After what has been a jaw-dropping couple of weeks in Mad Men, the series five season finale was a much more mellow affair, tying up several loose ends, but leaving a lot more hanging, as the characters dealt with phantoms both past and present.
The episode was packed full of iconic scenes (no doubt due to the fact that show creator Matthew Weiner had stepped behind the camera to direct), with the most notable being the silhouetted image of Don, Joan, Roger, Burt and Pete gathered on SCDP’s new second floor office, staring meaningfully out at the amazing high-rise view of New York.
Compared to season four when the company was rapidly sinking after losing Lucky Strike, now they are enjoying being top of the pile. Having won the Jaguar account, SCDP is moving up in the world (quite literally, as they are taking over the office space above).
However the spectre of Lane Pryce still haunts the SCDP staff, with his seat at the partners’ meeting now glaringly empty, and no one wanting to occupy his vacant office, not even Harry Crane despite a much-desired pillar-free office being up for grabs.
Lane’s death affects everyone in various ways: Roger wants to take LSD again, if only to feel “heaven on Earth” one more time; Joan feels guilt that she didn’t indulge his crush in her a little more; and Don finds himself haunted by his dead brother Adam, who had similarly hanged himself, and is now following Don around as a mental manifestation of his guilty conscience over Lane’s suicide.
Symbolically, Don is also suffering from a “hot tooth,” the nagging pain of which we see him try to ignore in the hope that it will go away by itself, much like the guilt he feels over both Adam and Lane’s deaths. Don finally concedes defeat and goes to the dentist to get his tooth pulled. As he is put under with gas he hallucinates another vision of Adam, who sombrely tells him: “It's not your tooth that's rotten." It’s a dark omen for next season, and it’s yet another sign that Don’s demons may be getting the better of him.
As well as the lingering presence of Lane and Adam, Pete Campbell is haunted by his illicit love affair with the enigmatic Beth. Still obsessed with her, he runs into her husband Howard on the train and discovers that she is suffering from the “blues” and so is being sent to have electroshock therapy, which will erase her mind of the last few months and therefore any memory of their relationship.
The two decide to have one final fling before she goes into hospital, after which when he visits her in the hospital, he is devastated to find that the now glassy-eyed Beth no longer recognises him. Pete poignantly tells her about his own depression (admittedly in the third person), and it’s almost possible to feel a pang of sympathy for the usually antagonistic character, especially after he admits to Beth: "Life with his family was just a temporary bandage on a permanent wound." The spectre of his now-erased affair with Beth will continue to haunt Pete, who like Don seems to be on an unstoppable downward trajectory.
Just as Pete is chasing the ghost of his relationship with Beth, likewise Megan is still searching for the phantom of success as an actress. Her mother wisely tells her: "Not every little girl gets to do what she wants. The world can't support that many ballerinas." But still Megan, sobs, sulks and manipulates everyone around to get what she wants. She steals her friend’s idea and begrudgingly pressures her husband Don to cast in her the Butler Shoes commercial.
It appears to be this selfish action which finally pushes Don over the edge into darkness, and one of the greatest shots from the episode was the magnificent finale tracking shot, in which Don walked slowly away from the Technicolor sound stage where his animated wife was the star attraction. He leaves the jubilant, colourful set behind him and sombrely walks away into a vast, black void. It’s not a subtle metaphor, and it’s been clear for a while that Don’s perfect world with Megan has been crumbling beneath him.
Don retreats to a smoky bar for an Old Fashioned, and we last see him being approached and propositioned by a beautiful blonde and her friend. Frustratingly Weiner does not give us the satisfaction of knowing whether Don is returning to his playboy ways, but after his slow self-destruction this series, it would not be surprising to see him return to the Don Draper we first met in series one of Mad Men.
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