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.
My A.V. Club colleague Erik Adams wrote a piece about the season earlier this week, proposing that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had become equivalent to Frankenstein’s monster, and the finale bore him out: Rebecca Pryce, not-so-subtly attacking Don when he comes to deliver money Lane had contributed to the business, suggests that it was the company and the lifestyle it purports which did this to him. In truth, as I allude to above, it was Lane’s inability to engage with that lifestyle that seemed to make him so incredibly unhappy. Initially separated from his wife, he found love with a Playboy Bunny only for it to be stomped on by his father; stumbling upon the wallet of a stranger and the photo of the alluring woman in his life, he dreams of a chance encounter with the latter only to have to settle with a brusque encounter with the former; feeling true affection for Joan, it is left unrequited. While Rebecca believes her husband to have been corrupted, it was his inability to be corrupted that seemed to hasten his end: while Lane had his dalliances with rule-breaking, including writing the cheque that proved the final straw, it was his inability to forget the moments that could have been that seemed to hasten his struggle.
Obviously, we can file Don’s memories about Adam into the same category: while Don’s secrets are no longer exclusively his own, and no longer threaten to explode his world or the world of the show (with his marriage to Anna Draper proving to be less of a bombshell than Betty was anticipating), they remain his secrets to bear, and Adam’s death is something that isn’t just going to get better some day. Rebecca is right that Don delivering the money is all about him, but I don’t think that was some sort of revelation for Don: he was well aware the guilt he was dealing with in delivering that money, and so she was only telling him what he already knew (albeit without also acknowledging that the money would likely be of some assistance in the recent events of his passing).
Like so many serialized shows, Mad Men depends on the memory of its audience to connect moments together, but it also positions memory as a key component of its characters. I think it’s part of why Megan is so confounding as a character, as we really don’t know anything about her past. Don—and by association the viewer—met her before she had a history, before she really was even a character in her own right, and the season has been an interesting exercise at developing a character exclusively in the moment within an environment where rich backstories abound. Personally, I’ve found this to be incredibly productive, as the lack of history meant that we learned about Megan as Don did, to some degree. If Don truly believes himself to be alone when he walks into that bar at episode’s end, we have on some level seen the reasons why, as we move from “Zou Bisou Bisou” into the screentest that seems like a turning point.
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, this isn’t the first time Don’s relationship with a woman has been changed by a piece of technology lighting up a dark room. It was his pitch for the Kodak Carousel in “The Wheel” that convinced him to go back to Betty, that sent him back to an empty home hoping he would catch them in time. Here, meanwhile, Megan’s pitch represents precisely the opposite: while the Carousel offered an image of Don’s familial past, a cohesive family that he valued and wanted to maintain, Megan’s screentest (done without his knowledge) is a hope for the future, a future in which she stands alone despite needing Don’s help in order to get there.
It’s as if Don senses himself becoming part of someone else’s history, a notch in their belt, and it pains him in the same way it pains him to see Peggy moving on from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. As Don says, it’s only natural that Peggy would move onto something better: you help someone, and they gain opportunities they wouldn’t have gained otherwise. But he always imagined it being with him, with her sitting at the Partners table instead of Joan (who, let’s remember, is sitting there precisely because Don wasn’t able to help her by keeping her from going through with what Pete asked of her). And so, if we read Don’s trip to the bar as his return to infidelity, he gives Megan the same kiss-off he gives Peggy, accepting that his help was simply a path onto something more than didn’t involve him. The difference between the two, it seems, is that Don is able to forget about Megan, to distance himself from her and choose to define himself as her temporary benefactor while rejecting his role as her husband (as you could argue he did with Betty once she similarly looked beyond their marriage). Peggy, meanwhile, is not so easy to forget, or “replace” (as Don will do with other women, should that be his path): she’ll pop up competing for accounts, they’ll both end up in movie theatres, and they could even double date together. Their bond is something different, something more than a whirlwind romance which disintegrated, and Don doesn’t quite know how to understand his position there compared to with Megan (which he knows all too well from his time with Betty, with Betty’s dalliance with Coca-Cola also offering a clear parallel).
It is with Pete that we get the idea of memory most clunkily dropped into our laps, as his affair with Beth ends with electroshock therapy wiping away the memory of their time together. It’s easy to forget when the information is simply erased from your brain, but Pete certainly considers himself a victim for having to live on with the loss of something he considered beautiful. Pete’s obsession this season has been rendering the present as the past, to find a way to take his idyllic suburban existence and turn it into a justification for a lifestyle he’s convinced he’s supposed to lead, something he has to sleep around in order to forget. We could see it as a parallel to his effort to turn Roger into the old guard, in both cases rewriting the status quo into something that has to be overcome so as to allow himself to be the one to overcome it. While Pete is looking toward the future, it isn’t actually with any hopes or dreams: rather, it’s with the idea that in order to reach the future you need to first give yourself a reason to reach for it. If Trudy’s pool represents permanence, the apartment in the city represents transience, a better launching pad from which to keep grasping at something new lest you be forced to remember something (like the illegitimate child he fostered with Peggy, or his father’s death, or that gun that might be sitting in his desk drawer to this day).
While I don’t know if I’m able to offer a satisfactory summary evaluation of the season in the immediate hours following “The Phantom,” it feels strikingly resonant to me. This finale is not particularly thrilling, with Lane’s suicide offering the grim climax to the season as a whole, but the way the events of the season lingered through the episode felt far more connected to individual characters than it has in the past. “Sit Down. Have a Seat” is a thrilling hour of television, but it’s ultimately about a situation at Sterling Cooper than about the characters involved (although they get some brilliant moments to shine throughout). Here, everything at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is looking up, as stable as it’s been over the course of the series’ run (combining the two agencies in this case). While Season 4 charted the parallel struggles of the nascent SCDP and the newly single Don as they worked to put the pieces back together, Season 5 was the story of characters whose lives were profoundly undone (for better and/or for worse) while the professional side of things fell into place. More than ever before, Mad Men removed the auspices of workplace drama to embrace its soap operatic essence, creating the kinds of developments that you sense these characters will not soon forget.
I realize that sounds like a cliché, and it is, but it’s impressive that a show this far in its run is still capable of exciting about the future instead of dwelling in the past. Perhaps it’s the nostalgic bent, the historical nature of this historical drama, but this still felt like we were seeing part of these characters’ origin stories. This was the season when Pete put into motion the events to turn him into who Don was when the series began, and when Peggy and Joan each took steps forward in their careers but on very different terms that will shape their lives moving forward. It was also, perhaps, the season where Don’s search for his own identity reached an important point of transition, as he thinks he’s found it right up until the point Megan reveals her desires for a future that doesn’t line up with his perception of his own.
It was not a perfect season, but even its imperfections honestly feel as though they work to the show’s advantage moving forward. The truncation of Betty’s storylines in the show’s effort to work around January Jones’ pregnancy meant that she never truly got to be a part of these stories, but that only makes me more interested to see how her relative absence from the narrative shapes her involvement next season. Similarly, Peggy’s story becomes a bit of an anti-climax when her final moment with Don is followed by her relative distance from the forward momentum of the “plot” (represented by the move upstairs), but that just means we have more time next season for her absence to be felt by the characters, as it was when they had no woman to sell Topaz on the pantyhose campaign. While I understand where people were coming from with criticisms of Joan’s decision, meanwhile, I can’t help but be intrigued by Joan’s new dynamic with the partners, and with Joan’s position in general, once again setting up nicely for a new season sometime next year.
I’ve seen some chatter that suggests this finale wasn’t particularly eventful, but I’d argue it was very effective at emphasizing how eventful the season was. While light on plot in the traditional sense, one senses that the events of this season will become key memories for these characters as their narratives continue. They may eventually become phantoms, but they will always have some connection to something a real emotion or a real trauma felt in this moment. Adam may have been the only ghost we actually saw in “The Phantom,” but there were other ghosts being created for the future, the kind of forward momentum that will be exciting to watch play out in the seasons that follow.
- I ultimately felt that Megan didn’t get a fair deal from some viewers, although I do think “The Phantom” could be seen as a particularly unflattering portrayal given her choice to go for the role herself. Ultimately, I was impressed with how Jessica Pare asserted herself into the role, and felt Megan’s influence was a positive one on the season.
- Roger is the one character in the final montage that I didn’t get to address above, in many ways because his character is quite purposefully left at a moment of LSD-fueled transition from one kind of man into another. I do like the final image, though, as one of independence: his choice to take LSD on his own, to not need a partner in the endeavor, does say something regarding his path forward both personally and professionally.
- I’ll be fascinated to see how the two-story offices change the dynamics of the business. The confined nature of the existing offices were a recurring theme this season, but I’ll be interested in how the division will change the character dynamics (especially with Pete and Don now set up with the same view on different floors, an obvious but still valuable parallel to their respective positions in life).
- I apologize if all of this repeats everything you’ve read about this season elsewhere: I’ll admit that I’ve been too busy to read much of what others have written this season in addition to not having time to write about it, so any repetition is unintentional.
- We tend to read this show symbolically, and I think Matthew Weiner knows this, so I’m taking the two dogs humping outside of Peggy’s humping as a purposeful red herring. I’m not taking the bait, Weiner! You can’t make me!
- I recognized “You Only Live Twice,” but I am surely not the only mid-20s viewer who had Robbie Williams’ “Millennium” stuck in my head simultaneously.