Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "The Phantom" (season 5, episode 13)

Mad Men - "The Phantom" (season 5, episode 13)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of seasons four, five, and six. Both parts of season seven will be covered in the summer of 2022 (now updated to winter 2021-22). I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on June 10, 2012/written by Jonathan Igla and Matthew Weiner; directed by Matthew Weiner): The partners at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce - well, the surviving partners - are going up, up, up. Joan shows them around the new office space where there will be stairs to a lower level and windows opening up on magnificent views, equal between them as Pete makes sure to tell Don. This moment of Manhattan-striding triumph, haunting in its visual emptiness, is as close as "The Phantom" comes to catching its quarry by the tail. Well, at least until the ending when Megan finally gets a part and Don, it seems, is all too willingly prey for a nimble pair of blonde and brunette hunters. Almost until that final juncture, Don is dogged by a brutal toothache. He soaks cotton in whiskey, ices his cheek, and steadfastly refuses to see a dentist. Who he does see, repeatedly (eventually even in the dentist's office when he finally agrees to go), is Adam Whitman, his long-dead brother floating around the office as if he's a ghostly freelancer, the rope burn still notable around his neck after six and a half years. "I'll hang around for a while," the vision ghoulishly jokes when a drugged-up Don, woozy in the dentist's chair, pleads for him not to leave. When Don emerges from his fog, a bloody, mangled tooth lies before him and he's told that he could've lost his whole jaw if he'd let it fester. But Don does not seem relieved.

Pete also comes face-to-face with tragedy, of a more desperate, lingering nature as he helplessly watches his beloved Beth seesaw in front of him. During their long-awaited rendezvous at a hotel, she is wise beyond reach, swimming in a deep sorrow that she knows he can't comprehend even if he can temporarily soothe it. When Pete sees her again in a hospital the next day, after she's consented to shock treatment that puts her in "a gray fog" that lasts for months, he is now the wise one, telling her the story of his "friend" whom he meant to visit (she doesn't recognize him, so he needs to cover for his visit), who had an affair to escape the loneliness of his married life. She follows the tale with a childlike incredulity before Pete says goodbye for good. Later he attacks her callous husband on the train and then is kicked off the transport himself; Pete - who can never be too noble, even accidentally - begins arrogantly berating the conductor as well and gets a punch in the nose not much less deserved that the one he gave Howard. Trudy, in an episode full of giving people what they want but not necessarily what they need, agrees to help Pete find an apartment in the city to save him from these dangerous commutes (she thinks he's gotten in a car accident on his way back from the station). She's currently obsessed with building a swimming pool in the backyard; its "permanence" spooks Pete, but will he actually be around to share it (as he is in the designer's sketch)?

In the Draper marriage, this dynamic is reversed. After her (supposed) friend Emily (Emily Foxler) asks Megan to help her audition for a Butler shoe commercial that Don is involved with - the theme is "beauty and the beast" (remember that pitch?) - Megan decides to ask him for help herself. "You want to be somebody's discovery," Don tells her, "not somebody's wife." But all Megan wants to be at this point is somebody, period. When Don finds her drunk and weepy after another dark day, he fights with her visiting mother (who just returned from a tryst with Roger and declined his invitation to share an LSD trip). Marie believes that her daughter suffers from the artist's temperament without actually being an artist. As she brusquely informs Megan, "Not every girl can be a ballerina." One of the season's themes has been a menacing, lingering air of violence - "the beast" so to speak. (As Weiner himself has noted, the rogue's gallery of snipers and serial killers, the constant presence of riots and warfare, all pave the way for Lane's suicide.) But another theme, the correspondent if also troubling "beauty," has been the necessity of illusion, of nursing another's or even one's own dream even if this entails a lie (as it did for Harry and Paul).

Don receives mixed messages from the universe about whether or not generosity pays off. When he honorably delivers $50,000 of the insurance money - the exact amount that Lane put into the company - to the angry Rebecca, she is disgusted by the gesture. But when he runs into Peggy in a movie theater, he's pleased to see that she is thriving now on her own, spreading her wings away from him thanks to his very mentorship. These positive and negative experiences do share something in common; both imply that Don can become a destructive force when he tries to determine what's best for others. So he does as Megan wants; she gets the part, embraces him thankfully on set, and then sends him pacing uneasily into the darkness of the soundstage, the aggressively prowling beat of the James Bond theme "You Only Live Twice" propelling him forward until he ends up, almost magically, sitting inside a bar as if awaiting his own casting call. Sure enough, a woman approaches him on behalf of a friend across the way. "She's wondering," the very 1967-looking lady asks, "Are you alone?"

The perfect question is followed by the perfect response, as Don cocks his head with a roguish gleam in his eye that we haven't seen for a while. We realize, with a sinking feeling, that the more poetic, existential (and thus more safely ambiguous) answer - "Aren't we all?" - would carry less doom than the simpler, more final punctuation to the season which we don't hear but can easily imagine: "Yes."

My Response:
Last time, I commented that Lane's death by hanging seemed appropriate even if I couldn't quite pin down why (after anticipating a variety of more dramatic flourishes). I'd forgotten completely about Adam. Lane was just another in a long line of lives which Don broke by being too brutally blunt - irony of ironies for the consummate faker. How many delicate souls have to be shattered by Don's corrosive rot before he remembers that illusions aren't just for the suckers out there who buy what he's selling, but may be necessary coping mechanisms for those he cares about too? After all, in his more inspired pitches Don himself embraces such necessity, the honesty embedded in the dishonesty, the core of the American Dream that keeps everything else humming along despite its supposed unsustainability. The theme is present throughout the episode, most notably for Pete and Beth, who actively chooses to ease her pain by erasing her self-awareness, leaving Pete to pick up the pieces. Like Pete, the widowed Mrs. Pryce and the brittle Marie deal with loved ones' escapes with a harsh form of realism - both older women tell Don unflinchingly what they think he needed, or now needs, to do. Oddly enough, though, both of them believe he's been too coddling - that both Lane and Megan would have benefitted from less ambition than he cultivated in them. Is it possible these observers have it backwards? Or is there really no way out at all, and it's just a matter of picking the gentlest poison to administer? If Megan is the beauty, and Don is the beast holding her captive in their tower, in what way he is inflicting his power? Aside from occasional flare-ups he hasn't threatened her, and he certainly hasn't interfered with her opportunities (far from it), making her failures at least ostensibly her own.

What does Don see when he screens Megan's footage? The footage plays as a Rorschach test, like so much else in this episode and even in this show, which at times smashes right through subtlety and at others - particularly in its brooding, post-climactic season finales - cultivates a deep well of ambiguity. Of course Megan is beautiful and charming, and that comes across in flickers as he projects her black and white image in the company conference room. But she also looks uncomfortable, and something about her presence doesn't quite translate from "reality" (in actuality, of course, "reality" is just the way Weiner and others shoot her for Mad Men, itself a cultivated production reliant on star power and the sculpting powers of direction and cinematography). Her wincing, the way the camera holds on this unease, and Don's reaction all lend the clip less ambiguity than the question of what we are supposed to draw from this conclusion. If we can be confident that she's not confident, is Don pulling strings in order to boost that confidence, to get her across this first finish line so she can get across others on her own in the future? Is he realizing that things like screen tests don't matter much at all in this industry, that Megan will thrive or suffer based on what he's willing to do for her, and resolving that he'll do the work to ensure success even if it means allowing her to live in a lie (and lying to protect that illusion)? Or is she just not fit for this profession, the way Don sensed Betty was not in that old Coca-Cola ad, but this time he's playing the role the Coke man did of lying to the naive woman, cultivating her dreams only in this case for her sake rather than his own? If so, how long before that dream comes crashing down? Is Don the adman leading the customer on as only he knows how, to the destination he understands all too well, in a desperate ploy to buy more time before an inevitable reckoning for both of them?

Once upon a time, I read about the premise of this episode and if I recall correctly, the critic used Don's abscess as a metaphor for the way toxic masculinity could infect even its own carrier, self-harming as well as causing harm to others. Of course, there's a darker way to read Don's reluctance to treat the tooth and what that means (to get rather corny and obvious, just think about the word "tooth" sounds most similar too). Even if he's wrong that the ache won't "go away," maybe he's right about what a cure could unleash. By episode's and season's end, Don has finally taken steps to address the more significant abscess in his life, the sadness infecting his wife and poisoning their relationship little by little. He's been told in this case as well - by as expert an observer as Megan's own mother - that if he nurses her through this phase of disillusionment, she'll come to an understanding of her place in the world. Then he'll get what he wants, the dutiful wife who fits squarely into a domestic role (or maybe even returns to the workplace, nestling even more tightly under his wing). But Don sees another grim prospect inside this promise: a bitter, less hopeful Megan could become her mother. Or worse, she could become another Don Draper. And so Don, it seems, become a Don Draper instead, saving her and sacrificing himself, or rather sacrificing what they have or could have together. The two central questions of this season, entwined with one another, were Can Don be happy? and Can Don do the right thing? Often they were equated. If "The Phantom" teases the possibility that they are opposites, I suspect ultimately it suggests that the first question is the true phantom. So the second question bifurcates, into Don doing (perhaps) the right thing for Megan's momentary happiness and maybe even her long-term career, while that all-too-familiar smile in the final moments suggests he is about to do the wrong thing for their marriage. That transgression, of course, won't do anything to make him happy. But at least for a moment it will stop the pain.

Next (active on September 13, 8am): (season 6 premiere) "The Doorway"Previous: "Commissions and Fees"

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