June 10th, 2012
“This may be our last chance.”
I was having a conversation with some friends the other night, and we were discussing the character of Paul Kinsey. My colleague Alyx expressed an affection for Paul, but admitted that the character simply wasn’t talented enough to meet his aspirations, directly alluding to the character’s return this season. However, while she was aware of what was happening this season (albeit through reading weekly reviews as opposed to actually watching it), the other friends at the table were at least a season behind, which meant that we didn’t get a chance to continue the conversation.
I found myself returning to it watching “The Phantom.” Paul Kinsey got left behind by the narrative, becoming a symbol of the consequences of the development Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency and eventually returning as a man chasing dreams of love and fame without the means to achieve either. But while Paul is in a pitiable situation, off to Los Angeles on Harry’s dime with nothing but a terrible Star Trek spec script to his name, are we exactly meant to pity him?
Or is our pity instead for Lane Pryce, the man who had the means for success but did everything he could to sabotage it? He’s the man who got swept up in this agency when he could have instead been sent to India, who was given this opportunity to be a name partner long before he could have dreamed, and yet he ends his life a broken man whose choice to hide his shame and suppress his desire to life the live before him results in his end. Is it a greater shame to lose the life you want to lead and aspire to something greater, or to live the life you want to lead while denying yourself the pleasures and thrills that come with it?
Of course, it’s hard to avoid the specter of Lane’s death (especially compared to Paul’s futile journey to Los Angeles), and “The Phantom” could in fact refer to his empty chair at the partners meeting (which the camera lingers on). But on a larger level, this season of Mad Men has been (for me) an investigation of those moments that give us a tinge of doubt, those moments that won’t leave our minds except with the help of electroshock therapy, and those moments that make us ask ourselves when our last chance might be. In other words, it’s about the characters treating their own lives like we treat the show they’re a part of: just as we look back to piece things together, to ponder over narrative moments and psychological motivations, so too has Mad Men’s cast of characters taken to viewing their actions as matters of cause and effect.
It’s a dangerous game for them to play, and it results in a finale that is not quite subtle in its thematic material. My notes for the episode are filled with lines and details that scream out to be applied to the characters’ storylines as the season comes to an end. After sitting out much of the season, I could easily spend hours poring over those notes and pulling out every thematic thread, but I want to focus on a single question: what does it take for us to be able to turn the present into the past, to forget something or someone? It’s a question that drives much of the season, calling attention to the weight of what happened in a season light on plot but heavy on consequences, and a season that builds rather impressive momentum for a show entering its sixth season.