Written by Shanté Cosme (@ShanteCosme)
Last night, both to its detriment and our benefit, Mad Men was utterly and entirely true to form, reinforcing the themes we've seen strewn throughout the whole of season five in incarnations both subtle and glaring. Maybe that's why last night's finale, while impactful and surprisingly poignant, held very few actual surprises. It registered as a checkpoint rather than the type of head-on-collision you often witness in a season finale. But, after the shock of losing Lane (Jared Harris) to suicide in the penultimate episode, it was refreshing to ultimately arrive at the season's end and find that we've left the drama behind and have returned to the status quo.
Ultimately, we're left to consider the more nuanced ways in which each character has evolved. After all, that's what Mad Men's allure is, isn't it? Series creator Matthew Weiner has created legions of devoted detectives; we're not an audience that seeks easy truths.
In Which Don Neglects His Toothache
Speaking of easy truths, let's begin with the instance of spoon-fed symbolism we were most offended by: Don's (Jon Hamm) rotting tooth. In the wake of Lane's (Jared Harris) suicide, Don is struggling under the crucifix of his guilt, an emotion he fails to explicitly address, much like the decaying tooth spreading an infection in his mouth. We made the diagnosis almost immediately, yet were forced to choke down several different over-simplifications of the same truth, the most naked being an apparition of Don's brother Adam (who also hanged himself due after a disappointing conversation with Don, back during season one) confronting Don while he is in the dentist's chair. "It's not your tooth that's rotten," he informs Don.
A more illusive nod to the burden Don carries is the decision to set the episode around Easter, a day of resurrection. After a season of seeing a new, softer side of Don in the onset of his relationship with Megan (Jessica Pare), we're reminded that Don, despite spending the last 12 episodes on "love leave" and impressively curbing his womanizing, is still the same man. Like Jesus, Don is crucified and rises again. But he's not a new man, just the same man, returned.
When we see that over-sized, blackened tooth the dentist pulls out of Don's mouth, we're left to wonder what it is Don has actually extracted. Has he just separated himself from the overwhelming feelings of responsibility in Lane's death, or has he uprooted something more significant, like his commitment to his marriage?
Shock Treatment is Surprisingly Effective
Don's doctor's visit is paralleled by the far more invasive method of treatment that Beth (Alexis Bedel) is undergoing—shock therapy—but achieves the same result: It removes the source of the pain. Beth arranges a final tryst with Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), in a phone call that mirrors his fantasy earlier this season almost word for word, and admits she's receiving routine shock treatment because she's "been very blue" (a call back to Betty's plight of housewife despair, and a similarly dismissive reaction) and warns Pete that it may erase her memories of him.
The scene that follows finds Pete in her hospital room, post treatment, only to find that Beth does not recognize him, leaving Pete to concoct a story about visiting a friend who has been hospitalized due to the complications of heartbreak. He's speaking to Beth, but she's vacant, and in truth, Pete is essentially telling a story about himself, to himself. He explains the reasons for his affair in honest terms: "He needed to let off some steam, needed adventure, needed to feel handsome again."
You can see the pain creep into his eyes as he listens to his own words, subsequently discovering everything he could never admit to himself: "And he realized that everything he already had was not right either. And that’s why it all happened at all. His life with his family was a temporary bandage on some permanent wound.”
Megan Can't Be Whatever She Wants When She Grows Up
That permanent wound, of course, is desire. It's the theme that has been looming over the season, and every character's story has been funneled through it at some point or another. It's Don perpetually in pursuit but never satisfied. It's Pete chasing his dreams of success, and achieving the acclaim he desperately sought after, only to find that being on top has no bearing on his happiness. SCDP expands into the top floor, and, now, Pete finally has "the same view" as Don. "Congratulations," Don flatly replies. Because, really, what has he gained? It's not just lonely at the top; it's empty and unsatisfactory. The world may see Pete as a success, but Pete will never see himself as one. He's the same damaged person, just with a better office, and he's no closer to contentment than he was at the lowest rung of the ladder.
Megan's mom, Marie (Julia Ormond), succinctly reiterates this idea when her daughter finds herself at a standstill in her acting career: "You are a chasing a phantom," she observes. Her words certainly won't win her any Mother of the Year awards, but they have an undeniable validity. It's hard to tell if Megan is lacking talent, or just discouraged at her initial lack of success, but it's clear her outlook on her initial run's failure is deeply rooted in her parents lack of support. Her father chastised her for abandoning her dreams back in "At The Codfish Ball," and now her mother is mocking her for pursuing them.
Marie's blunt words make Megan desperate for any sign of approval or progress, a nagging feeling that likely precipitates her decision to screw over her friend and suggest herself for Butler's shoe commercial. When Don initially denies her request to put her name in for an audition, it's because he believes it compromises her artistic integrity. "You don't want it this way," he insists. "You want to be somebody discovery, not somebody's wife."
But, after a go-round in Marie's ring and being told, "Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world could not support that many ballerinas," Megan is left to wallow in wine and cope with the possibility that she may not have the talent to succeed. Don comes home to find desperately groping him, pleading, "It's the only thing I'm good for."
Megan doesn't believe this herself; she's just voicing what she thinks Don believes. "This is what you want isn't it? For me to be waiting for you. It's why you wont give me a chance."
Does Don want another housewife, a woman whose only ambition is serving him dinner each night? Or is it Megan's insistence on her having her own aspirations that make him as enamored with her as he clearly is? Don's favorable reactions to Megan's success at SCDP certainly suggest the latter. Don wants a partner, not a submissive housewife. If he wanted that, he could have settled down with the sexy blond, commitment-inclined supernumerary from season three. Don wants to be challenged, and Megan provides that.
If Don seems opposed to Megan's pursuit of acting, it is because he foresees that her success may separate the two of them. Not because he doesn't want her to succeed, but that her craft comes at a cost. It's not as if acting is a 9-5 gig. It's not conducive to nurturing a marriage or raising a family. It will require travel, long nights of rehearsal, and essentially force their marriage into the backseat.
Marie mistakenly believes Don desires a complacent wife, advising him: "Nurse her through this defeat and you shall have the life you desire." But Don doesn't nurse her through it, he pushes her to continue and encourages her. We see him watch her acting reel (the dark, smoky room and the flickering screen is strong visual call back to Don's carousel pitch) and he looks truly happy watching her emote, particularly as she smiles. He seems something special in her, and he has the choice to keep it to himself, or share her with the world, and possibly lose her.
When we see Megan on the set of the "Beauty and The Beast" commercial, beaming, we understand the decision Don has made, a selfless choice to give her what she wants at the risk of sacrificing what he needs: her. He's placed her in a beautiful scene, and left it to play out without him. When Don walks off into the darkness as the bright lights of the set fade away, it's the proverbial elevator shaft Don faced when Megan left the office at SCDP. He's not abandoning her. He's letting her go.
He goes to the bar (by himself for the first time this season) and orders an "old-fashioned." He's the old Don again. Megan may have kept him at bay, but he's always been on the periphery. Drake may be about the YOLO, but as the episode closes, we hear Nancy Sinatra singing an even more encouraging motto: "You only live twice. One life for yourself and one for your dreams." Megan's second life is just beginning, leaving Don to abandon his dreams for their marriage, and return to living for himself. When that blond confidently struts up, tells him her friend is interested and asks if he's alone, he doesn't immediately answer that's he taken, as we would have expected earlier in the season. He glances over at her friend, and is at the very least, entertaining the possibility of infidelity. And, really, that's enough.
Other Points Of Interest
- The sight of Roger's (John Slattery) bare ass as he looks over the Manhattan skyline while on yet another LSD trip.
- Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) bossing her new coworkers around and being given the opportunity to man the Phillip Morris lady's cigarette campaign and "Smoke it, name it, sell it."
- Pete getting punched for the second (by Beth's husband) and third (the train conductor) time this season. There are no diminishing returns here; it's equally satisfying each time, and shows no signs of losing its gleeful appeal.
- Roger secretly arranging a tryst with Marie, who tries to conceal their transgressions by speaking in French. Roger inquires,"What is a ragina?"
- When Don presents Lane's wife with the $50,000 he invested (a small chunk of the 175k his death insurance benefit paid out), she remarks, "You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition." She believes he wasn't equipped to handle the pressure of being on top. Sadly, she was correct.
- Peggy bumping into Don at the movies, finally on even ground. The overjoyed look as she collapses onto the bed in her cheesy hotel room, on her first ever business trip makes it clear she's the only person on Mad Men who appreciates every moment of success, however tiny. Whether she returns to SCDP or not, we better see much more of her next season.
Written by Shanté Cosme (@ShanteCosme)