SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this review, put a mask on your face, breathe deeply and watch last night’s Season 5 finale of Mad Men.
Season 5 of Mad Men ended with Don Draper in a bar, fielding an advance from a cute young woman while the soundtrack played “You Only Live Twice” — which is both a literally accurate description of Don and a lie.
Befitting a show about double lives and secrets, Don has famously lived twice, once as Dick Whitman and once as Don Draper. And yet the line is also overoptimistic for this show, which is dedicated to the idea that most people simply have one story and keep returning to it, as shown by a finale that had many of its characters returning, gloomily, to stasis.
You only live once. But you do it over, and over, and over.
As Roger Sterling said earlier this season about the enlightenment from his LSD trip: “It wore off.” A strength and a challenge of Mad Men is that it resists having its characters “grow” dramatically and giving them radical new stories from season to season; instead, it shows what it looks like for people to follow one course (or go nowhere) over a full decade. So Roger ends up trying again to get a taste of adventure with a new woman, in this case Megan’s mother, who is willing to share his bed but not necessarily his confidences.
And the list goes on. So Pete Campbell ends up sleeping with another man’s wife (he’s not, he learns, her first affair) and lying to his own, and he gets rewarded with — besides a couple more punches in the face — the apartment in the city he’s been wanting. (That, and the realization he spells out for us, with uncharacteristic self-awareness, that “his life with his family was some temporary bandage on a permanent wound.”) So Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce consumes its last-named partner’s life and ends up rolling in cash. So Megan, after striking an independent path, finds herself drunk and begging Don in bed to throw her work in a shoe ad.
There were a lot of images, by the way, of women in beds in the finale of this gender-conscious season — Megan, brain-zapped Beth, Marie, even Peggy, in the end, settling in a hotel after seeing a female dog being mounted in the parking lot. The men (except, notably, Lane) get to stay the men, paying no price besides an existential one: Roger rolls on like Old Man River, Don’s role in Lane’s death need never be known by anyone, Pete’s affair with Beth is — at least until he angrily blurts it out on the train — erased through electroshock.
It was a meandering, epilogue-like finale, closing on a number of stories, none of them too happily. (As Trudy put it, “This doom and gloom, I’m tired of it!”) But it above all returned to Don, framed by the aftermath of his guilt from Lane’s suicide, which only he knows he precipitated. How can he assuage his feelings? That’s what the money’s for! The firm receives a $175,000 death settlement from its life-insurance policy, and Don goes to Lane’s widow with the magnanimous offer of Lane’s $50,000 partner stake. And while the widow Price isn’t buying what Don’s selling, she has no idea what Don is trying to repay her for, instead fixating on the photo of Dolores (nice callback) that she found in Lane’s wallet. Having suffered in silence, Lane died misunderstood, his memory sullied by an affair he didn’t even have.
And Don has a beautiful wife, a pile of money — and a massive toothache. Like much of Season 5, “The Phantom” gave us a blaring metaphor for Don’s moral condition, then drew arrows with a Telestrator around it, lest we miss it. He opens the episode rubbing whiskey on a toothache. For he is suffering from decay! (Moral is an anagram of molar. Discuss!) The burden he’s suffering is guilt following Lane’s suicide, which paralleled the suicide of his half-brother Adam after Don cut him loose in Season 1. And sure enough, Don begins seeing Adam in the elevator, in the office and, finally, under the influence of an anesthetic in the dentist’s office, where Dick Whitman’s brother’s apparition flat-out tells him, “It’s not your tooth that’s rotten.”
This is probably a good place to talk about Season 5 overall — which I know many fans have called the show’s best ever — and why the problem of spelling out the show’s metaphors, symmetries and symbols so blatantly is a problem at all. Does it matter if the images and performances are so powerful? Isn’t that just a nitpick? Weren’t the late ’60s simply a less subtle time? Etc.
It’s a fair question, one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately while watching screeners of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom (which does a whole lot of telling rather than showing, far more so than Mad Men). To me the answer is, There’s a reason you make art (whether it’s a painting, a novel or a TV show) rather than write an essay. Creative works exist to express something that can’t be expressed literally. They’re not just puzzles or codes or delicious meals in which to bury the heartworm pill of “messages.” They exist so that the audience can feel or understand something that can’t entirely be conveyed with rational explanation. (T.S. Eliot talked about the “objective correlative,” the idea that a work of art presents a series of literal words or images to re-create a certain nonliteral emotion in the audience.)
Once you start explaining, you undermine the whole business, because part of what creates that emotion or understanding in an audience member’s mind is making the connection and making meaning by oneself. It’s like having a joke explained: it might ensure that you “get it,” and you might admire the cleverness with which it’s put together, but it can never be quite as funny.
None of which takes away how accomplished and confident Season 5 has been on a scene-by-scene basis. It’s been full of spectacular scenes. The show seems to have been driven by an imperative to produce more big moments, more arresting images and set pieces, more holy-shit scenes that fans will talk about all week. Lane’s suicide. Lane’s punching out Pete. Joan’s indecent proposal. Roger’s LSD trip. “Zou Bisou Bisou.” First periods, backroom blow jobs and yawning elevator shafts.
In a word, Mad Men has simply gone bigger. A lot of the show’s dialogue this season has felt like the writers’ room talking to itself, encapsulated by Don Draper’s pitch meeting with Dow Chemical, in which he argues that nothing is more dangerous than being satisfied with being big enough. Season 5 has been Mad Men‘s push to go from playing theaters to selling out stadiums — which is not to say that anyone expects it to get American Idol–size ratings, but that it has purposely upped its scale.
So its formal, structural, visual ambition has gotten bigger than ever — but at the same time, it hasn’t had the same sense of being driven by one compelling story, as Season 4 was by Don’s breakdown, Season 3 was by the crack-up of the Draper marriage and so on. When I look back on Season 5, I’m almost sure that I will remember more individual images from it than any season other than the first. (The tableau at the end of “At the Codfish Ball” and Don’s pulling the needle off “Tomorrow Never Knows” are etched deep in my mind.) But that’s not the same as its being the show’s best season.
All that said, there was plenty in “The Phantom” of what makes me love Mad Men in the first place and hold it to such a high standard — in particular, the final act with Don, Peggy and Megan. Much of the Season 5 story at the Draper household has been Don’s dealing with the possibility of having a wife who is his equal — or maybe more frightening to him, who is as capable as he is but who wants to reject his path and take another one. The second half of the season has had Don, and those around him at SCDP, processing Megan’s decision to walk out on a golden job and pursue another dream and asking what it says about them. (In Ginsberg’s words, she just “comes and goes as she pleases,” a luxury even the most successful among them don’t have.)
It has put Don in the position, for once, of not being the most powerful one in a relationship. At first, it seems like the experience might be bracing, even healthy for him; he seems to get a real charge out of working with Megan, developing pitches, finishing each other’s sentences. When she chooses her art over his commerce, though, there’s a feeling of rejection beyond simply feeling, again, like he’s being put down as a sellout; Megan may be going somewhere that he can’t follow. He expresses this, in a healthier, more evolved way, to Peggy when he runs into her at a theater: “That’s what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on.”
In the end, Don does help Megan, landing her the role of Beauty (insert “and the Beast” parallel here). But is it an acknowledgement that she may move on, or a way of keeping her closer? What I like about the resolution here is that the show recognizes that both things might be true at once: that the decision might both appeal to the Don who is ready to be in a relationship of equals and the Don who needs to be the sugar daddy and provider.
There’s a dual purpose, after all, when Don originally says no. It’s self-interested; he’s uncomfortable with asking a client to give his wife a job, and not necessarily crazy about Megan’s ambitions to begin with. But the argument he gives is also sensible on her terms: that she should stay committed to her art and that she’ll be the lesser for it if she achieves something through Don’s connections rather than her own hard work.
The Megan of 1966 might have agreed and moved on. But the double punch of months of rejection and one more in a long list of Confidence-Destroying Mad Men Mothers has beaten her down. Passive-aggressively, she accuses Don of wanting her to be a submissive toy, waiting at home for him with a glass of wine because “that’s all I’m good for.” But she also recognizes that this may be a way of not having to confront whether she, as her mother says, has an artist’s temperament without an artist’s talent.
All of which lands Don in the position of male-gazer-in-chief, sitting alone in a room watching Megan in her screen-test reel — presented for approval as a pretty face, a series of gestures and expressions, utterly voiceless. He gets her the job and visits her on set, in an image that’s reminiscent of his first encountering a young Betty as a model at a shoot, and we all know how that relationship played out.
We — or I, anyway — don’t entirely know how to read it. Is it an acknowledgement that Don has reset to alpha-dog status (like the cur in Peggy’s parking lot) and is therefore done playing the monogamous husband and partner? Is it a way of letting go — recognizing that, even if Megan gets her break through him, she may indeed go places without him, but that it’s pointless to try to stop her?
Either way, Don’s hound-dog look at that last moment in the bar suggests that something has shifted in the marriage, that — tooth extracted, business thriving and wife away from the office — he is officially off “love leave.” But what I like very much about this last scene is that it suggests that Don’s motivations could be a complicated combination, that he is acting both as the Old Don (letting the little woman to do her thing while his thing does its thing) and as a sort of New Don (recognizing that Megan’s ambitions will take her where they take her, possibly to a life separate from his). Maybe he is not so much living twice as he is living two lives, two states of being, at the same time.
What I like best about the closer is that it leaves us in peace to take it all in, as a woman asks Don Draper, “Are you alone?,” and he gives her the look, cutting away moments before the response that Season 5 has invited us to imagine. Aren’t we all?
Thanks to Nate Rawlings for writing his recaps all season while I was doing Game of Thrones, thanks to him for letting me guest on this finale episode, and thanks to all of you for reading. Now one last hail of bullets:
• Elisabeth Moss, it turned out, did not leave Mad Men just yet, and while the finale did not give Peggy a major story line, it gave her a moment to meet Don as a peer — at his favorite hideout, the movies — and also showed her getting assigned to a Philip Morris “ladies’ cigarette,” which I have to figure will become Virginia Slims. Which presents a puzzle, because the cigarette was introduced (in 1968, maybe when Season 6 returns) with one of the most famous slogans in advertising history: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” So does the show depict Peggy coming up with an iconic line that was invented historically by a real person? (The pilot did this, albeit anachronistically, with Don pitching the old-time Lucky Strike slogan, “It’s Toasted.”) Or does the next season show her trying and failing, and then watching someone else (Leo Burnett, I believe, in real life) win the business?
• If there is one thing Mad Men knows, it is that people like to see Pete Campbell get punched in the face. Maybe this should just become a thing, like Kramer sliding through Jerry’s doorway in Seinfeld: every episode Pete gets punched by someone different. Little old ladies! Delivery guys! Babies!
• It’s sad to see that, as Don escapes blame for Lane’s death and the office rolls on — ironically, pulling in enough cash to save him many times over — it’s Joan who feels culpable for his death, even asking if she might have saved him by “giving him what he wanted.”
• Since I was talking about the string of striking images from this season, my pick from this episode would be the glimpse of the surviving SCDP (is Pryce still in the name?) standing on the empty floor of the TIME-LIFE building, surveying the world from a new summit. Though as someone with an office in the building, I can tell them: once you fill it with office equipment and desks, it’s not quite so breathtaking.
• Also, talking of this season’s use of color: a lot of RED RED RED in this episode, from Joan and Peggy to Don’s bloody tooth to the red X that Joan spray-paints bloodily on the new office’s carpet.
• Hello, Roger Sterling’s ass! I will admit, when we got the “partial nudity” alert at the opening of the episode, my money was on Robert Morse.