People don’t change…
David Chase spent years pounding that little nugget into our heads on “The Sopranos.” No matter how much therapy Tony Soprano sat through and no matter how much he wanted to remake his life (a prospect that continually waxed and waned in Tony’s mind over the years), he was a guy whose spots would never truly change. Whether it was Tony or Christopher or Tony Blundetto or Ralphie or any of a dozen others, that central thesis essentially held true for all the characters on the show and was one of the bedrock themes across the series’ run.
So considering how much Matt Weiner learned at Chase’s feet during those years, it wasn’t much of a reach to assume that the construct we’ve come to know this season as Don Draper 2.0 was doomed to combust eventually.
LAST EPISODE: Read the Bunker review of last week’s Mad Men episode “Commissions and Fees”
ARCHIVES: Read all of the Bunker’s previous “Mad Men” reviews
TRANSCRIPT: Check out the full transcript as Pete talks unhappiness from the Mad Men episode “The Phantom”
All season long, we’ve waited. Would Megan leave, sending Don on another spiral? Would the firm suffer a crippling blow? What horrific misstep would happen – and it seemed so inevitable that it would happen – that would exile the new, more open, more compassionate, more tolerant Don to the sidelines and bring the cheating, lying borderline cad from Seasons 1 and 2 back into the game?
But what if that moment never comes?
As the season-closing song at the end of “The Phantom” so aptly puts it, you only live twice. The old Don Draper, the one in a marriage that wasn’t working, living a life built on a lie that all but imploded last season, only to be saved from a near-complete crash-and-burn by the arrival of Megan…well, apparently, that Don Draper HAS learned a few things. And this newly-melded version of happy Don with steely-eyed, ladder-climbing Don may finally be able to succeed were the old one could not.
The second life of Don Draper does seem as if it’s going to go differently than the first one, with a few important lessons learned and a renewed fever to succeed and enjoy the kind of life the son of a dirt-poor prostitute should never have had.
“The Phantom” seems to be leading us in a direction for Season 6 that I didn’t necessarily think we were headed for even just a few weeks ago – a relatively optimistic, even downright hopeful future that could even lead to a – gasp – happy ending for the “changed” Don Draper.
Under that premise, let’s get this out of the way right now – I’m among those who doesn’t think Don is five minutes away from a taxi and a threesome after that girl in the bar asks, “Are you alone?”
I could be proven wrong in the first 5 minutes of the Season 6 opener, but while clearly still haunted by phantoms of his present (Lane) and past (Adam), I think his love for Megan will keep that blonde and her friend from getting Don home – at least, for the time being, anyway.
But that doesn’t mean life is perfect for Don.
In fact, in a season in which episode themes were laid down week after week with a far more overt hand than in the previous four seasons, Don’s rotting tooth teetering on the verge of abscess might take home the trophy as most obvious metaphor in the show’s history.
“Oh, so Don’s decaying tooth equals the lingering pain and guilt Don feels about Lane, Adam, Megan, Peggy and everything else bad he’s been a part of. Okay, got it…”
And as much as I enjoyed how Lane’s suicide triggered renewed guilt in Don over the way Adam died back in Season 1, we probably didn’t need phantom Adam literally standing over Don in the dentist’s office. “I’ll be here watching you, Don…tsk-tsking all of your bad decisions and shaking my head disapprovingly…BOO!”
Despite that, it was gratifying to see Lane’s death addressed in such a meaningful, yet restrained way. With Weiner’s perchance for jumping a few weeks to a month ahead with each progressing episode, it would have been easy to relegate Lane’s departure to a few acknowledging lines and to have left it at that. While his name is cleverly not mentioned once in the entire episode, the phantom of Lane Pryce is still very present within the walls that still bear his name. From his empty chair in the partners’ meeting to his still unfilled office to the lingering guilt felt by Don and Joan, it was a fitting goodbye to one of the show’s best, if somewhat underdeveloped, supporting characters.
Meanwhile, Megan spends most of the episode wallowing in the disappointment of her failed acting career. And boy, doesn’t mom Marie just jump in to offer encouragement and support…or, uh, not. Man, that is one cold family Megan sprang from…pretty amazing she turned out as granted and rational as she did. I mean, sure, she stabbed her friend Emily in the back and stole her idea to land an audition for the Butler Shoes’ “Beauty and the Beast” ad…but c’mon…nobody’s perfect.
Of course, her near-perfection is part of why Don fell in love with her in the first place. But after spending much of the first half of the season fiercely guarding her from anything that could come between them and much of the second half angry that she left the firm and “hated” advertising, it all finally clicks for Don when he watches her acting reel.
In that film, he not only starts to fully appreciate the talent Megan possesses, but understands that he has to be willing to let her career take off, even if it could ultimately end up driving them apart.
It’s definitely not the conclusion to the Don-Megan story arch that I’d anticipated. But I think in hindsight, it rings much truer than if the pursuit of her acting dream had somehow come between them by this season’s end. A split could still be the direction in which these two head (because something tells me Megan won’t be the last Mrs. Draper), but for now, Don seems to at the very least accept that part of allowing Megan to flourish and whatever else that brings is just out of his hands.
And then, there’s Pete…oh, you poor ridiculously screwed-up bastard, Pete…
While I understand that success can’t buy happiness and Pete can’t get no satisfaction in any aspect of his life these days, I’m not quite sure how Beth is the answer to that problem. And that’s before the electroshock… Is running out on Trudy and their daughter to take up with a depressed adulterer in Los Angeles really all that attractive of an option on any level outside of Pete’s own messed-up head?
I get how the ennui of his 30s (Pete is in his 30s, right?) could make Pete’s life in the suburbs feel like a “temporary bandage on a permanent wound” (especially coming from the artificial, antiseptic imitation of life he grew up in), but is a crazy Rory Gilmore really the answer? When you’ve got a devoted Annie Edison at home? No, I think not.
Now that he’s getting his apartment in the city, a.k.a. Pete’s new Porkin’ Pad, it should get even easier for Pete to continue his pursuit of becoming the Don Draper of 1960. Of course, he has to do it with none of Don’s charm and about a quarter of Don’s self-awareness. And let’s not forget that nobody trusts this guy or even particularly likes him. It might now happen before Year 7, but that little falling man from the opening credits could look a lot like Pete Campbell by the time the series wraps up.
Overall, “The Phantom” didn’t quite pack the punch of Peggy’s resignation or Lane’s departure, but as a contemplative capper to a very solid season, it works.
- First Lane, then Howard, then that kindly-turned-gruff train conductor…it never gets old watching Pete get his clock cleaned. Not even a little. Not ever.
- I really didn’t expect to see Peggy this week, but I’m glad we got at least a little glimpse of what her life is like now over at Gleason, Shaw and Chaough. The fabulous scene in the movie theatre between Don and Peggy is the first time in five years that Peggy could address Don as a near-equal – and now that he’s past the initial anger, Don’s not too proud to acknowledge that she did the right thing in leaving. Granted, a Holiday Inn in Richmond, Virginia with a floor show of doggie porn isn’t exactly Paris, but it’s a start. Again, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Peggy. I’m sticking with my assumption that Elisabeth Moss will once again be a series regular next season.
- For those still angry with Weiner and Co. over how Joan could have gone along with prostituting herself to secure the Jaguar deal (and by the rantings on the Internet, there are plenty of those folks out there), I think her comments about Lane to Don support my argument two weeks ago that loyalty to the firm was a key factor in her decision-making.
“Why didn’t I give (Lane) what he wanted?” she says to Don. The not so subtle implication is that Joan is beating herself up over not agreeing to a tryst with Lane that, in her mind, might have kept him from ending his life. By that logic, isn’t it an easy step to assume that Joan would be able to talk herself into accepting one night with disgusting Herb from Jaguar if the price is preserving an agency-saving account?
As we see over and over, Joan is fiercely loyal. While the financial security and partnership title certainly sweetened the deal, I stand by the argument that Joan’s sense of duty to her longtime colleagues had as much to do with finally agreeing to the indecent proposal as anything else.
- Roger doesn’t get a lot to do this week, but there is a tinge of real sadness, not to mention emerging alarm from Roger over losing his phantom – his LSD-inspired clarity. When he’s not able to talk Marie into tripping with him, this bare-assed appearance in the show’s climactic montage seems to indicate he did it on his own.
Are we getting ready to open Season 6 with Roger returning from a trip to the Haight Ashbury? Are we going to see Roger become the prototype cautionary tale for the “this is drugs…this is your brain on drugs” public service message?
- Even to the end, Rebecca Pryce just never really did understand her husband, did she? “You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition,” she snaps at Don, never realizing that that big American Texas-belt-buckle-sized success was exactly the kind of man Lane Pryce always wanted to be. Ironic that despite dalliances with his “chocolate Bunny” and at least one prostitute (that we know of), Rebecca assumes Lane was cheating with Delores, the girl in the photo Lane stole back in “A Little Kiss.”
No, Delores actually represented exactly the kind of repressed, unrequited longing that eventually helped drive Lane to that horrible end.
- Matt Weiner doesn’t spend a lot of time behind the camera, usually restricted to just season premieres and finales, but some nice sequences from director Weiner this week. I particularly love the image that adorns the top of this article — Don, Pete, Roger, Burt and Joan silhouetted on their new floor against the backdrop of downtown Manhattan. Very evocative of a firm on the rise, ready to conquer advertising. Very nice shot…
- Lines of the week…
“I’ll tell you what…I’m so bored of this dynamic.”
“We can do that?”
“Working? She did three days on ‘Dark Shadows’ and then they fired her and then cut her out.”
“You don’t want it this way. You want to be somebody’s discovery, not somebody’s wife.”
“Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world could not support that many ballerinas.”
“You had no right to fill a man like that with ambition.”
“Stop being demure. You’re already on the bed.”
“Nurse her though this defeat and you shall have the life you desire.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll hang around. Get it?”
“His life with his family was some temporary bandage on a permanent wound.”
A programming note…
- With a new “Mad Men”-sized hole in my reviewing schedule, I’ll be filling that time by reviewing episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series “The Newsroom.” It debuts in two weeks on June 24. Between dancing through that Sorkin dialogue while trying to figure out if he can sidestep the story failings and character traps that essentially sunk “Studio 60,” the show tackles 21st century journalism, a business I’ve made my profession for the past two decades. I can’t wait to see what a writer with Sorkin’s Olympus-level talent can do with a topic as charged and as troubling as the state of the news industry today. So hopefully, I’ll see at least some of ya right back here in two weeks.