Tuesday, June 26, 2012

MAD MEN Partners' Meeting - "The Phantom"

Welcome to the Mad Men Partners' Meeting -- a roundtable discussion of this week's episode from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

airdate: June 10th, 2012

Mark: Damn. Well, Jon and Mike, I guess we have an answer for you regarding Don’s place on the spectrum of Goodness. With the final scene of season 5, Weiner seems to suggest that Don is getting back to his old tricks, and that the flashes of a compassionate, supportive and emotionally available Don Draper that we got over the last 13 episodes were not signs of an evolved cad but rather part of a larger routine of selfishness that keeps perpetuating itself over and over again. There have been suggestions here and there that Don had once been as loving and present with Betty as we have seen him with Megan, and it was only when Betty gave up her career in order to embody the picture perfect housewife stereotype that Don both demands and despises in equal measure that their relationship started to sour. Megan striking out on her own as an actress seemed to threaten Don, but when Megan lowered herself to ask Don for a part in a commercial, her dependence on him was almost a worse fate. Don doesn’t know what he wants. He wants the dream, the excitement and possibility and glamour promised by the campaigns he, Peggy, Stan and Ginsberg dream up. But life is always messy. It’s the same with Peggy as with Megan. Don wants Peggy there, he wants to mentor her and nurture her creativity, but the minute she challenges him or threatens to surpass him, she’s a stranger. Now that Megan is “just somebody’s wife”, she has compromised herself, like Joan with Mr. Jaguar, and tarnished the perfect veneer that Don craves. This is certainly not the final nail in the Don-Megan marriage, it’s more like the first trip to the hardware store to buy nails. And while I hoped Don and Megan would build something nice with those nails - like a birdhouse or a garden shed - I’m afraid it is going to be just another coffin, as the saying goes.

This was all very upsetting, but I have to say I was a little taken aback with overt nature in which a lot of this stuff was presented and explored in the script and through Weiner’s direction. Usually this show is a little more elegant in its treatment of symbolism and subtext. Many times in “The Phantom” I felt as though I was being hit over the head with Weiner’s laptop, and as a result the finale was a little dissatisfying for me. It’s fun to speculate on what is going on under the surface with Don, what impulses and fears are guiding his actions, and to be able to draw your own conclusion that there is a void within Don that can’t be filled. It’s not quite as fun to be told point black that Don has a big, rotting symbolic tooth that he tries to ignore and convince himself will go away but that is causing him incredible pain. Sounds a lot like all of those pesky emotions the characters are repressing all the time. Furthermore, I suppose leaving us on a bit of a lingering note was better than cutting straight to Don having a threesome with the two girls from the bar, but do we have to have Don go straight from the commercial set to picking up chicks? The season has been building Don up very deliberately all season, to knock it all back down so quickly felt a little uneven. However, I will say that the shot of him walking off of the soundstage and into a pitch black void of negative space was a striking image, and half-way subtle in its symbolism. Half-way.

There were some pretty on-the-nose moments, too, in the story of Pete Campbell, the saddest little boy in the world. The whole thing with Alexis Bledel and Pete’s train buddy being such an over-the-top monster is pretty brutal. I don’t doubt that things like this happened in those days, but having this guy go so far as to force his wife into electroshock therapy so that he can carry on cheating on her and keeping her as essentially an indentured servant? Villains are all well and good, even necessary in good fiction, but maybe they could have given this guy some shading. And Pete’s grand speech to an amnesiac Bledel about his “friend”, while very well-acted and certainly moving, was another case of Mad Men telling and not showing. Great dialogue, great performances, but let us do some work as viewers, you know? Am I crazy? This episode just seemed out of character for a show that pretty much shows everything and tells next to nothing. Pete getting knocked around never gets less funny/sad, though. It all just ended on such a note of defeat. Even as Sterling Cooper Draper... Campbell? expands to a new floor and new possibilities, the partners seem mostly burnt out. Even Roger’s LSD enlightenment seems to have worn off. Or has it? I know not to come to Mad Men to be uplifted, but whereas previous seasons have gone out with a big push forward (“Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”), this finale just seemed to signal decay.

What do you guys think? Am I being a crabapple? A stick in the mud? A grouchypants? A complete and utter moron who should be taken out into the street and shot? Did I miss something? Did Weiner stick the landing? Am I just grumpy because this finale featured zero Sally Draper? What’s the verdict on the season overall?

Jon: Mark, you certainly aren't alone in your displeasure of the season 5 finale among Mad Men internet fandom. And I don't blame you for feeling that way, because not a whole lot happened in this episode when it came down to it, which gave me fits when trying to assess it. Usually I try to stay away from the pundits until after having written my peace on the episode in question, but this week I couldn't. "The Phantom" was a tricky bastard to write about. However, I think expressing too much disappointment in it overlooks how much crazy shit went down in the two preceding episodes. I mean, between Joan becoming partner, Peggy's departure the SCDP and Lane's suicide, we haven't exactly been short on monumental shifts in the show's dynamic. Now, that said, big goings on in previous episodes do not make this a good finale. As finales go, it was on the weaksauce side. But I began to appreciate "The Phantom" a bit more when placed it in context of the entire fifth season, and while it's far from a season highlight, it caps off a couple of storylines we've been following over the last 13 episodes.

In my mind, "The Phantom" serves as a sly intro to season 6 as much as it was a capper to season 5. There are constant hints of Lane's void, from his empty office and conference room chair to Joan's sudden transition into the financial prude (because someone has to bloody do it). I think it was smart to tackle this now; they'd have to address it eventually, and showing us the group mourning and moving on in their individual and collective ways while the audience is still coping with a world without Lane Pryce gets that unpleasant but important business out of the way instead of months from now when the show returns. Also, they're expanding! Man, that gorgeous shot of the five partners gazing out from what will become the second floor of SCDP (or whatever they end up calling it post-Lane), does anything point to a triumphant future more than that? Gets you pumped up for next season already. But before I get too far ahead of myself, there a couple of other matters to wrap up.

Plotwise, we get the conclusion to Pete's doomed tryst with Beth and Megan's first acting job since leaving the advertising game. Mark, you totally nailed it by pointing out how overt Weiner and company was with their intentions this time around. And no moment was more explicit than Pete's admission of the chronic unhappiness of his "friend" to Beth in her hospital room, now devoid of any memory of their brief affair, so extreme that he comes to the conclusion that "life with his family was some temporary bandage on a permanent wound." I mean... damn. That's harsh, bro. I too would've preferred the show's usual elegance in delivering such a message, but at least it all let him getting his bitch-ass face decked again this year, not once but twice in a span of two minutes!

Now let's talk about Megan's latest acting defeat. Things have gotten continuously worse for her prospects at work, and we get a literal explanation from her mother for the episode's title as Megan chases the phantom of her dreams. I was a little surprised she reduced herself to stealing her friend's idea to get Don to pull strings to cast her in a commercial. We've never seen her so petty before. And his initial reaction was the appropriate one to me, but Megan really is just that desperate to take the next step in her career that she'd ask this of him. We know she can turn on the magic in a moment of inspired desperation, like the Heinz dinner when she and Don salvaged the account at the last moment, but really we have no idea if she's actually any good at acting. Every moment we've glimpsed of her acting has been part of a montage, spinning around at a casting call, or a silent film reel. But that reel did its job, because it sold Don. If his marriage to Betty disintegrated when she stopped modelling and became a suburban housewife, one has to wonder if helping Megan jumpstart her acting career will allow their marriage to strengthen or just push them to the same fate. After all, as Megan Calvet, the actress, her double life has now begun. And Don, as Nancy Sinatra reminds us, is no stranger to living twice. Can they make it work? I guess that all depends on whether or not Don decided to take up the two girls at the bar up on their offer in the closing seconds of the episode. Many online people assume he'll steal a few moments away with them, but I'm not yet convinced. Guess we'll have to wait until next season. Hopefully it won't be another 18 months like last time!

One final comment -- will this be the last we see of Ms. Olson, smiling in her Richmond hotel room in spite of the fornicating dogs outside her window? I doubt it, but I fear now that she's left SCDP, she could be regulated to guest-character status, much like Betty was this year. Sure, January Jones' real-life pregnancy may have forced Weiner's hand in that matter, but if you're not in Don Draper's inner circle in some capacity, you're not likely to get any screen time on Mad Men (unless I'm forgetting about someone). Anyway, hit us up with your thoughts, Mike!

Mike: A controversial episode, to be sure!  Like you both, I'm definitely questioning my responses a little bit to the finale here.  I've heard the "too on-the-nose" criticism about this from a bunch of different outlets, and you know what?  Sometimes a toothache is just a "hot tooth".  Sometimes seeing a vision everywhere of your brother who killed himself after being rejected by you, immediately following an arguably comparable situation with a co-worker is just... well, you get the idea.  In this case, though, could it be that Weiner and company don't trust us to figure it out?  Or are we, as fans and armchair critics, just getting too good at picking apart the stories?  Or, as a vocal minority have opined, have Weiner and the writing staff simply shifted their style to match the more loud, blatant, and unsubtle '60s?  I think that's a terrible theory myself, in that it is essentially stating that they wrote things poorly on purpose.  It couldn't be further from the truth, since in my opinion at least, "Mad Men" has been and is still a showcase for some very fine writing.

Yet, consider the opposite for a moment.  Is it possible that, despite an otherwise master-class performance this season (and, let's face it -- every season up until this point) they simply dropped the ball on this one and erred on the side of telling and not showing?  Sure, it's not outside of the realm of possibility.  But if that is the case, what happened to their quality control?  Is Matthew Weiner's hubris and white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel so great that nobody else on the staff would say something when his metaphors are getting a little too obvious on a finale, from which he's got to know that critics and viewers, detractors and fans alike, are expecting so much?

I, too, felt let down and a little disappointed at the end of this episode.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the answers to its puzzles aren't quite as cut-and-dry as they first appeared. My initial response was based on expectations for some kind of huge revelation or turnaround like the third-season finale.  When I started to try to understand the episode on its own terms, outside of what I thought I wanted it to be like, I started liking it a whole lot more.

I'm still in the process of trying to find a way to look at this episode that still trusts that the series creators know what they're doing.  While I'm probably giving it a little too much credit, there's actually a lot to like about this episode.  There were all sorts of small rewards, nuances and charater revelations about every one of our favorite characters here.  The explosive scene between the widow Pryce and Don was, well, dynamite.  Even the (possible) final appearance of Peggy was heartwarming and a little sad.  The callbacks to previous seasons, what with Adam Whitman's ghostly reappearances, and Pete's outright vocalization about what's been eating him this entire time, well -- I'll be honest, I didn't have a huge problem with those scenes. What I'm trying to say here is, if this was a lesser episode of the fifth season, perhaps it's only in retrospect because of the high points so many of the other episodes reached.

Much has been made of the HBO dramatic series model (cross-reference: "The Sopranos" and "The Wire", especially) wherein episode 12 of the 13-episode season is where the climax of the season arc hits, and then traditionally the final episode is a denouement of sorts.  Since the creator of the show has that sort of pedigree, it's not surprising that, like Jon mentioned above, this finale was more of a lead-in for the next season than an exciting conclusion to the swingin'-from-the-rafters (yeah, I said it) roller-coaster ride that was Lane's final downfall and suicide in the penultimate episode.

You guys have already covered a lot of what happened in the show, and done a great job picking it apart. What I want to look at mainly is what this last episode is trying to say about Don. This whole season, I was expecting the very worst from him.  Despite some quite conspicuous flare-ups of "old Don," what we've seen until this episode is a man trying to be better than his instincts, even going against them in the name of love, and experiencing a lot of joy but also a lot of disappointment as well.  What is different between my interpretation of the final scenes in this episode and the consensus opinion seems to be that I don't believe Don has made up his mind yet about what he is going to do.  Yes, he is clearly disappointed in Megan's betrayal of his principles that he surely thought she had shared.  Yes, when he reached a kind of breaking point like this in his relationship with Betty, that is undoubtedly when the death knell for their relationship was first sounded.  But "new Don" has shown us time and time again this season that he has, at the very least, been attempting to learn from his mistakes.

As Don watched Megan's reel being projected onto the screen, I didn't feel like he was disgusted by her or what she was about to have him do.  I definitely sensed his admiration, tempered with more than a touch of sadness.  This expression, I propose, is not that of a man who has given up on his wife -- at least, not yet:

I mean, were we supposed to think Megan's rejected audition film was awful? I'm going to put myself out there and say that even though it may have lessened his regard for her a bit, Don submitted Megan's film for the audition process because he saw something there.  I did, too!  And then, it seems, so did the clients, since they ended up picking her for the part after all.  Megan's mercenary and disloyal tactics aside, she really looked the part in the tiny fragment of the commercial that we glimpsed.

Don may or may not have learned from his loss of Peggy and the slip of at least the initial iteration of his relationship with Megan through his fingers.  Seasons six and (I hope) seven are going to fill us in on that, I'm sure.  As for whether Don stays faithful to his wife when propositioned by an attractive female at the very end, I think that still remains to be seen.  As much as others have complained that they were spoon-fed information this episode and even a few before it, this episode's end did not provide a clear answer.  I think it goes without saying that Don was feeling a bit lonely, but did that mean that he truly was in fact alone?  Was that an innocent yet regretful smirk on his face, or the hum of the ol' charm engine getting started after a brief hibernation?

Dramatically, it probably makes more sense that Don would start to delve into his darker nature again. But as I've said before here, "Mad Men" for me has always been a show that swerves in another direction whenever I think it's going to head a certain way.  I'm crossing my fingers that Don doesn't take that path again, because there aren't a whole lot of terribly interesting storylines I can think of down that particular rabbit hole that haven't been explored already.  That said, I would certainly relish the opportunity to be proven wrong!

In conclusion, I'll just say this: to say I loved this season of television would be an understatement.  Nobody wants to see the quality of a favorite show go downhill, but I really think that we are all being a little over-sensitive on this one.  I'll agree that this was not my favorite episode of the season, but in the greater mosaic of what they're trying to do here, I think it will be an important piece.  Of what, only time, and the impending end of the series a few years out, will tell.

(P.S. Thanks to Jon and Mark for keeping this thing going all season long, even when I flaked out towards the end a little.  Great work, everyone involved.)

See you in season 6!

Episodes 1 & 2 - "A Little Kiss"
Episode 3 - "Tea Leaves"
Episode 4 - "Mystery Date"
Episode 5 - "Signal 30"
Episode 6 - "Far Away Places"
Episode 7 - "At The Codfish Ball"
Episode 8 - "Lady Lazarus"
Episode 9 - "Dark Shadows"
Episode 10 - "Christmas Waltz"
Episodes 11 & 12 - "The Other Woman" & "Commissions and Fees"

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