“Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world could not support that many ballerinas.”
–Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond)
Season five of “Mad Men” came to an end last night not with a bang or a whimper — it was more of an exhausted sigh, the kind that escapes you when you look at yourself in the mirror and can only see what time is doing to the face you used to have. It’s been an even more melancholy than usual arc this year for the show, which saved for its late episodes the one-two-three punch of Joan (Christina Hendricks) being rented out like a call girl for the betterment of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) finally leaving for greener pastures and Lane (Jared Harris) making a permanent exit by hanging himself at the office. All that drama in its rearview, the show chose for its season finale “The Phantom” (directed by Matthew Weiner) to dwell on disappointmen, disillusionment and everything that had come to pass, events that have left an ache that, like the pain in Don’s (Jon Hamm) tooth, refuses to go away by itself.
A lot has changed for the characters of “Mad Men” in the past 13 episodes, but “The Phantom” quietly suggests that for all their running toward the future, many of them haven’t ended up very far from where they began. Don closes out the episode in a bar, which is where we first saw him back in the series premiere, still with his drink and cigarette, fielding a loaded question from a flirtatious girl and her friend — “Are you alone?” He is, of course — in his very nature, Don Draper is always, always alone — but the implicit offer is one of infidelity, a fear of returning to which has literally given Don nightmares but doesn’t seem so threatening or so remote here.
Don loves Megan (Jessica Paré) and has put a lot of work into building a new life with her in their apartment high above Manhattan, but her request for him to use his position to get her hired for the Butler shoes “Beauty and the Beast” has damaged something between them. He had no problem using his sway to get her hired at SCDP back at the start of the season, but there Megan was his companion at work, his partner and his exhilarating equal. He’s been nursing a wound ever since she chose acting over his own calling, and has struggled to respect her decision and her desire for independence. But here she disappoints him, in ways he may not yet be able to articulate.
“You want to be somebody’s discovery, not somebody’s wife!” Don tells Megan, and she knows this, but she still cries like a child denied what she thinks she’s due when he refuses to step in. Suddenly she’s no longer the surprising girl he spontaneously married, she’s the unseen-in-this-episode Betty (January Jones), who once wanted to return to modeling and was offered a job only as leverage to woo Don away to a new firm. It’s a parallel the show hammers in by having Don watch Megan’s screen test reel, the one she had made as what turned out to be just a scam to sell more acting classes.
It was a callback to Don’s season one Carousel pitch in “The Wheel,” in which he used his own family photos of happier times to win over Kodak, and for a moment even won over himself, until he got home to find an empty house. This time it’s Don who leaves, walking away from the ad shoot in one of a few stagely dreamlike shots in the episode (another being the one in which the five remaining partners fan out in front of the windows of their new expanded office space) in which he strides off into the dark as Megan is primped and readied on the fast-receding set.
“I just get to this place and I suddenly feel this door open and I want to walk through it,” Beth (Alexis Bledel) confesses to Pete (Vincent Kartheiser). She’s talking about suicide (as does the reappearing shade of Don’s late half-brother Adam (Jay Paulson), who like Lane hanged himself), but she also describes the visual motif of the episode, which makes space for portals opening and swinging shut, to the Pryce apartment, the Draper bedroom, the movie theater, the hospital. It’s as much about closing oneself off as heading somewhere new, an action in line with each character ending up in isolation as the credits rolled.
Pete (who got punched in the face for the second time this year) has more of a connection with Beth than he had with anyone else in his life since, perhaps, Peggy, but he ends up erased from her memory by her electroshock treatment, only able to confess the problems faced by his “friend” (whose homelife has become, as he puts it “some temporary bandage on a permanent wound”). Roger tries to find in Marie (Julia Ormond) a sort of strong and potentially mothering Mona (Talia Balsam) replacement, but is told “please don’t ask me to take care of you” and ends up taking LSD by himself.
Joan lets slip that she’s taken more damage from the deal that landed them the Jaguar account than she’s been letting on when she muses to Don that maybe Lane wouldn’t have died if she’s been receptive to his pass back in “Signal 30” — and of course the person she says this to knows far better what pushed Lane over the edge and will never tell anyone. That’s why Don is left to shoulder the terrible accusation leveled at him by Lane’s widow Rebecca (Embeth Davidtz) — “you had no right to fill a man like that with ambition.” To want things, in the world of “Mad Men,” is to court crushing disappointment or to find out after you get them, as it’s implied Peggy is, that they’re not as magical as you expected them to be — what you’re actually chasing is a phantom.
On the plus side, it looks like Sterling Cooper Draper (Campell Harris?) will no longer have to pretend to have a second floor.