This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Nearly every scene in "The Phantom," the Season 5 finale of "Mad Men," conjures a ghost from the show's past. "Mad Men," like many great series from "Hill Street Blues" to "SCTV" to "The Sopranos," has always been exceptionally good at this (see "The Long Walk"), setting images, gestures and emotions reverberating off one another across episodes and seasons. The series has a memory, and the curse of memory is a primary theme of "The Phantom," which is why the episode is composed as it is. As Nancy Sinatra sings in that final song:
You only live twice, or so it seems, One life for yourself and one for your dreams.
(Spoilers from here on out.)
That's a James Bond theme song, from "You Only Live Twice" (1967) -- and it's the second Bond theme we hear in the episode, after Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass bite into Burt Bacharach's theme from the James Bond parody "Casino Royale" (1967) at the weekday matinée where Don (the suave, masculine Bond of New York advertising) runs into Peggy. (The Beatles, who have figured prominently in Seasons 4 and 5, released "Help!" in 1965 and it was in part a 007 parody, too -- especially the John Barry-like orchestral music written by George Martin.) Echoes and repetitions are everywhere.
In last week's episode, "Commissions and Fees" (S05E12), Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) hanged himself in his office, the second of Don's peers (the other being his half-brother Adam) to have killed himself this way, and Don has reason to feel guilty about both of them. So, who should begin appearing to Don when he's suffering from a "hot tooth" but the late Adam Whitman (Jay Paulson), complete with rope burns on his neck. Don had given Adam $5,000 to go away and leave him alone, and Adam had sent Don a box of family photographs, which Pete intercepted and attempted to use for blackmail.
All that is brought to mind (not explicitly, but it's there) by the reappearance of an old photograph. Don goes to deliver his condolences to Lane's widow, Rebecca (Embeth Davidtz), and to give her a check for $50,000 -- ten times what Don gave Adam. (It's also the amount Don put up for Pete's share in the partnership in Season 4). Lane was fired for forging Don's signature on a check and now, ironically, after Lane's death the firm is swimming in cash... from commissions and fees. And the company insurance policy on Lane paid $175,000. Oh, and this is something that Howard the insurance salesman, of all people, explained to Pete at the beginning of "Lady Lazarus": that company life insurance policies pay to the company, not to the individual's beneficiaries. It was under the ruse of buying a personal policy that Pete invited himself over to dinner so he could see Beth again. What I find most striking about this is that a conversation between Pete and Howard illuminates something that has nothing directly to do with either of them, but with consequences they don't even know about, involving Lane, Rebecca, Joan and Don.
Is your head ready to explode yet? Rebecca presents Don with a photo of a girl she has found in Lane's wallet and demands to know who it is. Don doesn't know... but we do. It's a secret only we and Lane have ever known about, and it's a heartbreaker. That girl is Lane's phantom from the season premiere, "A Little Kiss." Desperate for cash, Lane picked up a wallet someone had left in a cab, fantasized about the picture of the girl (named Delores), and toyed with the idea of trying to realize those fantasies. In the end, he gave the wallet back to its owner (sans photo), who insisted on giving him a reward for being "a real gentleman" -- something Lane finds humiliating.
So the photo is someone else's memory, one that Lane has appropriated -- a snapshot of a life he imagined living, if only for a furtive phone call one afternoon in the same office where he killed himself, a picture of a path not taken. Lane doesn't even know about Dick Whitman, but he has is own moment on the battlefield. Don's secrets were exposed when Adam put a rope around his neck, and given how good he is with secrets, Don seems to have kept Lane's. The one about the check, anyway. The phantom Delores haunts the living, but Lane takes his furtive fantasy of her to his grave.
In the first shot, of cotton balls and Canadian Club whiskey by a bathroom sink, Don is self-medicating his pain again. This time it's a bad tooth, and he's trying to numb the pain with booze -- a familiar pattern. Earlier in the season ("Mystery Date," S05E04), we saw what happens when Don gets the flu and has fever dreams. He hallucinates, and one of the things that made the episode so effective and haunting is that we still don't know exactly how much of it was a dream. This time Don tries to remain stoic about his tooth, repeatedly saying, "It'll go away. It always does." Don, it seems, has not been paying attention to the show. Nothing just goes away here. Even when people are gone, they're not entirely gone. Lane is very much present in that empty chair at the partner's meeting; his absence fills the center of the frame, while Pete and Don are half cropped out on either side. And did you ever think you'd see Adam again? Or even Freddy Rumsen? Or Paul Kinsey? (Something tells me when we get to Stonewall in 1969, Sal is going to have to reappear!) "I lost my job when I died," Adam says to Don. Are those interchangeable concepts?
And so, everything just keeps coming back around: Megan's mother, and her assignation with Roger. Roger wants to do LSD again, to get back to the state of enlightenment he was in before, as he said in "Commissions and Fees," "it wore off" -- and instead of doing it with Jane, he asks if Marie will do it with him; Ginsberg and Stan try a new pitch for Topaz, but the clients complain that it needs a woman (i.e., Peggy), who has shown she understands the product; Pete is bloodied in another fistfight (he's now been beaten up by a corpse [Lane], the man he cuckolded, his commuter ex-pal Howard, and the train conductor); when Joan tells Don about Lane's insurance check, she's wearing the same dress as when Lane admitted his feelings and told her how she could become a partner; Megan (who was terrific in the Cool Whip ad pitch but didn't want to work in advertising) now wants to do a commercial, if only to prove to herself that she's good enough to be hired by somebody; Don watches her 16mm reel the way he did his family slides in the Season 1 finale, "The Wheel"... and so it goes. The carousel just keeps spinning round and round, and the patterns are like the interconnected things you see on acid, where everything flows into and out of each other and it all seems to make cosmic (as well as visual) sense, at least until it wears off.
Pete, Megan and Don are all suffering from various forms of depression in this episode. The one scene in "The Phantom" that actually gave me goosebumps was when Pete goes to visit Beth in the hospital. They have another rendezvous (the first was in "Lady Lazarus," S05E08) at the same hotel where she previously stood him up -- this time because, as she informs him, she's about to go in for another electroshock treatment for her chronic depression and wants to see him before her memory becomes a grey fog. The only thing that seems to alleviate her depression is a shock that erases part of her memory. Of Pete. We've seen the image before: the fogged car window on which she draws a heart so Pete can see it, then rolls it down to wipe it away.
Beth says: "It's so dark, Peter, that I get to this place and I suddenly feel this door open and I want to walk through it" -- recalling Don's encounter with an open door and an empty elevator shaft in "Lady Lazarus" (S05E08). Peter has been in dark places all season (as he has been before -- Season 2 ended with him, rejected by Peggy, sitting in his darkened office with a rifle in his lap), but looking into the void of Beth's imploded soul is almost more than Pete can bear.
Early in the season, Pete's commuter-train pal Howard planted a seed in Pete's head that he should get an apartment in the city (which he can use for pleasure as well as business), but Trudy vetoed the idea. Now she's decided she can't take any more of Pete's "gloom and doom" and that maybe it's better to just let him what he wants to do. (In this respect, her choice echoes Don's with regard to Megan and the fairy-tale shoe commercial.)
In "Signal 30" (S05E05), Pete took a driver's ed class and immediately tried to put the moves on a young student. When he and Beth (Howard's wife) hooked up the first time, it was ostensibly because she had locked her keys in the car at the train station and he gave her a ride home. So, once more, when Pete comes home with his face pulverized (by Howard), he tells Trudy it was a mishap with the car -- the vehicle, as it were, associated with Beth (while the train is associated with Howard). When, after her electroshock, Beth doesn't recognize him, he makes up a Pete doppelgänger, and tells a story that's actually about him and Beth: "And he realized that everything he already had was not right either. And that's why it all happened at all. His life with his family was a temporary bandage on some permanent wound." ("Permanent" is the same word he uses to describe Trudy's plan for a backyard swimming pool.) To me, this sounded like an indirect reply to something Trudy had said to him in "A Little Kiss Part 2" (S05E02): "Dissatisfaction is a symptom of ambition. It's the coal that fuels the fire. You know that." But it's not his ambition that's driving his dissatisfaction anymore. It's his dissatisfaction with what his ambition has bought (and cost) him.
Don lost his ambition for most of the season because he was... happy. Pete, who is trying to follow Don's career trajectory at work, is miserable that he's got just about everything he wanted -- the wife, kid, house, view office, (junior) partnership -- but still isn't happy. I saw something Matthew Weiner said about Pete on the day the season finale aired: "He really has made it, and I think he really, really wants to change the way he feels." You could say that about almost everybody on the show. And what is it they always say about advertising? Most of it is to make us feel good about purchasing something -- including things we've already bought (into).
Everybody's broken. Don knows from experience that we all have holes we're trying to fill, and he's a good (m)ad man because he knows how to exploit that. Think about the decisions everyone has made this season. They aren't necessarily willing or able to go back and undo them, but they're definitely trying to find ways of feeling better about where and who they are.
In her new job, Peggy is dressing in hot colors, more like Joan or Megan. Both her dresses are bright red in this episode. (BTW, I just discovered Tom and Lorenzo's Fabulous & Opinionated blog, where they do amazing work each week looking at "Mad Men" and some other shows through their costume design and set decoration. As soon as I finish writing this, I plan to see what they've written about "The Phantom.") But is Peggy working with people whose talent and work ethics are up to her standards? Doesn't look like it from the little glimpse we get. She's already frustrated and maybe this indicates... what? That she'll return if Don offers her a partnership (after she comes up with "You've come a long way, baby!"): Sterling Cooper Draper Olson? Or that she'll raid Stan and Ginsberg from SCDP? All I know is that I was so relieved to see her I had to whoop. (This is one reason I have to watch "Mad Men" by myself.)**
Recalling one of Don's old methods for "clearing the cobwebs," she takes off to the movies for an afternoon... where (delightfully) she runs into Don. The last time we saw her go to the movies it was after a fight with Abe. He wanted her to leave work to see "The Naked Prey" with him, and she refused. So, what did she do? She went by herself to see "Born Free," smoked a joint with a young man in the theater and then gave him a hand job. Are Don and Megan the only major characters who did not cheat on their significant others this season? (Except in that fever-dream?)
Let's talk about Megan's situation for a moment. Once again we see her in her ivory tower penthouse apartment with one of her actress friends from class, combing through the classifieds looking for auditions. This time, the "European-type" girl asks if Megan would put in a good word for her with Don, because she would be perfect for a "Beauty and the Beast"-themed Butler Shoes commercial SCDP is handling. (Their previous campaign was based on Cinderella -- another role suited to Megan.) Instead, Megan asks Don for her own shot at an audition.
Now, some people have criticized Megan because, after marrying Don, she doesn't have to worry about money like other "starving actors" do. True. And so what? I understand Don's position when he tells her she should get parts on her own merits, or it won't mean anything -- she might even come to resent him for it. She accuses him of thinking she's not good enough, but she's projecting her own doubts about herself onto him. He knows she's good (he worked with her on the Cool Whip "sketch," and there's no denying she has a certain zou bisou bisou), but he thought she wasn't interested in commercials, only theater and film.
And yet, why the hell shouldn't Megan use every advantage she's been given? Megan's mother Marie (Julia Ormond) says she thinks her daughter has been cruelly deceived -- imbued with an "artistic temperament" even though she's not an artist. But what makes her so sure about that? Look at Don's smile when he watches Megan's reel. Back to the movies again. (On the other hand, that's kind of the way he likes his wives -- aestheticized, kept in a frame.) He still sees something in her -- the camera loves her, and seeing her again through that lens reminds him the does, too. Would it not be a sin (or whatever the non-religious equivalent of that would be) for Megan not to use the opportunities she has been granted? I'm reminded of that dystopian Kurt Vonnegut story "Harrison Bergeron," originally published in 1961 and reprinted in the collection "Welcome to the Monkey House" (1968), in which the Handicapper General ensures that anyone with natural talents or advantages is encumbered by law, so that all are "equal."
Megan deserves a shot, and she's determined to succeed. She's not a good enough actress, however, to stay at home in the tower and play the Beauty for her Mad Man Beast. (Of course, if she does become successful in acting, Don probably won't be able to handle that.)
Everybody is building their castle in the air here, whether it's the Draper penthouse or the new SCDP offices on the 38th floor (where Pete can't resist mentioning he'll the same view as Don!). Roger drops acid and stands naked above the city in his room at the Stanhope. And Pete's castle... is Trudy's single-story suburban ranch dream? She imagines a backyard swimming pool and asks the designer to paint Pete (and another child) into the concept drawing. All he can think of is that the baby might drown in it. A swimming pool? It's just a hole in the ground, like a grave full of water: "I don't know, Trudy. It's awfully permanent."
And what are we to make of the episode's most arresting image -- that of Don turning and walking away from her, a princess in a fantasy "Beauty and the Beast" set, a little artificial world (is this their marriage?) in a pool of light that he leaves behind as he walks across a vast, empty, dark soundstage (the Real World)? When it happens, it feels like that's going to be the ambiguous last image of the show. Megan says how much she loves him (for allowing her this chance, for trusting her, for believing in her) and he smiles, turns his back, and walks off into the darkness. I don't think there's any question that he loves her, and you could see the image as him showing respect for her, leaving her and trusting her to do what she has to do on her own (perhaps he's learned something from Peggy's departure)... but it doesn't feel that way. Still, I don't get the sense that Don and Megan are breaking up any time soon. This is a risk, on both their parts, that has to be taken if their relationship has any hope of moving forward (to use a favorite Don phrase).
And that's when the swirling orchestral figure from "You Only Live Twice" (music by John Barry, lyrics by Leslie Bricusse) kicks in. I couldn't place the downstream-drifting string motif at first. It's essentially Barry's theme for "Midnight Cowboy (1969), first and only X-rated film to win an Oscar for Best Picture -- and it wouldn't have been out of place, either, in an Angelo Badalamenti score for "Twin Peaks," which "The Phantom" also explicitly recalls in a number of images -- and not for the first time in the series. The episode, co-written and directed by creator/showrunner Weiner, a "Sopranos" vet, culminates in a close-up of Don and a "Sopranos"-like final look that leaves a question hanging in the air before abruptly cutting to black: "Are you alone?"
I half expected Don to morph into Bogart or Mitchum and say, "Honey, aren't we all?"* (And, yes, I'm also very, very glad he didn't.) Don has always been alone, except perhaps with Anna, who gave Dick Whitman a second life -- the one he's now living as Don Draper. The final montage is like one of the "Mad Men" video essays you may have seen at Press Play. Let's look at it:
* Don leaves the studio, sits down at a bar by himself and orders an Old Fashioned, recalling the time he left the tent at Roger and Jane's Kentucky Derby party (everybody was laughing at Roger for marrying his secretary!) for the bar in the house and fixed himself an Old Fashioned, and one for an old guy he met there, who turned out to be Connie -- Conrad Hilton.
* Dissolve from Don at the bar to Peggy, on a business trip to Virginia (home of the yet-to-be-named Philip Morris cigarette for women, Virginia Slims), who emerges from the shower in her motel room and looks out the window to see a pair of dogs humping. A metaphor for what men do when they go out of town? Or for the advertising business? Or the phantom of love itself. As the song says:
You drift through the years and life seems tame, Till one dream appears and love is its name.
Peggy frowns, then smiles, and sits back on the bed with a glass of wine.
* Dissolve to Pete at home, headphones plugged into his stereo hi-fi, blocking out the rest of the world. Listening to Beethoven? Or Nancy Sinatra?
* Dissolve to a close-up of Roger, through window glass, lights of the city dancing in the air around him. He smiles. Cut to a rear view... of his naked rear, as he raises his arms -- perhaps to embrace Manhattan, perhaps imagining stepping out the window and soaring above it.
* Dissolve back to the bar, where a young woman (who reminds me a little of Heather Graham) asks Don for a light: "I'm sorry, my friend down there, she was wondering. Are you alone?" Don slowly turns his head and makes eye contact. Cut to black.
And love is a stranger who'll beckon you on, Don't think of the danger or the stranger is gone. This dream is for you, so pay the price. Make one dream come true, you only live twice.
I don't know about you, but after all the heavy drama and bombshells of "The Other Woman" and "Commissions and Fees," I felt the more muted, subterranean drama of "The Pantom" was just the right note to hit for the season closer. I was worried for a while, though, that it was going to succumb to too much "doom and gloom." Thank Weiner, then, for Roger's flirtation with Marie and Pete's "Well, I'm President of the Howdy Doody Circus Army!" We needed that punch-line.
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So, what you make of "The Phantom"? It's "Mad Men" so there are always things happening on multiple levels at once. What other patterns did you see? Did you want more dramatic cliffhangers (as I said, I sure didn't!), or was this an appropriate closer to a season that has been action-packed? I tend to love the episodes in which maybe not so much happens on the surface of the plot but huge shifts are taking place underneath -- what about you? And what was that book Beth was reading -- Agatha Christie?
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* I'm reminded that one reason I expected this was because it's already buried deep in my subconscious... from "Chinatown." When Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd) asks J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) "Are you alone?," he replies: "Isn't everyone?"
** Actually, no, I don't see Peggy coming up with the real-world Virginia Slims slogan. She might hate it. Maybe she comes up with something she likes a lot better but is forced by her bosses to pitch "You've come a long way, baby!" What might she do then?
BONUS (06/12/12): I keep forgetting to add this. Here's the wedding ceremony from Jules Pfeiffer's "Little Murders," the play Megan tries out for (I believe that bald fellow with glasses is supposed to be Pfeiffer sitting in the middle at her audition). This is from the film version directed by Alan Arkin in 1971. The heavy-breather phone calls are a running gag throughout the film:
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