Don't read on unless you've seen "The Phantom," the "Mad Men" Season 5 finale.
I love what I do, but I do sometimes think about the absurdity of this task.
There's no science to criticism. We TV critics expend thousands of hours and epic amounts of digital "ink" analyzing, scrutinizing, pondering episodes of TV. But for all that, we can can't necessarily explain to you -- or ourselves -- why something moves us, tantalizes us or leaves us cold. There's no graph or chart that we can slot a scene or an episode into, no ready-made formula that explains what works and what doesn't and why. Sometimes, if we're lucky, we get near an explanation that makes both emotional and intellectual sense, but a lot of the time, we're merely fumbling around, trying to figure things out on the fly, hoping to death we're not boring our wonderful, patient readers.
Having said all that, I can pinpoint when and why I completely disengaged from the "Mad Men" season finale, and both scenes were part of a larger problem that hobbled much of this season.
As I said in this overall piece about the problems of Season 5, obvious symbols were all over the place this year, and what could be a more neon-colored symbol than Don's toothache? That good-looking mouth, the one that tells lies and kisses women and makes slick pitches -- it was infected! What could that mean?
Well, in case we were curious, Don's dead brother Adam turned up to tell us exactly what was going on. "I'm going to do you a favor and take it out, but it's not your tooth that's rotten," Dead Adam said (ALSO: He also hanged himself, just like Lane! We got a visual reminder of that, in case we forgot.) Adam turned up in case we weren't sure that the tooth might be a metaphor for Don's general self-hatred and/or his guilt over his brother's death and Lane's suicide -- other kinds of pain that Don hoped would magically go away but didn't. Yep, there's no way I was going to crack that one on my own.
As was the case last week, when Glen had to state the theme to Don at the end of the episode, "Mad Men" didn't trust us to get the meaning, so it hit us over the head with it. And that is just so damned odd, because "Mad Men" used to be the show that avoided obviousness like the plague. It was oblique, it came at thing sideways, it let silences speak and it let characters' actions speak louder than their words (which could be pretty damn cryptic). A conversation about photography and caves could turn into an incredible pitch for Kodak. Who was Don Draper? Nobody knew what went on in his head; to his staff, he was Batman. Now we quite literally know what was going on in his head, infected tooth and guilt and all.
The show we saw this year is not that show. All season long, it's been louder, more obvious and less trusting of the audience than it's ever been, and I can't for the life of me understand how anyone could think this is a positive direction for "Mad Men" to go in. If nothing else, it's boring to have things over-explained, or at least I find that's the case, as I noted in this earlier piece. My mind starts to wander if it doesn't have to do at least a little of the work.
But "The Phantom" kept going in Explainer mode in the next scene as well, when Pete poured out his feelings for Beth in a way that literalized almost all the season's repetitive themes. There was a mismatch between what he had and what he wanted, and he'd realized that his family life was "some temporary bandage on a permanent wound." That's been the story of not just Don Draper but almost every character this season, whose hopes and dreams didn't match up with their reality and who all found getting what they wanted vaguely dissatisfying. Given that's what we've seen almost every week (and every year), I didn't need a character stating that theme so baldly. But apparently "Mad Men" thought I did.
So there it is. TV shows and movies can take us places, they can make us feel things, and when that happens, it's glorious. But by the end of "The Phantom," what I mostly felt was the kind of boredom and ennui that the characters have been experiencing, because much of the mystery of this world has been drained away. I know these people were always damaged and hard to please, I know happiness and contentment are not their default modes. But we used to be able to slip into the ambiguities in their lives and roll around in them. It's easier to speculate about and identify with a story when it's not all neatly laid out and explained for you; it's more fun when your own mind and imagination and heart participate in the creation of a world. It's easier to be moved when you feel the tidal pull of the characters' emotions, not when you're clunking along in their wake like an anchor. It's hard be moved when you're also being patronized.
Last season's "Mad Men" finale wasn't universally loved, but I quite liked it, especially the scene in which Don proposed to Megan. Not that I thought the proposal was necessarily a good idea (and this year, we've seen why it may not have been Don't finest move), but the show was able to take me inside that experience. Don was experiencing a rush of love and gratitude for Megan, and the performance, direction and writing made me feel that ecstatic moment. The look on Don's face was heartbreaking in its openness and hopefulness. Even if I thought Don might be heading for disaster, I wanted him to be happy. Even if I thought it might not, I wanted it to work out.
I've been thinking about that a lot lately -- how most engaging stories get you to want something for the characters. The characters don't have to be good people or they don't even have to have admirable goals, yet because of the way the story is told, you end up wanting them to get something or attain some goal. You're rooting for some kind of outcome, even if it is a comeuppance.
There's no particular reason to root for Don Draper these days; he is the man who has everything, and, like everyone else, having what he wanted is not enough. It'll never be enough. And I get that's what part of Season 5 was about -- what do you do with success? As we left SCDP for the season, the firm was positively rolling in cash (in death, Lane Pryce turned the firm a tidy profit, which I hope brought him some satisfaction in the afterlife). But what's next? The firm rents more office space in which to store the employees' frustrations, accommodations and dead hopes? That doesn't leave us much to want for these people.
In any event, there was a constant mismatch between what people had and what they wanted this season, but especially in this hour. Pete wanted an adolescent romance, while Beth just wanted some comfort on her road to hell. Roger wanted to be taken care of by Marie, who just wanted a night out during which she could forget her failed marriage. Don wanted a compliant wife who is emotionally cared for by her mother (not him), while Megan wants success in her career, even if it means driving a wedge between her and Don.
Don, forever the abandoned child, also wants "his" women to stay with him forever. In his movie-theater scene with Peggy, he twisted the knife a little ("That's what happens when you help someone, they succeed and move on"), which didn't make me like him very much. He used a similar technique on Megan earlier, twisting her words and desires into knives that he used to wound her about money, art and her aspirations. She never said all those things he asserts that she said, but her leaving the agency left him feeling attacked and vulnerable, so he's dishing it out just like he dishes it out to his employees. It's Don Draper at his worst, though in this behavior, he's true to form: He hates himself, so he treats people like crap, and on some level he expects people to leave him, so he girds himself for that day by finding more people to push around -- or sleep with, as the case may be.
And he was absolutely on the prowl in that final scene; there's no doubt in my mind. He quite literally walked away from his picture-perfect wife, who was on the set of a fairy-tale castle, and walked into a bar with that Don Draper swagger and that handsome face. Of course he was looking for women; by choosing to take her career seriously (via the kind of sordid dealmaking that everyone else engaged in this season), Megan had chosen something else over him, so Megan is on the way out, as far as Don is concerned. If there's one thing we know about Don, it's that he dives into the arms of a new woman when he feels vulnerable, exposed or abandoned.
What does all this mean for the future of Don or the agency? I'm not sure, but I'm not on the edge of my seat, either. If the next two seasons are all about ennui and the hard fate of having too much (or not enough) of what one wants, well, where's the suspense in that? Where's the poetry, where's the potential to be moved in our souls? If you think about it, a lot of Season 5 could be boiled down (my apologies to Topaz executives) to cheap aphorisms: "Money can't buy happiness." "Success isn't all it's cracked up to be." "No man is an island." (And if you think I'm simplifying things too much, well, isn't Dead Adam guilty of that too?)
The scene of Don watching Megan's reel felt like a callback of sorts to the show's Season 1 finale, but all that reference did is remind me of how utterly floored I was by Don's Carousel pitch. There, he recalled the pain of memory and drew on his own bittersweet memories to find something real and true. Here, he was looking at an image of a woman whom he could shape and mold, and he was all alone (just as Pete was alone with his music, just as Peggy was alone in her hotel room, just as Roger was alone with his... nakedness).
It's funny, on the DirecTV program guide for this episode, this was the information that was given out about "The Phantom": "There are opportunities for everyone."
Are there? Despite those panoramic views of Manhattan on the 38th floor, it feels like the walls are closing in.
As Stan said, "I'm so bored of this dynamic."
A few more notes:
- Funniest line honors go to Pete this week: "Well, I'm president of the Howdy Doody circus army!"