Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mad Men: The Phantom (5.13)

Nancy Sinatra sang that you only live twice -- one life that you drift through, and the other a fantasy. For Don, he's literally lived twice, but this season saw him embarking on something of a 'third' life, a cheat that goes against the message of the song. Megan was his opportunity to start fresh. He wouldn't cheat like he did with Betty. He wouldn't lie like he did with Betty. But over the course of these thirteen episodes, there's been this nagging sense that something was wrong with his new arrangement. Megan was beautiful and talented and admired... but there was a block. There were dizzy highs, and they often made up for the lows, but the inner turmoil Don was experiencing had to ultimately manifest somehow. So the anguish became a literal pain, something he chose to briefly ignore, until it became too much to bear. In the end, he realized what he had to do. They were done.

Of course, it would be unfair to merely explore Don's torment. Because Megan, too, was beginning to suffer. All that initial excitement about her choice of vocation, the sudden ability to actually pursue the dream she had always truly wanted for herself... yet none of it came. This is a woman who's always been fortunate. She has a natural knack for whatever comes her way, but for some reason this acting thing just didn't fall into her lap. So she crawled back to the one person she didn't want to turn to. She used her husband's connections to get a gig, even if it hurt inside to rely on the power of others.

And Don realized it was all something of an illusion. Watching that audition tape, he sees Megan as this beautiful, charming creature. It's all surface level perfection: the dream second-wife. But that doesn't automatically ensure happiness. It eventually creates this numb feeling, this gnawing pain that prevents him from any kind of action, and the only way to get over it is to finally get it removed. God, that read harsh. But the intention is there.

The Phantom, of course, wasn't just about Don and Megan. Breaking from tradition, it was a finale more concerned with tying up loose ends from the rest of the year than trying anything truly experimental or particularly interesting. But what it lacked in narrative 'specialness', it made up for in gorgeous scenes for most of our regulars.

It never seemed hugely popular among fans, but I found Pete's affair with Beth pretty absorbing, if only because there was always this sense that something traumatic was lurking right around the corner. In a testament to how unique Mad Men is, Beth didn't turn out to be 'crazy-crazy', with the violence or the erratic quality or the Glenn Close hysterics. Instead, she turned out to be literally 'crazy', in that it was all pretty sad and awful. Beth represents the truly tragic 'trapped woman' of the era. Any hint of depression is followed up by psychiatric analysis, and a quick-fix is electroshock therapy. Even worse, it's implied that this is all an easy get-out for what seems like a run of infidelity on her part. Have an affair, get your mind wiped. It's harsh and terrible and something that stuck with me for days. I'm assuming this form of therapy has evolved over time (Carrie Fisher gets it regularly and she insists that it's saved her life), but the fact that Beth seemed to have been pushed into it by those around her made the whole thing so horrible.

Pete's final analysis of his recent decisions could read as clumsily literal, but I found it to be particularly moving, Pete talking to this blank slate who has no memory of the effect they had on each other. It's like a death but arguably worse, all those feelings Pete experienced all for null because that woman doesn't exist anymore. What initially appeared as something sexy and irresistible is suddenly somebody fragile and abused, more a troubled little girl than an opportunity for escape. We leave Pete once again punched in the face and humiliated. No matter how many minor victories Pete seems to experience, his volatile decision-making and general dissatisfaction always leaves him looking ridiculous. He just hasn't got it in him.

Julia Ormond unexpectedly stole the show this week, being perceptive about her daughter (I loved her line about having an "artistic temperament" but not the talent itself) and uncomfortably open about Don's role in his marriage. I also really like her budding relationship with Roger. Roger himself was complaining only last episode that his pursuit of younger women had gotten old, growing bored with the total lack of challenge it takes in pursuit of casual sex. But Marie is his sexual and emotional equal. They've lived interesting lives, they see the world in similar ways -- and they both get their share of the best lines. They're also the type of people you'd probably think were huge assholes if you ever encountered them in reality, but on screen they're ridiculously fun. I hope their fling continues next season.

Don also got moments with two characters left on the sidelines after major events. There was Lane's widow, who was focusing her rage at her husband's work, in a decision that feels misplaced but is perfectly understandable. Then there was Peggy, who I didn't expect to appear at all. There was something so sweet about the two of them just stumbling into each other again at the movies, conversing like two old friends with a ton of respect for one another. Peggy seems happy at her new job, even if she's a little rusty like she said, but there's still that longing for Don's partnership. Likewise with Don. Despite his happiness that she's 'flown the coop' and is out on her own, he misses her, too. Their moments are always so special.

So where does all that leave us? Besides a couple of minor blips when it came to overt symbolism and mild clunkiness, I was just as engrossed by season five as I have been with every other year of this show. It pushed characters into dark places, tested your patience at times, and seemed to raise more philosophical questions than ever before. Few episodes didn't make me question my own feelings about sex and infidelity, or relationships and race. It's why Mad Men is that rare show still at the forefront of pop culture, even though it began six years ago. They're constantly evolving these characters, and having them make decisions that everybody has an opinion on.

That last montage saw Don seemingly walking away from his marriage (in one form, at least) and being seduced by his old emotions. He lost some of his edge being with Megan, but for the first time ever he seemed genuinely content and happy at times. I guess there's always that allure of the unknown, the attraction to what you don't have, and Don is always walking that tightrope. Maybe that's his destiny? Constantly struggling with that question mark, as much as it may hurt... A


- I didn't talk about Don's visions of Adam, but I guess it was another 'phantom' that was haunting him, a literal representation of his pain and his lasting guilt over Lane.

- I have no idea what the dog-screwing meant, but I loved how completely unexpected it was. Plus Elisabeth Moss' grossed-out expression.

- It was endearing seeing Joan determined to raise things that Lane would have probably raised, keeping him there in spirit.

- Megan's friend Emily was stunningly beautiful. Like Heather Graham crossed with Julie Delpy. Thinking about it, the girl at the bar also looked like Heather Graham. Maybe I just have Heather Graham on the brain. Ah, Rollergirl.

- Clearly somebody in the camera crew has a thing for Rory Gilmore side-boob.

- I was surprised that Ginsberg never really went anywhere as a character. Unless it was wrong to assume that he would anchor his own stories, since he was more of an instigator for other character's subplots.


Marie: It's a great sin to take advantage of hopeless people.
Megan: Hopeless?
Marie: [Take advantage of people's hopes.]

Harry: I need a window, Joan. I'm getting scurvy.

Ginsberg: I consider it a success if you don't have to go a single day without telling me I'm an idiot.
Stan: Tell you what, I'm so bored of this dynamic.

Joan: Tabling does not require a vote. It only needs to be seconded.
Pete: What is this, parliament?
Don: Is this meeting over yet?
Joan: No, it's not.
Pete: Don, I give you my proxy. I have things to do. (He leaves)
Don: We do that?

Marie: I wanted to spend Easter with my daughter. My husband is an atheist.

Pete: Let's go to Los Angeles. I've been there. It's filled with sunshine.

Pete: And then you'll leave, and what if you forget you love me?

Marie: [How is Regina? Did everyone enjoy your speech?]
Roger: Marie, it's Roger Sterling. I've used up all the French I know.
Marie: [Yes, we can talk. Megan's in the other room.]
Roger: What is Regina?

Joan: I know a dentist, he's in the steeple of the Chrysler Building. Even if he can't help you, you still get to see the view.

Marie: Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world could not support that many ballerinas.

Marie: Not one thing you said was true. No dinner, no chaperone, and no conversation.
Roger: Stop being demure, you're already on the bed.

Guest stars Alison Brie (Trudy Campbell)
Writers Jonathan Igla, Matthew Weiner Director Matthew Weiner

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