The title of MAD MEN‘s Season 5 finale was “The Phantom,” and as is almost always the case with Matthew Weiner’s opus, it had several meanings. (Weiner shared credit for the finale’s script with Jonathan Igla, and directed the episode himself.) Most specifically, the phantom was that of Adam Whitman, Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) brother, who hung himself several seasons ago after, as with Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) last week, Don abandoned him. Images of Adam kept appearing to Don during the finale, and finally spoke to him when he was under anesthesia, significantly to have the rotten tooth removed that he’d been pretending all episode wasn’t causing him pain.
Another kind of phantom was picked up in a line of dialogue from Marie Calvert (Julia Ormond) to her daughter Megan (Jessica Pare), Don’s wife, when Megan complained about the lack of progress in her acting career. Marie accused Megan of chasing a phantom instead of being happy with the life she had–a handsome husband who provided her with everything she could want. This was the kind of phantom that most concerned the episode and this season–indeed, it could serve as a topic line for Mad Men the series as a whole. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) chased Beth (Alexis Bledel), his fellow commuter’s wife who seemed to offer the kind of fantasy, no-obligation sex he wasn’t getting from wife Trudy (Alison Brie)–but it turned out, horrifyingly, that Beth’s husband periodically cured her depression (and her affairs with other men) by wiping her memory with electro-shock therapy (yanking the tooth, as it were). Roger (John Slattery) longed for the psychedelic insight he got from his first LSD trip, and for the company of Marie as his companion–when all she wanted was fantasy, no-obligation sex.
And Don’s phantom was the ideal he’d had at the beginning of the season: Megan as both his helpmate at home and his colleague at work, one woman who could resolve his worlds by combining what he’d gotten from the beginning of his marriage with Betty along with his relationship with Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). Don’s treated Megan’s decision to leave the agency and pursue her acting as a personal betrayal, and when she then asked him to use his influence to help her career by putting her in an agency commercial, his gorge rose. Even though he ultimately did help her, it seemed to permanently distance him from her. His walk away from the set where she–dressed as a fairy princess–was going to start her career, the bright lights fading into the background as he moved deeper into the shadows, was gorgeously staged. The very strong implication of the season’s final scene is that, feeling deserted and somehow justified, he’ll now begin cheating on Megan as he did on Betty. As the episode’s climactic song explained, “You only live twice/once for yourself/and once for your dreams.” (The one person who doesn’t seem to be chasing any phantom is Peggy, who shared a wonderful scene with Don when they ran into each other at a movie matinee of the original Casino Royale. She’s firmly ensconced at her new agency, perhaps on the way to winning the big Virginia Slims account, and seems to be viewing her life clear-headedly.)
This was the season of Mad Men where Matthew Weiner abandoned any pretext that he was producing a conventional television series. There was no single through-line plot to carry viewers such as those in seasons past like Don’s secret identity (you only live twice), or the start of the new agency. Episodes were remarkably conceptual, like the one overrun with mass murder references and the LSD episode. Flashbacks, fantasy sequences and continuity tricks were dropped into episodes without any forewarning, forcing viewers to catch up. Undertones of death seemed to be everywhere. The beautiful January Jones was put into a fat suit, and Lane Pryce, perhaps the series’ most sheerly likable character, was killed off. Joan (Christina Hendricks), shockingly, proved that she would do what it took to climb the corporate ladder. We don’t even know how much we’ll see of Peggy in future seasons, now that she’s no longer part of Don Draper’s daily world.
Rebirth and reinvention, of course, has always been the most fundamental part of Mad Men‘s world (it was hardly random that the season finale took place at Easter). In prior season finales, though, the changes that were coming seemed to be at least potentially positive (the founding of the agency and Don leaving Betty, Don’s new marriage), or at least it seemed as though Don was in control of his destiny. This season was terribly sad, really. We’ve watched Don begin to lose his touch–he barely seems involved in any pitches of his own these days (there was no indication of how his sell to Ken’s father-in-law, which was in last week’s episode but months ago in the show, had gone). And personally, while Don was always a loner, he had people (Peggy, Roger, Megan, Joan) he felt at least somewhat close to and comfortable with. Now he’s estranged, at least to some extent, from Peggy and Megan, there’s a distance between him and Joan because he doesn’t approve of what she’s done for her promotion, and even Roger disguises his voice so Don won’t know he’s calling to seduce Don’s mother-in-law. At the end of Season 5, the blonde at the bar asks Don if he’s alone, and even though we don’t hear his response, we know the answer: yes, utterly and completely.
Unless something bizarrely unexpected happens at AMC or with Weiner, we’re going to get 2 more seasons of Mad Men, and with this season finale taking place in April 1967, the show will push toward the end of the 60s. The apocalyptic events of 1968, with its assassinations and riots, are right around the corner. It seems as though the show is pointing, in a quieter way, in the same direction. Although as fans of Lost know, one can never truly judge a television series until the final episode has aired, Mad Men has already become a narrative history of America worthy of being discussed with Updike’s “Rabbit” series and the Godfather films. In what is probably a historic era of superb TV drama, it’s still–easily– the best show on television.