READ MORE: In ‘The Phantom,’ ‘Mad Men’ is Haunted by the Ghosts of the Past
As part of Film Independent at LACMA: A Tribute to Mad Men, showrunner Matthew Weiner and series star Jon Hamm sat down with Elvis Mitchell (the curator for Film independent’s ongoing joint venture with LACMA) to talk about “The Phantom,” also known as the Season 5 finale. They expounded on everything from the possibility of Bjork as Peggy (“That’s totally going to trend,” joked Hamm) to the reasoning behind Don’s toothache storyline (as Weiner put it, “Dentistry has not progressed even slightly since then”). Weiner also talked at length about how Season 5 shook out careerwise for two of the show’s leading ladies — after all, it was in Season 5 that both Peggy and Megan both quit their respective jobs to move to greener pastures.
If the details are hazy for you, here’s a (very) bare bones recap [spoilers follow]
: Near the end of Season 5, SCD&P was still reeling from Lane’s suicide (though the grieving isn’t quite strong enough to stop them from buying the floor above for their expansion), and Megan was mustering up the courage to ask Don for the chance to star in her first commercial. Don, of course, denied her request, with a sharpshooter’s finesse — only to change his mind in the eleventh hour. The episode wrapped up with Don both repairing things with an estranged Peggy (this was pre-merger, post-quitting Peggy) and very symbolically walking away from Megan.
As it would turn out, the whole of Season 5 was crescendoing towards that moment — “We built this entire season around this ending concept of Don giving Megan the job,” said Weiner, “Don walking away from her, and the set receding into the background, him agreeing to do that, him seeing that screen test…” From “Zou Bisou Bisou” to that award-winning Heinz pitch, all of it was leading to that fateful Butler Shoes “Beauty and the Beast”-themed commercial (and yes, as Weiner pointed out, there’s a lot of symbolism flying around with Beautiful Megan and Beastly Don).
Weiner was inspired to create her pivotal screen test after watching some real-life screen tests: “Mad Men” was in the midst of making the switch from film to digital, so some “extremely beautiful people” (AKA stand-ins) were all put on camera. Weiner saw one such woman laughing (someone was telling her jokes on camera) and was struck by the simplicity of the action. “It had that silent film thing,” said Weiner — and suddenly, there it was: The perfect way to finally convince Don to give Megan the job. “I was like, ‘This is an amazing effect; Don is going to be able to see Megan again — his whole romantic fantasy of her — if he watches that screen test.'” And it worked.
If Megan getting the job was one major arc in the series, Peggy quitting hers was another. Perhaps in one of the best moments in “Mad Men” history (though let’s be honest, most of the Peggy/Don scenes are in the top 10), she quit after he quite memorably threw money in her face. For viewers, her flying the coop after years of mistreatment felt like an inevitability, but for Weiner, it actually was not — “I didn’t know she was supposed to quit,” he explained.
Fortunately for Peggy, the writers of “Mad Men” weren’t afraid to stand up for her — according to Weiner, they came up to him to tell him, “She cannot put up with this shit anymore … you cannot keep kicking her like that, she has got to get another job.” Weiner was quick to express his concern for the concept — as he put it, “We lost Lane, Lizzie’s not leaving the show — so you better figure out something.” Luckily, they had a plan in their back pocket — and thus the mid-Season 6 merger was born, marking one of the only times the “Mad Men” writing staff had ever planned any major plot points out in advance (somewhat surprising for a show as meticulous as “Mad Men,” no?).