Guilt? Grief? The casualties of corporate war?
If Lane Pryce is the most obvious and pivotal phantom in the finale of Season 5’s Mad Men, he isn’t the only one. In the aftermath of his suicide, our major characters are each grappling with the price of success, and experiencing his death differently, along with a range of other losses.
Ironically, the firm is doing better than ever, and as Joan says, the money is pouring in – including a death benefit paid to the company of $175,000!
Lane’s absence underscores the high cost of success: Don’s departed contentment with Megan at his side; Pete’s growing reputation and a lackluster home life; Roger’s drifting, searching for meaning which was only temporarily fulfilled in his LSD high. Joan, sitting at the conference table as a partner, seems sadder – and stronger – without her confidante and friend, Lane.
Lost illusions? Aren’t these the true phantoms that roam Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, as much as those who are departed? Isn’t this the story of the 1960s?
Speaking of the departed, who wasn’t relieved to see our favorite copywriter pop up in her new digs?
Peggy, Alive and Well; Megan?
Any ghosts Peggy may live with are kept in check, and if she had regrets about leaving her first job, they were short-lived.
We see her interacting with her new boss, standing tall in her office and wearing power red. She’s about to tackle the Virginia Slims account, and there’s no doubt that Miss Olson is in her element.
It’s poignant when she runs into Don at a movie theater – they’re both genuinely happy to see each other, and it’s the first time they engage as equals. Peggy is relaxed and self-assured, and Don is wistful.
While Peggy’s earned her success with talent, perseverance, and risk-taking, observing Megan in this episode, she’s another story. We could say she has it all – at least, through the conventional lens of 1967 – married to a handsome and powerful man who adores her, which her mother, Marie, points out. Yet she’s experiencing anything but success when it comes to her career.
What Megan wants is to act. Her efforts? She’s coming up empty. She admits her frustration to her mother, whose dismissal of Megan’s talents is apparently a pattern between them.
Ultimately, Megan asks her husband to use his influence to get her an audition for a television commercial. He resists, then views her audition tape, and recognizing something of her talent, we see the extent to which he loves her reflected in his expression.
He makes the necessary introductions, she lands the commercial, and it’s the very thing he does out of love for her that may mean an uncertain future for them, as a couple.
Don’s Grief, Don’s Guilt
Watching Don throughout this episode, I was wondering if he felt grief – or simply guilt. I saw no signs of mourning Lane, though Don is a master at hiding feelings.
It’s eating at him mentally and physically.
The opening scene shows us an uncomfortable application of alcohol on a cotton ball which he gingerly applies to the back of his mouth – a “hot tooth” as he calls it, is giving him significant pain. And it’s not letting go of its grip.
And let’s face it: Don’s magic is exercised through his mouth, so if it’s impaired, then what?
He’s in pain when he says nothing, in pain when he talks, and in so much pain that he can’t kiss his wife. Don’s most powerful “tools” – his abilities to communicate and his prowess as a lover – are both impacted by this unrelenting affliction in the wake of Lane’s suicide.
As for Don’s guilt, it’s so pointed that he sees his dead brother Adam everywhere he goes – in the elevator, in the office, and when he’s under, as the dentist extracts his tooth.
During that haze, Don says to his brother: “Don’t leave me.” Adam hovers over him and replies: “I’ll hang around. Get it?”
The words are flippant, accusatory, and ominous. Don’s helpless and Adam is in charge, at least at that moment. It’s a clear message that Don’s ghosts aren’t going to disappear entirely.
Bloodied but not Beaten
There’s another nifty irony in Don’s condition considering the aggressive and incisive Dow Chemical meeting, after which Roger says “wipe the blood off your mouth” to Don. When the offending tooth is extracted at last – and I wonder if it is a wisdom tooth – Don is literally left with blood on his mouth.
And he’s not the only one. Pete, who was once squarely knocked down in a fist fight with Lane is knocked down again, not once, but twice – first by Howard in fisticuffs over Beth, and then by the conductor on the train!
Pete goes home to Trudy, bloodied and seemingly defeated.
I found it in character for Don to attempt to assuage his guilt by insisting that the $50,000 Lane put up initially as a partner be given to his widow, yet he doesn’t make any headway with the steely Mrs. Pryce. He takes the check to her himself and offers his condolences, as Lane’s wife sits stiffly and speaks plainly. She takes the money but is having nothing of his sympathy. The distance between them (and the empty chair in the background) reflect Lane the phantom, just as the empty chair in the board room is a somber reminder of his demise.
Pete’s Grief, Pete’s Losses
To say that Peter Campbell grieves anyone or anything other than himself and his own dreams would be inaccurate. But another encounter with Beth, this time as Howard is bringing her into the city for shock treatment, leaves Pete surprisingly vulnerable.
Beth wants a last enticing encounter before her memory is erased. They share a few intimate hours at a hotel, but Pete’s proclamation of love gets nowhere. She heads to the hospital to get zapped, and forget him she does.
Pete visits her in the hospital and even she appears as an apparition. She’s pleasant and polite, and he finds himself recounting the story of their affair as if it’s a friend’s story he’s telling to a stranger.
She is a stranger. She always was.
We can’t help but think about the life that Pete doesn’t have, even if “success” is part of it.
Joan in Her Strength
Joan seems to be the only one truly grieving, though she’s nearly as adept at hiding her feelings as Don. She’s filling in nicely for Lane, dealing with the financials and explaining that the agency has just had its best quarter ever – business is up 34% – and then she seems to step into Lane’s cautionary role, pointing out that they need to keep things in perspective.
But the firm is growing. We see the five partners in an upstairs space they plan to make their own, where at first glance they seem insignificant against the expanse of windows, as they look out to a bright future.
Standing with Don and Pete to her left (still young lions, relatively), and with Bert and Roger to her right (the older surviving warriors), the five partners form a formidable army in a stunning image. They’re on the brink of taking on the world – their world. They’ve tasted success in the past year. But as Don said to Dow, happiness wants more happiness, and apparently, success wants more success.
Next season? We can only imagine the world exploding into Vietnam era turmoil, revolutionary changes in cultural expectations and roles, and how these five characters will deal personally and professionally will be fascinating.
Note the distance between each of them – another reminder of how alone they are, though they’re “in it” together. Is the distance a sign of more people to come or room to spread their wings? They seem small in the face of what lies ahead, yet they aren’t dwarfed by it.
As the season comes to a close, where has it taken us?
We’ve seen Betty’s descent into unhappiness with the choices she made two years earlier. We’ve seen the other women coming into their own. We’ve seen endings and beginnings: Joan’s marriage, Roger’s marriage, Don’s innocence which was rejuvenated with his happy union with Megan. We’ve seen a renaissance of the professional Don, Joan and Peggy gaining power in new ways, Megan inching forward through insistence on her own dreams – and possibly, closer to reaching them.
And speaking of Megan, who doesn’t wonder what Don’s letting her fly will mean to the marriage? Does loving her mean letting her go?
We see Don walk away from Megan on the set, as she is bathed in spotlights readying for the commercial shoot, and he heads into the shadows to the music of James Bond and “You Only Live Twice” – ideal for Dick Whitman turned Don Draper – as our complicated hero heads to a bar, and two women hit on him.
He lights up. He drinks.
“Are you alone?” She says.
He turns and looks, and we go dark on Season 13.
You Only Live… Twice
Is he alone? Does he revert to old Don in more ways than one?
We don’t know. Then again, the 007 reference cleverly reminds us that he’s The Man, and in fact he’s survived far more times than twice. Don’s phantoms are present, but they’re checked for now. Like James Bond, he goes for the kill when he must, and he dazzles us with his ability to come out on top.