Mad Men season 5 episode 13 review: The Phantom

Season five of Mad Men bows out on an episode that lacks the revelations of the previous two and leaves Don Draper curiously back at the beginning...

This review contains spoilers.

5.13 The Phantom

We’ve come to expect a couple of things from a Weiner-directed Mad Men finale (the only episodes the showrunner steps behind the camera for): fantastically stylish shots, and unanswered thematic questions. On neither count did the last episode of season five let us down.

First, the style. That silhouetted tableau of Don, Joan, Roger, Burt and Pete gathered on SCDP’s second floor office (no longer just a fiction) doing what Mad Men characters do best – staring meaningfully out of a window – felt gloriously like something from a superhero movie. Advertisers assemble, perhaps.

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Better than that was the magnificent shot leading into the episode’s closing montage, in which Don walked slowly away from the Technicolor sound stage into a vast, black void. Never one to go for subtlety when a whacking great metaphor will do, Matt Weiner showed us Don turning his back on a fictive, stage-managed vision of happiness to face the darkness. 

The season could have faded to black right there, though that would have deprived us of Peggy’s humping dogs, Pete’s miniature orchestra, and Roger – possibly on temporary leave from his mind – flashing his wares at the Manhattan skyline. Oh, as well as the essay question Weiner’s set us all for holiday homework: Is Don Draper alone? Write neatly, state your sources, and answers in by the season six opener please.

This week’s finale saw the cheques rolling in and SCDP moving up in the world, quite literally, with a new floor, new offices and, importantly for Pete, new views on their way. The agency couldn’t be in a different position than it was at this point in season four, when it had been financially gutted by Lucky Strike’s departure and forced to lay off half its workforce. So why isn’t anyone happy?

Recent bereavements aside, Don answered that question last week in his speech to Dow on why success is not and will never be enough. When it comes to happiness and satisfaction, ad men rely upon the fact that our goalposts inevitably move with every little win. Trust the clear-eyed cynicism of Mad Men to produce a whole series on people getting what they want and for it to be the bleakest yet.

SCDP’s employees appeared to have gotten over Lane’s traumatic exit sooner than most of the audience, though they had had longer than a week to process the event. It wasn’t until his ghost-at-the-feast moment with the shot of the empty chair at the board meeting that Lane’s absence was really felt, though Don, Joan and Roger were all shaken in their own way, and even Harry Crane wasn’t prepared to jump into Lane’s grave despite a pillar-free office being up for grabs.

Joan being convinced that were she to have given Lane a little sugar she could have staved off his suicide was a batty mixture of guilt, depressing sexual politics and self-involvement (surely no one, not even Joan Harris, could be that good in bed). Megan’s friend drily asking who she should sleep with to get the Butler shoes ad recalled Joan’s capitulation in The Other Woman, and this week’s logic-missing leap that she could have used her body to save Lane was more proof of Joan’s belief that her value extends only as far as her (admittedly ample) cup size.

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Looking back at the series overall, what began with a little kiss ended with a phantom, a handily mutable symbol that could apply to any number of the season finale stories: Lane’s death of course; the spectre of Pete and Beth’s now-erased affair; Megan chasing the ‘phantom’ of acting success; and chief of all, Don being haunted by the ghost of half-brothers past.

Don Draper’s subconscious has never been his biggest fan, seizing the opportunity to torment him where possible with flu-induced murderous fantasies, or in this case, visions of his dead brother. A few lungfuls of nitrous oxide during dental surgery this week had him conflating his guilt about Lane and Adam’s suicides, and writhing in the dentist’s chair like a psychologically scarred junkyard elephant.

Don’s toothache had to be the season’s most heavy-handed slice of symbolism yet; his denial-ridden insistence that the nagging pain would go away if ignored and the eventual catharsis of having the damn thing pulled was as unsubtle as the show’s been. What did it teach us about Don that we hadn’t learned years before? That something is rotten in the state of Mad Men. Excuse the vulgarity, but well, duh. 

After five seasons deservedly receiving the kind of devoted adulation usually inspired by mop-headed tween pop idols and potato chips shaped like the Virgin Mary, could Weiner not have credited Mad Men’s fans with a teensy bit more sophistication? 

On the subject of nuance, it’s a pity for Pete’s storyline that it was impossible to tell the difference between Alexis Bledel the depressive housewife and Alexis Bledel the recovering electro-shock patient, as she acted the part of Beth with precisely the same even emptiness before and after having three hundred volts of cleansing electricity pass through her brain. That story felt like a wasted opportunity accelerated into an overly neat and somewhat patience-testing resolution.

It feels too soon to ask us to sympathise with the essential tragedy of Pete Campbell after the events of The Other Woman. The scene, no doubt intended as poignant, in which Pete described his woes to a glassy-eyed Beth in third person, his life a “temporary bandage on a permanent wound”, had me tapping my fingers and hoping that his old rifle would soon make an appearance. It’s some solace at least that this episode took Pete’s season beatings tally up to a nice round three.

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And what of Peggy, also moving on up, if only to a Virginia motel room? “I’m so bored of this dynamic” said Stan this week, and if Peggy is kept away next season I wonder if we’ll start to feel the same (in fact, if the rumours of Elizabeth Moss’ permanent departure come to resemble anything like the truth, who’s joining me in going all Misery on Matthew Weiner until she’s written back in?). Peggy and Don’s cinema reunion was touching enough, though after goodbye scene that strong, anything was bound to feel insufficient as a follow-up.

And so, to the sound of an apter-than-apt Bond tune about dreams, dissatisfaction, and danger, the series came to an end. I may have found more than usual to grumble about in the The Phantom, which wasn’t as strong an episode as others from this tremendous season, but that hasn’t made it any easier to say goodbye. See you for season six.

Read our review of last week’s episode, Commissions and Fees, here.

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