Mad Men's Season 5 Finale: Avenue of Broken Dreams

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Mad Men S05E13: “The Phantom”

In Mad Men's Season 5 finale, "The Phantom," Don Draper’s persistent toothache became the physical manifestation of the season's underlying pain over lost dreams and the question of identity. Pete Campbell summed it up as a “bandage on an open wound,” the problem of happiness. By the end of the episode not a single character was truly happy—except, perhaps, Peggy, who cut ties with her old employer a few episodes back.

Don and Megan’s marriage survived through the entire season, shockingly, though I’m not holding out much hope when we get to Season 6 if last night's hints at Don’s return to meat market are anything to go by. Megan used her maiden name, Calvet, in her audition reel, which I’m almost certain counts as foreshadowing. Even if she only meant it as a means of separating her professional life from her private one, the fact that she even wants a life outside of the one she has with Don certainly drove a wedge further between the two of them. Don gave lip service to her acting aspirations all season long, but up until recently, those aspirations didn’t interfere with her role as Mrs. Don Draper. It was confirmation of what we all saw coming when as soon as Megan got her big break, Don retreated to the bar and starting considering a hot blonde. Megan the Actress was acceptable as an idea. It wasn’t acceptable in practice.

Don and Megan both had a rough episode. Megan’s mother, Marie came to visit, which meant Megan would spend half of the episode in tears. Marie really delivered in all of her catty glory, telling Megan to stop chasing “the phantom” when Don initially refused to pass her screen test along to the Butler Shoe people. Marie certainly didn't mince words: "Not every little girl gets to do what they want; the world can't support that many ballerinas." Yikes... Marie isn’t really the touchy-feely supportive mother type, is she? Granted, a lot of what she said made sense in a brutally honest sort of way—the world simply can’t support everyone’s dreams and Megan is pretty lucky. It was nice to finally see someone call Megan out on her season-long hypocrisy. She very quickly became the Mad Men equivalent of a hipster: spending Don’s money on the latest trendy artsy thing was just fine, but Don was still an evil, awful person for selling out and making his money in advertising.

In the end, Megan herself sold out. Sick of fielding rejection letters, she asked Don to consider her for the role of Beauty in a Beauty-and-the-Beast-inspired commercial. Initially, he shot the plan down, arguing that Megan wanted “to be somebody’s discovery, not somebody’s wife,” which is true, but I think that their mutual definition of “discovery” was a little off. Megan saw the commercial as a catapult to bigger roles. As part of a national campaign for Butler Shoes, she would be exposed to casting directors all across the country, and THEN she would be discovered.

In the aftermath of Lane Pryce’s suicide, Don struggled to maintain something resembling a moral compass at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Plagued by his toothache, Don also hallucinated his brother Adam, another unfortunate casualty of a Don Draper pep-talk. In dreams, teeth often represent control. The loss of them equates a perceived loss of power, much like Don has lost a great deal of control in his own life, from the Joan issue to Lane’s suicide to Megan’s insistence on a career that he doesn’t care for. Having your teeth pulled can also represent anxiety over being forced to do something that you don’t want to do. We saw this illustrated for Don in the other partners voting to sell Joan out despite his protests, his obligation to fire Lane, even though he personally considered the man a friend, and Megan’s pressure to pull some strings and get her cast in the shoe commercial. The fact that the tooth that was pulled was a rotten one betrayed Don’s underlying thoughts concerning the actions that landed him in a bar, flirting with an attractive woman while the theme song from a James Bond movie played in the background.

Still, despite the moral decay seeping into everything Don touched, when it was discovered that Lane Pryce’s life insurance was paid to the company that ultimately killed him, Don tried to do the right thing. He insisted that a check be cut to Lane’s family for the $50,000 dollars that Lane paid to help keep SDCP afloat through the Lucky Strike pullout. He delivered the check personally and endured the wrath of the Widow Pryce, who confronted Don about the dark truth behind her deceased husband’s job.

“You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition,” she said, a callback to Marie’s words to Megan. The scene posed a new question to us as viewers. It’s easy to look at Marie and judge her to be a terrible parent (and I am by no means saying that she’s a good one) but perhaps in her own way, she thought her brutal honesty would save her daughter future heartache. So which is more cruel? To shoot down those phantoms before they do real damage? Or to string someone along, someone who desperately wants their wildest dreams to come true, someone who has bought so heavily into their success that he simply can’t handle the idea of them not coming to fruition?

This leads us to the case of Pete Campbell, who remarked as SCDP moved into more spacious facilities that he would have the same view as Don in his new office. Pete has been a practitioner of Draperism since the first season and it’s finally starting to pay off for him. Unfortunately, that isn’t as awesome as he thought that it would be. Pete ran into Beth and her husband on the train. Later, Beth called him at the office and insisted that he visit her at the Hotel Pennsylvania, which he totally did because as Pete himself said, he’s “pathetic.”

Beth revealed that she was a patient in a mental hospital (called it) undergoing shock therapy and since she often forgot things in the recent past after a therapy session, she wanted to remember her time with Pete. Pete launched into a rant about how she shouldn’t let her husband control her, which was hilarious coming from Pete. He offered to run away to LA with her because California is full of sunshine. He also got a few more digs in at poor dead Lane, stating that suicide is for “weak” people, people who “can’t solve problems.”

Beth was adamant that she would continue with her treatment as planned, that is WAS solving her problems. Realistically, in the grand scheme of awful things that were considered mental health “treatment” in the twentieth century, electroshock was one of few that actually worked in many cases and it's still used to treat depression today, though typically only in extreme cases.

Pete later lied to the hospital staff about being Beth’s brother to slip in for a visit, but sure enough, Beth didn’t remember him. Pete was heartbroken. I tried to feel for him, but mostly I was just relieved and hoping that it meant he would leave poor Beth alone. He launched into a soliloquy that could have come from Don himself about the fickle nature of happiness, that his life with Trudy, his philandering with Beth, his insatiable ambition, was all just a temporary bandage waiting to fall off, or be torn off, exposing his unhappiness all over again. He admitted that he didn’t know what would truly make him happy and later, picked a fight with Howard Dawes on the train back to Connecticut after Howard expressed happiness over Beth’s hospitalization. Pete sure got punched in the face a lot this season, didn't he? Though I feel that it somewhat diminished Lane’s victory over SCDP’s “grimy little pimp” after we realized that EVERYONE was capable of punching Pete.

Kicked off the train, Pete got home late, bloodied, and spouting off some B.S. about putting the car in a ditch (again). Trudy conceded to Pete’s desire for an apartment in the city, citing her concern for his safety. So Pete finally won that battle, but at this point, it’s a reluctant victory. I really hate that out of all of the men on this show, Pete has the sweetest wife. Life really isn’t fair in the Mad Men universe.

So, Don ends this season as happy as he ever is in full blown Don Draper mode and Pete is decidedly unhappy despite getting almost everything he wanted all season long: a new office, a new apartment, a new hook-up with Beth. Roger, definitely losing his high after a few months' worth of unhappy experiences, called up Megan’s mom (doing a rather convincing Creepy Glen impersonation on the phone—I had my money on Glen as the persistent caller all episode long) for a hook-up and a trip. Marie opted out of the free drugs but offered a little free love before heading home to drink Don’s liquor. Roger dropped acid by himself, and judging from the joyful eyeful he gave Manhattan when we last saw him, I’m thinking it was a good trip. But certainly, this high will eventually wear off, too. LSD has become Roger’s new band-aid.

Ultimately, Peggy, for as little as we’ve seen of her in the past few episodes, was the only character who seemed to be honestly happy with her life as season 5 drew to a close. Her new office at Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough looked to be a real improvement over the cramped quarters at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and she was in full boss mode when we first saw her in action at her new firm. Later, when she ran into Don at a movie theater following his tooth extraction, she expressed satisfaction with her work. Don (FINALLY) said that he was proud of her, which probably only improved her cheery outlook. They watched the movie as two equals, taking a break from their respective busy days.

Professionally, Peggy scored a victory when she was handed and account that I’m assuming will be revealed as Virginia Slims—a cigarette marketed to women. She revealed to Don that her new firm was even sending her on a factory tour in Virginia and her excitement at finally boarding an airplane and jet-setting somewhere for work, even somewhere as generally unglamorous as Virginia, was barely contained. I like happy Peggy, and it was a much-needed bright spot to this sometimes maudlin episode to see her retain her enthusiasm and joy even when she looked out the window of her rather modest hotel room at an unremarkable view of a parking lot with two dogs going at it in plain sight. You know that would have had Pete Campbell throwing a fit, but Peggy took it in stride. It wasn’t Paris, sure, but her employers trusted her to take a business trip all by herself like a professional woman, something she almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten to do at SCDP.

As much as viewers have mourned Peggy’s exit from SCDP, I think we can all agree that it was a good move for her, both professionally and personally. She looked happier in her final scene than we’ve seen her all season long and I think it speaks to her generally grounded outlook on life that she's been able to find happiness in what, to her former SCDP coworkers, would have been a modest, even negligible victory. Here’s hoping she retains that sunny outlook in Season 6 because God knows that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce—and everyone caught up in that messy laboratory—has quickly turned into the monster that ate Madison Avenue.

Questions:

1. Do you think the Drapers will stay married in Season 6?

2. Will Megan’s acting career take off?

3. Do you think Pete will take Trudy up on getting an apartment in the city? If so, will it be the den of sin he envisioned for half of this season, or a sad, lonely fortress of solitude?

4. Will Roger ever have a bad acid trip?

5. Peggy seems to enjoy her new firm. Do you think the feeling will last after the honeymoon period?

6. What do you hope to see in Season 6?

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