‘Mad Men’ Recap (Season 5 FINALE): Living Twice
Mad Men slows as it crosses the finish. What went wrong in the season 5 finale?
Hoo-boy. Alright, don’t believe the buzz, it wasn’t a bad episode, but Mad Men‘s recent finale was as somber and slow as the season that had preceded it. It wasn’t charged-up. Nobody was playing like they wanted to be in the game. It wasn’t lacking for character clashes or a cliffhanger ending — but frankly, the show was in mid-season form when it should have been leaving everything on the field.
While it was tough to come back after Lane’s death in the last episode, there was still plenty of room for madness that felt under-utilized. The episode was not urgent. It was the Pete Campbell Howdy-Doodie Circus Hour, which is not a show people would tune into because Pete Campbell is a character genetically crafted to be repugnant. In fact, I dislike him even more after his self-pitying first-world problems speech to electro-Beth in the sanitarium. The crux of Pete’s speech was: “I was sad, so I slept around, and thought it would be an easy release from life in the burbs, then I kinda liked the girl, so now I’m sadder than ever.”
What a generic, thudding problem — one unbefitting of a show like Mad Men that is usually more ambitious with its characters. Pete’s fall from his tin-foil tower was as graceless as we’ve come to expect and it’s clear that he’s drained by having the responsibility, and the very concept of, adulthood thrust upon him throughout Mad Men‘s story. He crumpled — it’s sad, but he will elicit no sympathy from anybody, especially when he’s 0-3 in fist-fights this season.
Is it sickening to suggest that if he was Don Draper, more people would be on his side? Continuing with episode’s generic texture, Don had a toothache. That toothache that he thought would go away if he ignored it was also a metaphor for something else IF YOU DIDN’T REALIZE! Toothaches have traditionally symbolized marital dissatisfaction, something that was established by early Greek dramas (NOTE: The previous sentence is a lie.). The rotten tooth is a lazy symbol that undermines the slow-boil misery the season has been building to.
It is relevant that Lane hung himself the same way that Don’s half-brother did, but that felt forced in and of itself. There is the occasionally-cool dream sequence in Mad Men, like Betty during child-birth a few years ago – Adam reappearing was not one of them, despite the way that he loomed over Don at the dentist and then ridged at the camera to show his noose-scar. It’s unfortunate that Mad Men strung us along with such confidence in the audience only to about-face at the last minute right before stepping into the last circle of hell to tell us: “Don’s been aching for something more the entire time!”
That’s bad comedy. You suck, Virgil.
My heart goes out to Megan though. She has the financial freedom to follow her dreams and only the weight of her family’s silent judgement to weigh her down. It was obvious when Don told her not to audition for the shoe commercial that his life’s cyclical nature was looming on the horizon. Lest we forget, he originally met Betty when she was modeling for a commercial, and as good at starting over as he is, Don probably wants to avoid that cycle. In addition to the rampant nepotism in him helping her get the part in the commercial, he’s irked by the fact that to him, commercials aren’t art or even acting, she would just be doing it for the money,which she doesn’t need, reminding her that, “You want to be somebody’s discovery, not somebody’s wife.” These are the words of a man debating if he should walk away from his wife — he knows she wants to be an actress, how could he stop her? Megan’s mother took the tough-love approach in the most French-Canadian way possible, refusing to weep for Megan’s misfortunes and suggesting to Don that, “She has the artistic temperament, but she is not an artist.”
That kind of burn will stay with you. Seeing Megan waiting up for Don drunk and giving up was hard to see as she proclaimed that “That’s all I’m good for.” It was no surprise that Don followed through to get her the audition for the commercial. However, it was him drifting towards that ache and realizing what he needed to do to be rid of it.
Lane’s death still hangs lingers over the company and Don attempted to absolve himself of some guilt by paying back his widow Lane’s share of the investment in the firm, a solid $50,000. Then something strange happened. It wasn’t just that she was angry with him, it was that she was angry with him for giving ambition to a man like Lane. Ambition and success and not knowing when you’ve got a good thing are the season’s themes — apparently, those are sensations that are compatible with certain personalities, like Don and Peggy, but incompatible with the likes of Lane and Pete. Basically, it’s the show saying that some people can hack it in America and some can’t. Perhaps going even further, in order to hack it, you might have to become something very calculating and maybe even a little destructive.
Speaking of Peggy, she’s running shit over in her new job, deploying minions like the bosstress that she is. Good for her. Her coincidental encounter with Don at the movies was fun, if a bit dreamy. Look at the hard reds of the theater chairs, the weird, Twin Peaks‘ish pattern on Peggy’s outfit, and randomness of their encounter — it was some Ghost of Christmas Present / David Lynch kinda stuff. (Holy crap, David Lynch’s Christmas Carol sure would be a zany adventure, wouldn’t it?!)
Peggy is doing quite well, even if her moment in the closing “where are they now” montage was goofy. She is the kind of person that clicks with Don’s infectious ambition. Alternatively, Lane got too deep into debt and killed himself. Pete started to loathe the well-paying, man-of-the-house, wife-at-home, above-ground-pool, 9-5 grind and tried to cheat his way to a little bit of happiness, only to find further self-loathing and a desire to run away to LA.
The fact that Beth, The Wife That He Banged, went through electro-shock therapy and suffered a mind-wipe because of it is a little frightening, but amnesia is a total no-go for me. No amnesia. Sorry, those are the rules, man.
(Roger’s misadventures bear mentioning because he suddenly loves LSD again, which is surprising because he was admittedly cold and callous again last week, suggesting that his respect for the drug had worn off.)
Finally, we come to the ending. Now, here is the big debate: will Don accept this floozy at the bar’s invitation? Will he revert to Old Don? On the one hand, it’s obvious that he loves Megan, if the way he watches her audition reel is any indication — Jon Hamm almost loses it in that scene, but he doesn’t cry. Is that the look of the man recognizing what he wants for himself and what he wants for her? Look at the way he walked away from the set where Megan was filming the commercial — under he maiden name, mind you. He wasn’t upset by that. He was accepting of it. He saw her on the audition film, and he liked what he saw, but in that instant, she’s separate from him, and he needs her as a companion and as a wife, not as an item in an advertisement. So the next question is this: is him walking away Don starting to live the second time? Or is his marriage with Megan already the second time, and the (flawless) song choice is suggesting that, no, he’ll stay loyal to her because he knows what he has?
We’ll have the whole off-season to debate.
Still bored? You can read my most recent piece on how The Dark Knight Rises Is Les Misérables In Reverse over on http://www.ghostlittle.com and you can keep up with my thoughts on Twitter. Til next week!
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