Mad Men – Season 5 Finale Review – “It Wore Off”

There are a lot of things to love about season five of Mad Men, but one aspect that I want to mention above all else is what a stellar season it was for the women.

As we looked at Joan, Peggy and Megan in this episode, I marveled at how far they’ve come since the season had begun. Peggy is an executive, and looks the part.

Joan has essentially assumed Lane Pryce’s role within the company, and is shining despite her own personal sadness over his death.

And Megan – what to make of Megan? She booked her first job as an actress, yes. But in an advertisement, the world she left behind, and because her husband put in a good word for her.

Of our three leading ladies, she is the one whose successes are most marred by circumstance. Peggy had to take a risk and leave her mentor, Joan had to rise to the occasion after the suicide of a colleague, but Megan’s success was rooted in sacrifice. Getting booked in an ad because she’s the boss’s wife, that’s not the kind of gig Megan dreamed of when she left SCDP.

 

I really liked “The Phantom” as a season finale, and as I mentioned above, I loved this season overall. Many critics and viewers have been discussing the idea that Mad Men has been much more obvious or literal in its themes this season than it has in the past, and I don’t think this episode diverged from that trend. But I liked how many of the storylines showed that no matter what one tries to fill one’s life with, it can always be empty. There can always be sadness. Whether it’s Megan chasing the “phantom” of success or the inherent sadness of a person suffering from depressing, or a naked Roger Sterling staring out into the darkness.

Don and Megan

Megan left the world of advertising to chase her dream of being an actress and, one would assume, feel fulfilled. And for a while, I thought it was working. I thought Megan would be happy merely with the fact that she was chasing her dream, even if she wasn’t achieving it. I was an idiot. Megan wasn’t getting work and began to fall apart, all while her unsupportive mother was in town.

I think an important moment was when Megan told her friend she’d put in a word with Don for her about the shoe commercial, but instead asked him to get her an audition. (“Every man for himself” was an extremely prevalent theme this season, but it felt like the first time that strategy was employed by Megan.) It wasn’t even the kind of work Megan wanted, but she’s getting desperate. She needed the positive affirmation of booking a gig, even if it meant returning to advertising in a way and relying on her husband even more than she had when she worked as a copywriter.

Megan was glowing when we saw her in costume on the ad set, but how long will that last? A couple weeks after she finishes shooting? A couple days? How much success is enough success?

We didn’t really see Don do a lot this week, other than grimace in pain thanks to a toothache and a brief but interesting scene in which Don went to visit Lane’s widow and offer her some money from the company life insurance. I did like how we saw Don hallucinating his brother, complete with a bruised neck, following the suicide of Lane. I’d actually forgotten about the circumstances under which Don’s brother had killed himself until Couchtime reader Dana mentioned the similarities in a comment on last week’s post, but it was interesting to see that image floating around Don’s head as he coped with the pain of his toothache. Those who’ve felt that Mad Men has been too heavy-handed this season will likely feel that the scene in the dentist’s office was too much, but I didn’t mind it.

The toothache certainly was an analogy for the message this season. You can try and push through the pain and maybe it will go away, or maybe it will get so bad that whatever hurts has to be yanked out. And then what do you fill the hole with? Is pain better than nothing at all?

Don got Megan the commercial even though he’d said no originally. And it seemed to sour him against her. Megan didn’t care why she was getting her big break, but Don did. Is it because he really doesn’t want her to succeed, or because he’s still angry she left SCDP? I don’t think that’s it, because he doesn’t seem to want her to be the perfect little housewife either, like Megan’s mother suggested. He watched Megan’s reel, and while it didn’t show anything about her acting ability it was obvious she looks beautiful on film. Is it some kind of moral high ground, because Don’s a self-made man? There was something behind Don getting Megan the gig, something about it that changed his impression of her. I feel that their relationship is where the mystique in the show still lies. When Don walked off to that bar while his wife worked, and the girl asked if he was alone, I’m glad the show faded to black. I think we all know what his answer was.

Pete

If we’re talking about who was saddest this season, it feels obvious to mention Lane Pryce as he was in such a dark place he took his own life. But Lane’s suicide was all wrapped up in ambition and pride and circumstance. His life spiraled out of control and he was too proud to acknowledge it. But Pete Campbell, his life is presumably running on track. He has a beautiful family and home, a good job. But it’s not enough.

Pete met back up with Beth in this episode. In earlier episodes, the biggest obstacle with Beth was that Alexis Bledel’s performance was too stiff. Her performance was better here, I think, but I think she played the character as being in a depressed fog too early on, and there was still something lacking here. The scene in the hospital didn’t play well for me, but I liked what the character of Beth did for Pete’s storyline.

Beth went after Pete because she’s terribly depressed, and she thought he was too. And he is. But the key difference is that Beth knows it, which is why she seems so calm with the idea of going through electroshock therapy at the insistence of her horrid husband. Pete thinks he and Beth are sad only because they can’t be together, and that’s when Beth realizes that they’re not as alike as she thought. Pete thinks if he runs away to California with Beth that everything will suddenly be as sunny as the weather. But they won’t, because Beth won’t fill the emptiness in Pete’s soul. Neither will an in-ground pool, an apartment in the city or a viewing just like the one Don Draper has.

Joan

There wasn’t a lot of Joan this week, but I loved the glimpses we got of her new role within the company and how she’s coping with Lane’s death. When Joan took the offer a couple weeks ago, one of the ideas that was brought up was how there’s never enough money. The refrigerator is broken and she needs to hire a nanny and money will fix those things, but new problems will crop up. What Joan gave up for money and power, it was a lot.

We’ll never know what Joan’s role within the company would have been had Lane not killed himself. What we do know is that Joan was practically doing his job already, and although his suicide was a tragedy it also made Joan a very valuable person within the company. They need her more than ever; no one else can do what she does. One of the most moving scenes in the episode was when Joan glanced at Lane’s empty chair and suggested they review the negative aspects of acquiring more office space. It was both an acknowledgement of what Lane had brought to the table, and how Joan has stepped up to fill his shoes.

Peggy

I’m so glad the show checked in with Peggy, and that we got a scene with her and Don in. She has the job she’d dreamed of and a flashy new wardrobe to boot, but like everything else it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. I loved that Peggy went to the movies looking to clear her head and find inspiration, and that she found Don there. She was going to get to travel, but not to Paris – somewhere boring, with someone dull. When Peggy looked out the window of her hotel, she saw two dogs humping. Because sometimes when you achieve your dreams, you realize they weren’t everything you were hoping they’d be.

The women’s cigarette line that Peggy was going for seems to be Virginia Slims, and I love the idea of Peggy being responsible for “You’ve come a long way, baby.” It so clearly represents her career trajectory, and  it’s interesting that had she not left SCDP she wouldn’t be able to be involved in that campaign because of Don’s infamous letter.

Stray Thoughts

  • “It wore off” is what Roger said about the LSD, and that can be applied to almost any of the characters this season. The glow of Don and Megan’s marriage wore off. Pete’s feelings of success at work wore off. And other things will wear off too – Peggy’s excitement over her new job, Joan’s over her promotion, Megan’s over her acting gig. It will all wear off.
  • Can we talk about how often we got to see people hit Pete Campbell in the face this season? Wonderful, just wonderful.
  • It’s too bad we didn’t get anything with Betty or Sally in this episode, but I did like how focused the storylines were.
  • I enjoyed how much Stan despises the working dynamic with Ginsburg. SCDP is without a female creative voice for the first time since that has mattered, and it was interesting to see a client complain about that.
  • I’m the President of the Howdy Doody Circus Army!
  • This image was stunning and seems to sum up the season – no Peggy, no Lane, Joan in a new position of power. The five of them in an empty space, staring out into a bright, but somehow bleak and very much unknown future.

I loved reviewing Mad Men this season, and either plan on writing a more contemplative season review, or re-watching the entire series this summer with my fiancée (don’t you think he needs to see this show before we can even start planning a wedding) and writing about that. So check back once in a while for more posts, and head to the comments to share your thoughts on the season finale.

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