'Mad Men' Season 5, Episode 13 Recap - 'The Phantom' and Rotten Don
After an eventful penultimate episode last week, I went into this finale with lowered expectations. Not only had last week's episode been (somewhat cheaply) exciting, it also spent a lot of time on a character that, for obvious reasons, wouldn't end up playing into the finale, at least directly. I assumed there would be less happening this week, and more trying to catch the falling balls that had been thrown into the air. Each ball is a storyline with a character that we still care about and who is not dead, mind you.
But "The Phantom" absolutely wowed me. It was maybe a little Pete-heavy, but Pete's arc is central to this season's theme, which was stated so succinctly by Glen last week: "Everything you think is gonna make you happy turns to crap."
So, we'll start with Pete. He once again runs into Howard on the train, only this time he's with Beth. A short and uncomfortable conversation reveals that Beth is staying with her sister for a while, but when Beth calls Pete later, he gets the truth: she's been "blue" lately, so she's getting shock therapy. Yes, doctors used to zap people for being sad.
So Pete and Beth have their final affair, and when Pete goes to visit her in the hospital later, she fails to recognize him. That's a perfect opportunity for Pete to spill his guts about how he feels and why he's doing what he's doing, under the guise of talking about "a friend."
In this speech, he lets out another gem that sums up another major theme of "Mad Men," just one of many in this episode: "His life with his family was just a temporary bandage on a permanent wound." Gorgeous.
Pete's story ends with him finally revealing to Howard on the train that he's been sleeping with Beth. As I said a few weeks ago, this was never going to end well with Pete. He lacks the finesse that Don did, and has too much trouble checking his emotions. He's a man without much tact or restraint, and with a little too much passion. Passion that is always misplaced, of course.
Howard and the train conductor both clock him, and the number of guys who punched Pete in the face this season rises to three. And yet, when Trudy sees his bruised face (and assumes it's a car accident), Pete finally gets what he wants: an apartment in the city. But does he still want it now?
As much of a wreck Pete is, Don is far worse in this finale episode. In fact, Don is literally rotting from the inside.
Don's persistent toothache is a wonderful metaphor for his position in this episode, and through this whole season: he's uncomfortable. He has a nagging pain, but he waves it of thinking that "it'll go away." It never does, though: like Don's rotting tooth, the thing that's eating him from the inside has to be extracted eventually.
I could have gone without the visions of Adam, in particular the line "it's not your tooth that's rotten." It's such a lovely metaphor for Don, and the line was far too on-the-nose.
Don's pained haze is perhaps the only way for him to travel through the events of this episode, though. First he has to deal with Lane's death, which has netted the company $175,000 in insurance money. Don attempts to give $50,000 of this to Lane's wife, who is insulted at the payoff and blames Lane's death on Don for reasons that aren't the real one: namely, she finds the picture of Delores, who made her appearance in the premiere.
Add to that Don's continuing problems with Megan, who is finally starting to get an idea of who Don is and what he wants. When she asks him to set up an audition for the Butler Shoes commercial, he shrugs it off... and comes home the next day to find Megan drunk, attempting to lure him into bed and sobbing, "it's all I'm good for." She stumbles upon Don's reasons for domesticity when he clearly gets more out of womanizing: she realizes that he doesn't want her to succeed because he wants her to be there, waiting for him, when he gets home.
For a moment, there's hope. Don gets that rotten tooth extracted, and we think that maybe, just maybe, the rotten piece of himself has been removed too. He runs into Peggy at the theater (whew, she's still a part of the show) and accepts her success, and later he sits in the conference room and watches Megan's obscenely beautiful and charming audition, with a slight smile on his face. But that smile fades.
And by the end of the episode, we have a sequence that absolutely gave me chills. We start on the set for the commercial, with Megan in her overly cutesy and colorful Beauty costume. "I do love you," she says, and kisses Don. He walks off, leaving that diorama behind, walking into the darkness of the surrounding set. This perfect little world isn't where Don belongs. He belongs in the bar that he walks into, where he sits down, starts smoking, and orders a whiskey.
The choice of "You Only Live Twice" for the background music here is, in a word, perfect. We had a little hint of Don's love for James Bond earlier this season, as he was reading a Bond novel in bed in an earlier episode. To play on that and bring it back here is a stroke of genius.
Of course the lyrics work well: Don is living his second life already, and the "one life for you, and one for your dreams" can apply to almost everyone on this show who is wishing for something more and even living a double life to get it. But it's clear that Don fancies himself a Bond figure as well, or is at least most at home in that skin. The look he gives the young woman who approaches him is vintage Don, with that debonair flash that makes you expect "Draper, Don Draper" to be the next words out of his mouth.
In short, Don is as rotten as ever.
Visually, this was a lovely episode. Megan's audition was touching, and Don walking away from the set was breathtaking. The shot of the five partners in their new space was nice, but a bit forced. Still, any excuse to use Joan's silhouette set with those of the four men is a good one.
There were other bits that were slightly glossed over: Roger's continuing affair with Marie and with LSD; Joan's continuing guilt over Lane's death, thinking it was her fault for not "giving him what he wanted"; Marie's strained relationship with Megan. But when you have a storyline as quintessentially "Mad Men" as Don's was this episode, can you really complain?
I for one will be counting down the days until the season 6 premiere, waiting until we get to watch Don be Don again, and self-destruct even further. It's not that I want him to philander or slowly rot from the inside, it's just that it's so interesting to watch.
A few quotes to end out the season:
- Racist Dawn comment of the week: "And I'm not talking about Black Coffee out there." Just when Roger had stopped making them...
- "I want them fresh!"
- "We can do that?"
- "What is Regina?"
- "Well, I'm the president of the Howdy Doody circus army!" Nice one, Pete.
- "Not every little girl gets to do what she wants. The world can't support that many ballerinas."
- "His life with his family was a temporary bandage on a permanent wound."