The season finale of "Mad Men" aired Sunday on AMC. (AMC )
The fifth season of “Mad Men” arrived in March after a seemingly interminable hiatus, and from almost the very first minutes of the premiere episode, “A Little Kiss,” the series has struck a darker, more somber tone. Once moody, “Mad Men” is now clinically depressed. The show has also taken a turn toward obvious and explicit storytelling: The imagery is so blunt it leaves little to interpretation, and the plotting in recent weeks has been unusually clumsy. The “I can’t believe this is happening” moments – Fat Betty, Paul the Hare Krishna, Pauline slipping Sally a Seconal – have been alarmingly frequent.
However, the biggest problem with this season of “Mad Men” has been its lack of narrative momentum. In my opinion, the third season remains the show’s strongest. It tied together the personal and the historical in an unforgettable way, building inexorably toward three cataclysmic events: the JFK assassination, the Drapers’ divorce, and the breakup of the original agency. By comparison, Season 5 has felt rudderless and crowded with intriguing but underdeveloped characters, forgotten story lines and missed opportunities to engage meaningfully with the social changes of the late ‘60s. There have been some wonderful moments along the way, but it all culminates in an episode that’s shocking only because it’s so completely anticlimactic. Who'd expect "Mad Men" to go out with a whimper and not a bang?
In an interview with The Times last week, series creator Matthew Weiner promised this finale would be “orgasmic.” Even for a guy not known for his modesty, this seems like a gross exaggeration: "The Phantom" is more like a sneeze. Fans of this series have come to expect a lot from its season finales – divorces, proposals, pregnancies. Yet the most dramatic things to happen in "The Phantom" are the extraction of Don's rotten tooth and a brief glimpse of Roger Sterling's naked rear end. On the bright side, the lack of a tantalizing cliffhanger will at least make the show’s lengthy hiatus easier to endure.
It’s Easter 1967, about a month since Lane’s untimely demise. His death hangs over the agency like a cloud – or haunts it like a phantom, if you prefer. Of course no one has really processed the trauma, or even really tried. Don has been treating his emotional pain the same way he’s tried to remedy that toothache: by dousing it with Canadian Club. Lane’s suicide has conjured memories of his brother Adam’s fate, and he is, quite literally, seeing Adam everywhere – in the elevator, in the art department, at the dentist’s office.
Clearly, Don is experiencing guilt over his indirect contribution to the deaths of both men, and yet outwardly he insists to Joan that there’s nothing either of them could have done to stop it. (Joan being Joan, she actually feels bad for not sleeping with him.) Even though Don thinks he’s being chivalrous by giving Rebecca $50,000 from the company’s life insurance payout, she’s right when she suggests that Don is only doing it to make himself feel better. It doesn’t quite work. Don finally goes to the dentist, where he’s “visited” once more by Adam. “It’s not your tooth that’s rotten,” Adam says. In case you missed it, he’s talking about Don’s conscience.
At home, things aren’t much better. Frustrated by her inability to find work, Megan betrays her friend Emily and asks Don if she can audition for the Butler shoes commercial. We’ve seen Megan’s bratty side before – remember the orange sherbet? – but we’ve never seen her do something wrong. It’s also strange to see her struggling, given how easily everything seems to come to her. Don initially turns down her request. “You want to be somebody’s discovery, not somebody’s wife,” he says rather disingenuously. But then he sits down to watch her screen test and, objectively, he can see Megan’s talent. In the silent, black-and-white footage, she is almost impossibly magnetic. He grins proudly, but the smile quickly fades to a look of concern. If Megan gets the acting career she wants, what will it mean for Don? It’s a lovely, indelible moment in an otherwise forgettable episode. (OK, the dog-humping was also pretty memorable.)