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"Mad Men" — "The Phantom": Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

By Sarah Carlson | TV | June 12, 2012 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | June 12, 2012 |

A toothache is never just a toothache on “Mad Men.” In many ways, the series reminds me of the NPR program “This American Life”: Each week it has a theme and its writers present different kinds of stories based on that theme. It’s one metaphor after another; every line, set piece and clothing accessory is deliberate. This isn’t a bad thing — having to peel back the layers to better understand the show’s message is part of what makes it interesting — but sometimes the redundancy of it all, or the feeling that you’re being hit over the head, can be tiresome. See: Don’s toothache. After two emotionally heavy, shocking and near brilliant episodes, the Season Five finale “The Phantom” still was solid even if it felt a bit like a review, a recap, of the year and its themes. We took a breather to stop and examine how far everyone has come only to learn that in many ways, the characters are right back where they started — or worse. It was a quiet end to an impressive season.

Don tried to ignore the pain in his tooth, claiming and hoping it would go away after he’d doused it with enough ice and whiskey. But pretending the problem doesn’t exist doesn’t make it go away, and a trip to the dentist confirms he almost had an abscess. Under anesthesia, he sees the dentist as his deceased brother, Adam, the rope marks from when he hanged himself visible. He already had imagined seeing Adam around his office, haunting him alongside the memory of Lane. “You’re in bad shape, Dick,” Adam says. “I’m going to do you a favor and take it out, but it’s not your tooth that’s rotten.” Lane’s wife Rebecca tells Don much of the same when he stops by her apartment to give her the $50,000 Lane put into the company when they lost Lucky Strike. “You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition,” she says, also questioning him about the picture of Dolores she found in Lane’s wallet. “Don’t leave here thinking that you’ve done anything for anyone but yourself.”

Don’s gesture to Rebecca was in good faith, as were his condolences. He didn’t see Lane’s suicide coming, just as he didn’t see Adam’s, and the guilt of wondering if he could have stopped both men from their actions is weighing as heavily as the thought of his behavior being the cause of such actions. No matter what, he can’t shake the feeling that he really is rotten inside, that no matter what he does, he’ll always be “bad.” Joan is the one who vocalizes such fears as she wonders if she could have saved Lane by giving him what he wanted — her. In many ways, she has stepped into his shoes at the firm, not only conducting business but relaying the finances to the partners and planning the expansion of the office to a new floor. She even steps in to voice caution at the news the agency has had its best quarter to date, a recommendation she thinks Lane would have made. Lane is everywhere and nowhere.

Peggy’s departure, on the other hand, has gone well, at least for her. Over at CGC, Ted Chaough hands her the account for a “top secret ladies’ cigarette” for Phillip Morris — “Smoke it, name it, sell it.” So much for taking a backseat. She seems pleased with her freedom, and Don tells her when they run into each other at the movies that he’s equally pleased. He just never imagined that her success would be without him. Without Peggy, his creative team is in a bind. There’s no one to balance out Ginsberg’s craziness, Stan’s negativity and Don’s aloofness, not to mention provide a female opinion for products such as Topaz hosiery that desperately need one. The firm may be making money, but the tensions in creative are bound to ignite bigger issues as 1967 progresses. Peggy will be busy taking more business trips and accounts.

Beth’s return into Pete’s life mirrored Megan’s continued downward spiral. Both beautiful young women are depressed but neither are in an environment where such a diagnosis is supported. (Betty knows a thing or two about that.) Megan wallows in her continued defeats as an actress, growing so desperate that when her friend suggests she ask Don to pull strings to get her into a commercial, she instead asks him to consider her. His advice to her is wise, even though it is delivered after he belittles her: “I thought you hated advertising?,” he asks her. “… Well you certainly don’t think it’s art, and you’re an artist, aren’t you? … You don’t want it this way. You want to be somebody’s discovery, not somebody’s wife.” Marie is more blunt: Megan is unhappy because she’s chasing a phantom. “Not every little girl gets to do what they want,” Marie tells her. “The world could not support that many ballerinas.” And to Don: “This is what happens when you have an artistic temperament but you’re not an artist.” Her drunken behavior is childish and her declaration that all she is good for is sex is unfair, both to her and Don. Later, as he watches the screen test she gave him when she asked about the commercial, he smiles as she talks and poses. As he realizes her smile is forced, however, his smile fades.

Beth is resorting to electroshock therapy to rid herself of negative feelings, a process Pete learns she has gone through before. Her request of him is for a rendezvous because after the procedure, she may not remember her time with him. “It’s so dark, Peter,” she says as he begs her to reconsider. “I just get to this place and I suddenly feel this door open and I want to walk through it.” “That’s for weak people, people who can’t solve a problem,” he says. When he later visits her, she doesn’t recognize him. He tells her a story of a friend, a man heartbroken over an affair. “He realized everything he already had was not right either, and that was why it had happened at all,” he says. “And that his life with his family was some temporary bandage on a permanent wound.” That night on the train, Howard isn’t heartbroken over Beth’s state, nor is he surprised when he guesses she and Pete slept together. Pete is the one kicked off the train, not for fighting Howard but for disrespecting the train’s officer. His snobbery has no place anymore, and even as Trudy suggests he get an apartment in the city after all, there will be no one to share it with. He’s alone with his memories of an affair doomed from the beginning and his dreams of a life he hasn’t lived.

“Are you alone?,” a woman asks Don at a bar as he nurses a drink and waits for Megan. He helped get her the commercial after all, and she giddily thanked him on set before he left, walking across a dark soundstage away from the bright lights of the scene. He did his best to help her avoid continued unhappiness, an action he didn’t take with Adam or Lane, or even Betty or other past lovers. But there’s no going back now that he’s taken this step for Megan. It’s the kind of responsibility Marie tells Roger she doesn’t want when he asks her to take LSD with him. “Please don’t ask me for anything,” she tells him. “Please don’t ask me to take care of you.” That’s not the kind of love she and Don know how to give. We don’t know if Don says anything to the stranger the bar or not. He simply looks at her, expressionless. But we know the answer. He is alone, just as he always has been. That’s something you don’t forget.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in Texas.

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