Monday, 11 June 2012

Television - Mad Men 'The Phantom' season finale analysis / review

Mad Men's fifth season concluded with its most disappointing episode, emphasizing this year's more problematic elements - a lack of focus in its themes matched to overly obvious symbolism - while struggling to achieving the high impact moments which have defined finales past, such as the Kodak pitch, the formation of SCDP, or Don's unexpected proposal last year. The episode put a cap on many of the season's key storylines, but the absence of notable twists, not to mention the slightly odd decision to have everyone seem largely indifferent about Lane's death last week, gave a mid-season, rather than climactic, feel.

It was further weakened by how many such moments this season has already delivered. Where previous seasons have been intellectual and somewhat formal (which is by no means a slight, as Mad Men is one of my all-time favourite television programmes), this year has moved into more experimental and surreal territory, fracturing characters' perceptions of reality at a time when the hats and suits culture was being torn down and replaced by a world of liberal morals, a disrespect for authority, and copious drug use.
Don's bad tooth was an excessively blatant piece of symbolism, even for this season. There had been no prior hint of Don having dental problems, and it seemed to exist for no other purpose than to get Adam Whitman's ghost to deliver the chugger of a line 'Your tooth isn't the only thing that's rotten.' Thanks for that, Adam. Mad Men has never been disrespectful of its audience's intelligence, but an eye-roller like that certainly tread the line. Adam's appearance was handled with a disappointing lack of nuance: the nature of the apparitions was rather questionable, since Adam was seen on several occasions interacting with the physical world, by pressing a button in the lift or working on a typewriter. Presumably, Don was imagining Adam's face onto other people, although no suggestion was given as to why this was happening. Mad Men enjoyed one of its finest moments last time Don saw a ghost in the ethereal shape of Anna Draper and her suitcase, but Adam's appearances came too close to cliché to achieve such equivalent dramatic weight.

Lane's death echoed Adam's, with both characters having hanged themselves, but apart from a brief visit to Mrs. Pryce's flat, Don and the SCDP partners showed a surprising lack of reaction to the recent loss. Don was mostly concerned with his tooth (which might have been a cause for the hallucinations, but never appeared so painful as to be more than an inconvenience) and batting away his wife's attempts to talk her way into a commercial SCDP were organising. Pete was continuing his on-off affair with Beth, whose depression was so great she was willingly submitting to electroshock therapy (or perhaps that's just the natural consequence of realising your choice of men is a crude insurance salesman and Pete Campbell), while Roger was trying to convince Megan's mother to take LSD with him. Poor Lane, so often overlooked in life, found his memory nothing more than an unfilled chair and an unwanted office.

The purpose of each storyline was to summarise the themes which have taken root over the course of the season. Where Mad Men's previous finales have gradually fused individual storylines and standalone themes into a byproduct of a single idea tying everything together, this year, for all its consistent brilliance, has lacked that singular focus. The early part of the season seemed interested in inter-generational conflict, before shifting into a study of stability as stagnation and change as salvation in difficult times, then the chasm between hope and reality, and finally humanity's unchanging nature. Each of these received a token speech and tagline, be it Pete talking about temporary bandages on permanent wounds or the use of Nancy Sinatra's 'You Only Live Twice' as Don seemingly gave into his Dick Whitman impulses, but never managed to change the perception of everything that has happened until now in the way the vivid themes of previous finales have.

This thematic congestion prevented the finale from settling into a steady rhythm, with too much jumping between isolated plots and ideas. This was most clearly represented by Mrs. Pryce's discovery of her husband's photo of Dolores, the most throwaway plot from the season opener and given no greater purpose here: at best, it represented the many dreams Lane never quite achieved, but if so, only added another idea to an episode overflowing with them. There was a consistent thread about people being unable to genuinely change who they are, as per Lane's inability to achieve the American dream (Mrs. Pryce's comment about ambition is a sadly typical English attitude), Don reverting to type after his moment of selflessness in giving Megan what she wanted (and her mother demonstrating detachment typical to a certain type of French mother), or Roger going for another temporary solution to stave off his fears of loneliness and isolation, but the pieces never fit together as cleanly as they have in the series' finest hours.

It was nice to see Peggy again for what could be an epilogue to her time on the series: now she's away from SCDP and Don, it's possible she'll go the way of Betty, reduced to a bit-part extra whose primary purpose is to make cameos in other people's storylines. (Betty has mostly stuck around this year because Sally has grown in importance). The only reason to assume Peggy might remain in the central cast is because of how beloved the character is and important she has been to the series, having provided our introduction to the world of Sterling Cooper in the pilot. Her purpose in this episode, amounting to three short scenes, suggested her new position isn't any more perfect than her old one, but on the basis of what we've seen until now, it's hard to imagine where she has to go from here. Taking her back to SCDP, possibly as a partner, would need to be extraordinarily well justified to not seem a cheap reversal, and her break from Don completed her trajectory as his protegée. I love Peggy, but seeing her become dead weight in the same way Betty has (well, maybe not exactly the same way) would be a sad end for a fantastic character.

Although the season ended on a whimper, there has been much to recommend it overall: having not been on-screen for almost two years beforehand, it was bold of Weiner to take such a stylistic break from previous years, embracing the alienating emotional extremes of the rising free love culture. Megan has proven an invaluable addition to the series, bringing out a new side of Don (despite some viewers despairing at his attempts at self-improvement) and putting a fresh spin on marital strife which emphasized the difference between Don's generation and Megan's, without compromising how much they evidently care for each other and are in many respects perfectly suited. Though Don's willingness to accept the offer from the girl at the bar was heavily hinted at, I hope he doesn't: we've already got a grip on philandering Don and the various cracks in her personality when it comes to intimacy, so having him revert to old ways - despite this episode's Sopranos-esque suggestion that people never really change - threatens a return to overfamiliar territory when there's still plenty of unplumbed depths in his attempts to come to terms with his young wife as someone with her own dreams and ambitions.

If this fifth season has occasionally struggled to pull itself together quite as brilliantly as Mad Men has in the past, such minor imperfections have been forgivable thanks to this year being arguably the series' bravest and most ambitious to date. With the agency on the rise but the characters increasingly forced to compromise themselves to get it there, let's hope next season (whenever it turns up) continues this season's willingness to take the characters to new places and increasingly hostile situations as the world around them evolves.



Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed reading your reviews this season. I look forward to reading more come season 6.

About that tooth... I do think Don's toothache was a bit overstated, but it does tie into this season's more subtle "sweets" motif (orange sherbet, cool whip, reddi whip, Peggy wanting a chocolate shake after getting her new job offer, Sally pouring all that sugar into her coffee etc.). This whole season characters have been looking for a quick fix for their problems, but they inevitably "crash" and are never satisfied/satiated. I interpreted the rotten tooth as the endpoint of this sweets motif. That being said, I could have done without the hallucinations of Adam. (Then again, toothaches are sometimes symptoms of brain tumors and that does provide a nice parallel with Beth's depression/electroshock therapy-not to mention the visions associated with eastern philosophy and hallucinogenics.)

I do hope Weiner moves away from symbols next season. Too high school-ish.

Xander Markham said...

That sweets motif is a brilliant spot, with so much which could be read into it regarding the season's other themes (wanting things which are bad for you, especially). Kudos on the observation and thanks for the comment!