.
In the years from now when Mad Men is finished and we look back on popular culture as a whole, the great character studies of our time in literature, film or television will not be complete without Don Draper. He is the Tony Soprano, he is the Charles Foster Kane, he is the Jay Gatsby of Mad Men; he is the cultural icon of his generation.
Throughout 5 years of construction, Matthew Weiner has created one of the most rounded, psychologically deep and complex characters of all time and there is still more to come. His story has not been finished yet.