SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM LAST NIGHT’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 13 YET.
“It’s a great sin to take advantage of hopeless people.”
After the high drama of recent episodes – Joan’s prostitution, Peggy’s departure, Lane’s suicide – the finale to Mad Men’s fifth season felt somewhat more low key. It was a chance for the characters to take stock of where they’d been left by the tumultuous events of the year, both in their business and personal lives. It was notable that, this year more than any, there was no major historical event against which to juxtapose the characters, a sign perhaps that the drama itself is now more important than its context.
One of the things the show has often dealt with is the consequences of its characters’ actions, and this finale seemed to take most of its time in dealing with those. Mad Men’s plotlines never have what you could call conclusions, not really, but there were capstones – and consequences – to many of the subplots laid out this year.
Lane’s suicide has obviously affected everyone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce very deeply (apart from anything else, they’re presumably going to have to rename the company). Yet, in keeping with the show’s usual dramatic subtlety, it was quite some way into the episode before anyone explicitly mentioned the matter. Initially, we got some sideways references to it: Lane’s empty chair at the partners’ meeting, Harry, Bert, and apparently others being less than keen to move into the office where this unspeakable event had happened.
Don seemed to be keeping it together, but from the very start his guilt seemed to be manifesting itself; initially as a troublesome toothache which he refused to see a dentist about, then increasingly with visions of his dead brother Adam. As noted by many Lane’s suicide (probably intentionally) mirrored Adam’s perfectly. Both hanged themselves after having been rejected by Don, and obviously Don (and the screenwriter) is acutely aware of the similarity.
In moral terms, Don’s treatment of Lane is far more defensible than his treatment of his brother, who he rejected to keep his former life as Dick Whitman a secret. As a partner in the agency who’d been found to be embezzling it and forging the accounts, Lane was clearly in an untenable positions, and Don at least did him the courtesy of allowing him to resign while keeping the embezzlement confidential (though this may have had more to do with Don worrying that a police investigation would turn up his own ongoing identity theft). Nonetheless, Don should have little to feel guilty about concerning Lane.
But that’s not how it works when somebody you’re close to kills himself, and the visions of Don’s brother may have more to do with reminding us that he really should feel responsible in that case. It’s a mark of the show’s attention to detail that they were able to hire Jay Paulson to return as Adam after having dispatched the character in the first season. He’s a distinctive enough actor for me to have recognised him immediately as the ‘phantom’ of the title when Don started seeing him out of the corner of his eye, tentatively asking, “Adam?”
These two manifestations of Don’s present and ongoing guilt finally came together as Don relented and wen to the dentist to see about his toothache. Knowledge of the show’s style meant that, as Don went under the gas and closed his eyes, then opened them again, I realised instantly that we were into one of the show’s ‘dream’ sequences. So it proved as Adam turned up, not to berate Don but offer a sad smile and another parallel to Lane: “I lost my job. Because I’m dead.” An unpleasant purple weal around his neck was proof enough of this, and Don pleaded, “Don’t go”. To which Adam’s response – “Don’t worry, I’ll hang around. Get it?” indicates that we’ll likely be seeing more of Don’s increasing burden of guilt when the show returns.
It doesn’t help that Lane’s death, along with a resurgence in business from Mohawk Airlines, has done the company pretty well financially. His life insurance payout is massive, and SCDP are the beneficiaries – shades of Death of a Salesman, which were further emphasised when Don insisted on paying $50,000 of the settlement to Lane’s widow.
The scene of Don visiting Mrs Pryce, and awkwardly trying to offer condolences only to be rejected coldly, was one of those supremely uncomfortable scenes Mad Men does so well. Embeth Davidtz as Rebecca Pryce has had almost nothing to do, acting wise, beyond a blithe ignorance of her husband’s misdeeds; now finally, she got a chance to show her acting mettle. As the only other thing I’ve ever seen her in was the 1993 Evil Dead sequel Army of Darkness, I was pleasantly surprised by how good she was here. Keeping the traditional British restraint about grief, she coldly told Don, “It was wrong of you to fill a man like that with ambition” – probably the most succinct analysis of Lane’s downfall you could get. And she outright told Don that she knew this to be just an attempt to salve his own conscience, and that as far as she was concerned, it did nothing to alleviate his guilt. Ouch.
As this is Mad Men, and everyone has to be having a horrible time, Pete Campbell was doing pretty badly too. Pete’s one of those characters that, while impossible to like, I still can’t help feeling sorry for; as mentioned several weeks ago, absolutely nothing works out for him. His tragedy is that, like Don, he seems to have everything he should want, but like Don, it’s never enough. It’s ironic that this is the one way in which Pete truly is similar to his ‘hero’ Don.
This week, we got a resolution – of sorts – to his attempts to have a passionate affair a la Don, with fellow commuter’s wife Beth. After seeing Beth on the train, he was powerless to resist her invitation for a meaningless shag in the same hotel where she’d stood him up. Then she revealed that this would be the last time it would happen – she was off to have her depression treated (not for the first time) with electro convulsive therapy, and experience had taught her that she would likely not even remember him afterward.
This led to a rather heartbreaking scene as Pete blagged his way in to visit her at the hospital, only to discover that she’d already had the ECT and (apparently) really had forgotten who he was. Cue a long and surprisingly moving speech from Pete as he detailed the travails of the ‘friend’ he told Beth he was there to visit – actually, of course, a summation of his own emptiness and lack of fulfilment. It was delivered brilliantly by Vincent Kartheiser, who constantly manages – for me, anyway – to keep Pete straddling the line between loathsome and sympathetic.
At least one thing seemed to work out for him, though. Ending up in a fistfight on the commuter train with Beth’s husband Howard, he unwisely baited the no-nonsense conductor who broke up the fight, receiving a black eye for his trouble. Turning up battered at home led wife Trudy (Community’s Alison Brie, who we don’t see nearly enough of) to concede that his desire to rent an apartment back in Manhattan was probably a good idea. But what’s the betting that it’s not going to make him any happier?
At least we got a welcome return for Peggy Olson. I wouldn’t expect her to have left the show for good; after all, the very first episode began with her first day at the agency, and she’s been a crucial character since. Here, we saw that life at Cutler Gleason and Chaough may not be much better for her. Ted Chaough dragooned her into taking up smoking so she can work on a prospective Philip Morris account, and it’s no surprise that she followed her old boss’s example once again when times are hard – she went to the movies.
Where, as chance would have it, she met Don himself, also taking refuge from his troubles as he recovered from his tooth extraction (it must have been terrifying for him when the dentist told him he couldn’t smoke for 24 hours). Their scene together was touching; despite Peggy having only left a couple of weeks ago, they hugged like old friends who hadn’t seen each other for ages. The real chemistry between Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss was again in evidence as both feigned happiness, avoiding the subject of their current worries. At least Don’s regret over her departure was expressed; he seemed bitter and sad but proud when he told her, “that’s what happens when you help someone. They succeed and move on.” I doubt we’ve seen the last of Peggy (she was highlighted significantly in the closing montage); but I wonder where she’ll be when the show returns. Back at SCDP, or turning into a capable rival for Don elsewhere?
Thankfully, the often-too-perfect Megan was getting a serious dose of her husband’s usual sense of angst and futility. Her acting career is noticeably failing to take off (and her mother is none too sympathetic), and like Don, she took refuge in brooding and getting drunk. Jessica Pare is a perfectly capable actress, but I can certainly understand many people’s objection that Megan has little depth as a character beyond acting as a foil for Don’s insecurities. Here, finally, that mask of wholesomeness was nicely cracked.
After one of her friends begged her for an in with Don to be cast in a new SCDP commercial, Megan basically stabbed her in the back by trying to get the gig herself. Don was initially reluctant but eventually conceded, and in one of the episode’s last scenes, we saw that Megan had got the job. Terrific, perhaps, but a total abandonment of her earlier principled stance that she wanted to succeed on her own merit. She may be finally getting work, but it’s only because of her husband rather than her ability, and she betrayed a close friend to do so. Welcome properly to the world of Mad Men characters, Megan. (And that’s before you even consider that her mother is yet again entwined in the ‘understanding’ arms of Roger Sterling!)
The ep – and the season – concluded with one of its trademark musical montages, this time set to Nancy Sinatra’s hit of that year, ‘You Only Live Twice’. As usual – a highly appropriate choice – Don manages to both recall and subvert the archetype of James Bond as he walks away from Megan’s film set into the darkness. Hanging out at a bar, he was approached by, yet again, a shyly attractive young lady. And her friend. And his unspoken answer to their question – “Are you alone?” – was the cliffhanger on which this season left him. He’s spent the year trying hard to move away from the ‘old’ Don, only to find the consequences of his actions pushing him back into that role ever more. Will he have the strength to resist?
It’s been a great season, which was a relief after having waited nearly two years to see it. Matthew Weiner has, as ever, kept the show’s slow burning moodiness and character depth, so that truly dramatic events, when they come, are all the more shocking for it. It’s sad that we won’t be seeing any more of Lane, who really came into his own this year in terms of deep plotlines both humorous and sad, and Jared Harris deserves a nod for his likeable performance over the last three seasons. And I’m glad to see that Peggy’s departure from SCDP doesn’t mean her departure from the show. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait as long for the next season as we did for this one!