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TV review: Mad Men's season five finale
Jon Hamm as Don Draper. Image: Sky Atlantic.AMC
This fifth season - the first on Sky Atlantic - has given Mad Men fans a great deal to contemplate, even as we admire the wonderful Jon Hamm as Don Draper, strain to see through clouds of cigarette smoke and marvel at the statuesque Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks).
Two camera shots of breathtaking beauty by director Matthew Weiner (Mad Men's creator, producer and writer) stayed with me long after this episode ended. The first framed the surviving partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP) as they surveyed the view from the floor above their agency.
The second came as Don walked away from a soundstage, into a bar (and a woman's arms?) to Nancy Sinatra's James Bond theme, You Only Live Twice. Gorgeous. Just stunning.
There was no room for an appearance by the indomitable Betty (January Jones). In addition, the overnight rating for this episode averaged less than 40,000 viewers.
Last week, Mad Men punched viewers in the gut with a triple-whammy of a shocker; Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) left SCDP; Joan was on the end of a horrific indecent proposal and stiff upper lipped-Brit Lane Pryce (superbly played by Jared Harris) committed suicide.
Poor Lane broke down after Don discovered he'd embezzled from the company and forged his signature on a cheque. An attempt to gas himself in his new Jaguar failed (as did darkly comic attempts to fix the engine) so - ever the pragmatist - Lane returned to the office and hung himself. He left a resignation letter as his suicide note.
"He left a resignation letter as his suicide note."
For many other shows, the death of a major character would be more than enough to bring a season to a close. But then, Mad Men isn't like many other shows.
In stark comparison to Lane's tragic demise, this finale is bound to feel low-key. If you want a memorable closer, watch season four's Tomorrowland instead.
Chasing the phantom
However, Matt Weiner has never been afraid to invite viewers to peel away the layers and scratch beneath the surface. And he sure as hell isn't going to change now.
If you follow his lead, you'll find weighty symbolism and all the familiar theme explorations of alienation, dashed dreams and unattainable happiness in just about every frame of this episode.
"weighty symbolism and all the familiar theme explorations of alienation"
Take the title for example; The Phantom. In a dictionary, it's defined as something that has no physical reality; a ghost or an apparition.
It can also be something elusive or delusive; an image that appears only in the mind - an illusion. Talk about Mad Men's fifth season wrapped up in a word.
In this final instalment we saw Megan (Jessica Paré) chasing her own personal phantom (a phrase coined by her aloof mother Marie Calvet, played by Julia Ormond) of being a successful actress.
Ruthless in her pursuit, she wasn't above screwing over a friend and putting Don in a difficult position by asking him to recommend her for a TV commercial.
Pete Campbell (the brilliant Vincent Kartheiser) may be blessed with a good job, a dutiful wife and a healthy child, but it isn't enough. They are "a temporary bandage on a permanent wound" so he is still chasing something to make him feel less empty.
"Don't tell me you're not happy right now. Don't tell me you don't feel better," he said to his lover after sex, although I suspect he really meant himself.
Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) finally has the job of her dreams... or does she? "It's 125 words, and 15 of them have to be Ajax!" she barked at her staff, echoing numerous bygone scenes with Don.
Our final shot of her exciting, glamorous new job isn't in Paris; instead she's in a modest motel in Virginia with a view of two dogs humping outside. Sometimes when you get what you want, it isn't quite what you pictured.
Joan's moment of somewhat tawdry triumph was tempered by the guilt she felt over Lane's death. Meanwhile, Roger (John Slattery) took his hedonistic side to another level by experimenting with LSD again; butt-naked, he stared into the night, tripping alone. I don't have to explain the symbolism there, do I?
"Are you alone?"
As for toothache-plagued Don, he was in a good deal of pain as the episode got underway (this is as heavy-handed as Mad Men allusions get). Discomforted by the decaying tooth, and full of remorse over Lane, he called on his late colleague's widow only to be told: "You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition!" How very British.
Little wonder Don's visit to the dentist was so unsettling; under the influence of a gas anaesthetic, he hallucinated his dead brother who also hung himself; another death on his conscience. As if we needed that tooth to tell us, the rot has well and truly set in.
"The rot has well and truly set in."
Throughout season five, Don struggled to do right by Megan; in The Phantom, he inadvertently ended up doing wrong for himself, for what he really wants from a wife and from his life.
To the strains of Nancy Sinatra's You Only Live Twice, Mad Men concluded with that utterly striking shot of Don walking away from Megan - all dolled-up in her fairytale costume for the Beauty and The Beast-inspired advert (I don't have to explain the symbolism there, do I? Not exactly subtle).
Shrouded in foreboding, he strode into a bar to drink Old Fashioneds; how apropos. A gorgeous blonde sidled up to him and asked: "Are you alone?"
Fade to black as the darkness takes Don back. Guess he'll be shagging around and doing the dirty on Megan next season then. On the plus side, infidelity tends to spur on his creative vision; Don often produces his best work after a bout of illicit sex.
Although an enthralling instalment, even I'll concede that The Phantom isn't the strongest episode of the fifth season. However, how could it be? This show's bar is set at ridiculously high levels.
Yes it lacked a whacking emotional punch, but what we got instead was an absorbing set-up for season six that even managed to include yet another person beating up poor Pete (a train guard following the SCDP man's altercation with the husband of his lover).
As the credits rolled, we were left with juicy posers; will Don cheat on Megan? Will Peggy find job fulfilment? Will Pete learn how to throw to duck and dive? And will Mad Men give us one episode that doesn't underline Thoreau's view of the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation? Somehow, I think not.
- Rating: A visually striking conclustion to the fifth season that lacked a killer emotional punch.
TV quotes of the week - Mad Men
"I need a window, Joan. I'm getting scurvy." - Harry Crane should just buy vitamin C.
"I'm not talking about black coffee out there." - A reference to Don's African-American receptionist. Not as insulting as it could have been, in truth.
"You want to be somebody's discovery, not somebody's wife." - Pithy and spot on, but Don still puts in a word for Megan.
"What is Regina?" - It's not what you think it is, Roger.
"Well, I'm president of the Howdy Doody Circus Army!" - If only you were, Pete. If only you were.
"Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world could not support that many ballerinas." - Megan's mother sums up Mad Men to a tee.
The views in this article are those of the author alone and not of MSN or Microsoft
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