Shaken and Stirred: Chasing Phantoms in the Season Five Finale of Mad Men

by sweatermanifesto

Editor’s note: Every week, our resident free-market apologist, Harlan R. Teller, offers his unique perspective on the most recent episode of Mad Men.

So, is Don Draper alone or unavailable?

Evidently, we’ll have to wait until Season Six to find out, but given the sly look on the aging ex-lothario’s face when season five faded to black, we’re not going to lay two-to-one odds that he turns his back on the comely “wing-woman” at the bar and heads home to await Megan’s recap of her triumphal star turn in an ad based on the “Beauty and the Beast” story.

Evidently, the “phantom” that Don has been chasing most of the season is a semblance of his past. The previous several episodes have seen the chief Mad Man get his creative groove back and revive his competitive spirit, both early casualties of the moony torpor that marked his earlier happiness with his tempestuous second wife (or third, counting the estimable Anna). Now, with the agency minting money with the same ease that the Federal Reserve prints it and the prospect of expanding into plush new quarters one floor above the current Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices, perhaps it’s time for those competitive Draper fires to direct their flames to the opposite sex.

For those of us who truly wanted to believe that Don had reformed and was determined to make a life with Megan, we’ll be sincerely disappointed if that last scene is as straightforward as it seemed, and will be pleased if it was all a misdirection play. But the warning signs have been there. Megan, so successful as a fledgling ad woman, had been failing as an actress, leading to some brutal advice from her mother (the beguiling Julia Ormond)—namely, to stop chasing a phantom (in this case, the hope for a productive acting career). Don sees a vulnerability and desperation in Megan that he had never seen before, and it’s neither becoming nor attractive to him. And when she drunkenly tries to seduce him—in essence, landing on his “casting couch” for a shot at an ad being produced by the firm—he is disappointed and a bit repulsed.

So, against his better judgment, Don relents and tees Megan up for the job. The victory may be Pyrrhic—she may have won the part and lost Don in the same bargain. As long as Don and Megan were a team at the ad shop, all was good between them, at least as long as they didn’t trek to a distant HoJo’s. They were the advertising “Drapers,” a twosome both at and away from work. Now, with Megan as the actress “Miss Calvet,” a gulf may have opened that will grow over time, leaving them two isolated people occupying the same space.  Don may see his gift of a role for Megan as his “get out of jail free” card for future transgressions.   It doesn’t look promising for the formerly fun couple.

Professionally, pride may go before the fall, as there are cracks in the SCDP façade, even as new partner Joan Harris continues to open envelopes with large checks from both clients, and in the case of a death benefit from Lane Pryce’s sad demise, insurance companies alike. The Topaz client is unhappy with the creative; Michael Ginsberg has taken to flying off the handle when his creative is questioned; Stan is diffident as always; and the male-dominated culture of the firm—somewhat submerged as long as the redoubtable Peggy Olson held sway in the creative department—may be a liability, as products designed with newly emancipated women in mind (e.g., Virginia Slims) begin to attract huge advertising budgets. Can anyone seriously envision the frat boys from the SCDP creative team putting together a credible pitch for a woman’s cigarette?

The other notable subplot was Pete Campbell’s continued dalliance with the sad, forlorn, and ultimately, as we find, emotionally unstable Beth Dawes. This episode provided more evidence that Pete is going to have to take up karate or tae kwon do if he plans to live past the age of forty, as he continues to pick fights with people who can beat him to a pulp. And are more than happy to do it, I might add. Fortunately for the Long Island Railroad conductor who turns the side of Pete’s face into a swollen blotch, the year 1966 is long before the trial bar has turned incidents like this into six- and seven-figure lawsuits. All Pete wins is more wounded pride and a longer trip back to his suburban purgatory.

The scene with Beth in the hospital after her electroshock therapy was one of the most touching, disturbing, and fully realized scenes of the year, as Pete sheds his self-absorption and self-pity, realizing that whatever the issues he has with his own life, they don’t hold a candle to what is in store for her, imprisoned not only by a loveless marriage and manipulative husband but her own demons of depression. It is a grace note that redeems a season of insufferable behavior from Pete, and handled with heartbreaking grace by the remarkable Vincent Kartheiser.

Finally, there are those final five thrilling, riveting and visually stunning minutes of the season, beginning with an amazing shot of the profiles of the five principals of the firm looking out of the window of their new digs, following with shots of Peggy watching two amorous dogs going at it (a metaphor, but what kind, I can’t say), and Roger alone in his naked, hallucinogenic glory. The highlight is of course Don Draper walking off Megan’s commercial set, out of the studio and possibly back to the future of his former life, while the opening orchestral strings of the theme song to the James Bond movie, “You Only Live Twice”, reverberate.  As Nancy Sinatra’s painfully thin vibrato begins the song, the debonair Jon Hamm as Draper, only lacking a tuxedo to look like the next 007 (which he has sometimes been rumored to be), saunters up to the bar and orders a drink. I half expected him to ask for a martini, shaken not stirred.  And then, the question is asked, and possibly answered.  Meanwhile, we consider the two lives of Dick Whitman and Don Draper, and think that at least for Don, the song may have it right. Unfortunately for his dead brother, showing up as a phantom in Don’s guilt-ridden daydreams, there was only one life.

As to whether the Draper marriage has just been stirred up a bit or shaken to its roots—well, we’ll have to wait until next year.

Writer’s note: So what of the persistent toothache that is so central to the plot of the finale? Does it represent the decay at the root of Don’s life—his guilt over his dead brother and dead colleague, his grief about Anna’s death, the subtle deterioration of his marriage to Megan? Or is it that the root of his life and his success is built on a dead soldier, killed those many years ago in Korea? We can consider these parallels, as we wait for Season Six.

Submitted by Harlan R. Teller