[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from Mad Men's fifth season finale. Read at your own risk.]
We suppose it's fitting that Mad Men's fifth season, which at times felt a bit like a horror movie, ended with several of its characters, as Megan's mom put it, "chasing a phantom."
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Don was the only one literally seeing ghosts, as he was haunted by the apparition of his half-brother Adam, who met the same fate in Season 1 as Lane Pryce did a week ago. And while nearly everyone was dealing with the fallout of Lane's suicide, hardly anyone — including Lane's wife — was willing to talk about it. Instead, most of the phantoms were metaphorical: Pete was chasing after the dream of true love with Rory Gilmore, Roger sought to regain enlightenment with another LSD trip, and Megan whined about her stalled acting career. And even though a buck-naked Roger got what he was chasing, we've already seen this season how quickly enlightenment can wear off.
Put another way, if you catch a phantom, it's hardly ever what you wanted it to be and is never a permanent solution.
Take Pete, for example. After finally getting over his night with Beth (Alexis Bledel), he runs into her and her husband on the train to work. She calls him to the Hotel Pennsylvania for one last romp, but only because she's agreed to undergo electroshock treatment to cure her "feeling blue." Shockingly (heh), it's not the first time she's done this, but despite Pete's pleas ("What if you forget you love me?" he asks, pitifully), she goes through with it.
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After Beth has the procedure, Pete visits her at the hospital. She has no idea who Pete is, though she remembers enough to know that he's not her brother. Pete tells Beth of his longing and his heartbreak and his epiphany that his "life was some temporary bandage on a permanent wound." On the train ride home, Pete confronts Howard, Beth's husband, earning a knuckle sandwich from both Howard and the train's conductor. When Pete slinks home to Trudy, she sees his bruises and agrees he can have his apartment in the city. Success! But oh, how lonely that apartment will be without Beth.
Megan has paid to have a screen test done with the hope that it will earn her an audition or two. When she learns from a friend that Butler Footwear — who happens to be a Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce client — is casting a Beauty and the Beast-inspired commercial, she asks Don to show them her reel. He refuses, claiming she'd rather be "someone's discovery than someone's wife." Megan spends the following days in bed and drunk, accusing Don of refusing her requests so she'll be there waiting for him when she gets home.
After Don exorcises his own ghosts (more on that in a bit), he reconsiders. He watches "Megan Calvet"'s tape and suggests her for the role, which she gets. But whether Megan realizes it or not, she's choosing the work over Don. And Don, who it seems gets Megan the part out of genuine love for her, appears to willingly sacrifice what he wants in order for her to succeed. (As Don tells Peggy, "That’s what happens when you help someone — they succeed and move on.) This probably means the end of the good times in their marriage. We never really got to see Don fall in love with Betty the Model, but we imagine it looked a lot like Don watching Megan's screen test. We all know how Don and Betty ended up.
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For obvious reasons, Don is a bit more haunted by Lane's death than the others. How else to explain why he keeps seeing his dead half-brother Adam everywhere he looks? The guilt of the two suicides hangs over Don, no matter what he does to make it right. (Apparently, giving Lane's wife $50,000 doesn't exactly do the trick. "Don't leave here thinking you've done anything for anyone but yourself!" she shrieks at him.)
Our chief complaint about Mad Men's fifth season has been the heavy-handedness of its themes and symbols. Enter this week's anvil to the head: Don's toothache. When he finally heads to the dentist, he has an anesthesia-aided final moment with Adam, who tells Don, "It's not your tooth that's rotten." Don begs Adam not to leave him, but he's gone. And once the tooth is extracted, so, too, is Don's guilt, it seems.
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But is Don, who became the office's moral center during Jaguar-gate, really rotten inside? As he walks off the commercial set and into a bar, he may as well have traveled back to the pilot. He lights up a cigarette, orders an old-fashioned, and the ladies flock to him. "Are you alone?" one of them asks. Don doesn't get to respond before the show fades to black, but does he really need to? With Nancy Sinatra's theme from You Only Live Twice conveniently playing in the background, it seems all too clear that Megan, despite Don's best efforts, has become Betty 2.0. And we fully expect him not to spend many nights in the near future alone. He may not be rotten, but he is rotting — decaying slowly before our eyes.
Don isn't chasing a phantom; he is one. He's been living as a dead man for years, and thanks to his hobo code, he's probably lived much more than twice. But no matter who he's bedding, or how many floors his company takes over in the Time Life Building, Don Draper will almost certainly always be alone.
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A few stray thoughts:
• I was equally thrilled and sad to see Peggy. I like knowing that, as I suspected, the show will continue to show her working at her new job. But I feel like her exit from SCDP was a stronger endnote for her story this season. However, she was the one person who caught her phantom without it turning to crap. She's thrilled to have flown on a plane for a business trip to Richmond. Humping dogs be damned, Peggy Olson has arrived.
• Also loved the scene with Peggy and Don in the movie theater, particularly the way Peggy mirrored the Don Draper pose used in the Mad Men logo when Don walked up.
• Pete got the crap kicked out of him this season, but really, he's always had it coming, right?
• That said, the line of the night belonged to Pete: "Well, I'm president of the Howdy Doody Circus Army!"
What did you think of the finale? Season 5 as a whole?