Monday, June 11, 2012

Are You Alone?

Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Thirteen, "The Phantom"

So, I know that at one level, we're supposed to hear the question of the woman in the bar and Nancy Sinatra singing, "Love is a stranger who'll beckon you on/Don't think of the danger or the stranger is gone," and imagine Don--who's just ordered an Old Fashioned--as the dashing, womanizing James Bond again ("You Only Live Twice" with Sean Connery as Bond came out in 1967), tempted to take up philandering while Megan is rehearsing her commercial. Will he or won't he? But I don't find that to be an interesting question to ponder. Plus, it's manipulative. And I'm not big on being manipulated. Either we come back to Season Six in six months or nine months or twelve months, or however long they leave us hanging this time and find that Don's been sleeping around again--or not. There's a deeper level to this that I find more intriguing and worth focusing on; it fits in with the first part of the song that we hear, that we have two lives: "One life for yourself and one for your dreams." Megan is finally getting a shot at her dreams, thanks to Don. And as Don leaves the set of the shoe commercial, leaves Megan in her brightly-colored fairy tale princess outfit and scene, he walks across the dark, shadowed, empty part of the soundstage, in black and white himself, alone as more and more distance is put between Megan and him. He is alone at the bar. And as the camera shifts its focus, we can see that this song is not just about Don. Peggy is alone in her room. And Pete is alone in his room (finally the city apartment?). And Roger is alone, naked, expanding his arms toward the window as the LSD expands his mind. (I hope he's not going to jump.) And, although they don't show it during the song, Beth is likely alone in her hospital room, alone in her electroshocked, memory-less mind. Lane's wife is alone in her quiet apartment, an ocean away from home, alone with the photo she found in her dead husband's wallet, alone with her anger--which she can take out on Don, but that won't really get to the source of what she must be feeling about Lane's betrayal, about the precarious financial situation of which she must now be aware, about all the secrets he kept from her. Even Megan, who's surrounded by director, make-up people, and the bustle of the shoot, is essentially alone--isolated from her unsupportive mother who thinks she's unfortunate to have an artistic temperament, but not be an artist, and from her husband, whose dreams are different than hers. She's alone with her doubts about whether she really has any talent or not. So, I think the woman's question to Don is better read as an existential one. "Are you alone?" Many characters are wrestling with an existential aloneness as they chase after--or are chased by--phantoms.

Don, feeling guilt over Lane's suicide by hanging keeps flashing back to his brother, Adam, who also hanged himself after Don rejected him. Don's treatment of Adam was quite cruel--although it's still not his fault that Adam chose to kill himself--while he only really did what he had to do with regard to Lane, and was discreet and fairly kind, all things considered. So, as he wrestles with his partner's death, the specter of his brother keeps appearing to him in the faces of others he passes by. The phantom Adam delivers what must be Don's own assessment of himself while he is knocked out to have a tooth removed: I'll remove it, "but it's not your tooth that's rotten."

We discover that Beth--whom we've never been given enough of to come to an understanding about--suffers from debilitating depression, so that she welcomes the electro-shock therapy that she knows will wipe her mind clean for awhile. Her phantom is "so dark," she tells Pete, "I just get to this place and I suddenly feel this door open and I want to walk through it." Pete alternates between an unsympathetic, "That's for weak people, people who can't solve a problem" and the self-centered, "We're only sad because we're apart." He blames Howard for committing her, seeing it as his monstrous attempts at control. There's likely some truth to that and we can't know the origin of her depression, but she acknowledges that she wants to go to the hospital because the shock treatments work. She thinks they can drive her phantom underground.

In the face of his encounter with Beth, Pete waxes introspective while visiting her at the hospital. Since she doesn't remember him anyway, he can distance himself from his problems, attributing them to a hospitalized friend. He reflects on why he would chase after her when he has a family: to let off steam, have an adventure, feel handsome again, feel like he knows something that young people don't. But, then he seems to get to the crux of the matter. He realizes that his life with his wife and daughter is a "temporary bandage on a permanent wound." He, too, is haunted by the phantom of whatever created his wound in the first place.

Megan's mother tells her that she's chasing a phantom as she yearns for a life as an actor and condemns her for refusing to give Don a family. She is haunted by her nasty mother as well.

Roger is also haunted by Lane's suicide and seeks to be with Marie--and take acid again--to escape the phantom. "One of my partners ended it all," he tells Megan's mother. He thinks one would really have to "be sure you're going someplace better." He wonders if we can make 'here' better. And thinks another acid trip would help.

This was a rather fragmented episode and a bit anti-climactic after the high drama of the last two, but it still held the sadness and, like the closing line, raised more questions than answers. Questions for next season to tackle: does Megan have any talent and will her pursuit of this "phantom" lead anywhere after the Beauty and the Beast commercial? Will Pete have the courage to act on his self-awareness and confront Trudy with his unhappiness in their life? Or will he just go back to acting out and stuffing his feelings? What would Trudy do--how would she respond--if Pete were to leave her? Will Beth and Howard keep recurring as characters? Will Beth ever be free from her demons? How will Don continue to deal with his independent wife?

Oh--and it was great to see Peggy again! I was worried she might be gone for good or only back sporadically. She seemed--in the closing montage--to be the only one who was really happy with being alone.

(I'll post a season wrap-up later in the week.)

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Mad Men, Season Five, Episode Twelve, "Commissions and Fees"

Another terribly sad episode tonight. There have been several references to suicide during this season, including "Lady Lazarus" and Pete's mention of his life insurance policy clause in the midst of his seeming depression; while I'm not surprised about Lane, it was disturbing to watch his demise unfold. Lane Pryce was a character who almost always did what he was supposed to do. He endured life under his father's boot (literally, in one episode last season), left England for America when the old firm demanded, put up much of his own money when invited to form SCDP, gave up his American lover and rejoined his unhappy marriage at his father's demand, paid his taxes to England, and tonight wrote a resignation letter when told by Don to resign--then promptly did what he apparently saw to be the honorable action when he'd been exposed for acting dishonorably. Dutifully donning the mantle of traditional husband and father, he saw to the finances and never confided in his wife about their money problems. Their lack of parity and communication led her to be so deceived as to believe he was flush in both cash and success so that she decided to celebrate by purchasing him a Jaguar, both symbol of his firm moving up in the world and the reason why his Christmas bonus plan to cover his taxes didn't fly. In a bitter bit of ironic, black humor, this Jaguar won't start when he has rigged it with rubber tubing in the exhaust pipe. His second passive/agressive, symbolic choice of location is in his office--behind the door, where so much underhanded and unethical happenings occur in the firm.

But, this show is strewn with men who were treated cruelly by their fathers (Don and, to a lesser extent, Pete) or mistreated by others in different settings when young. After Glenn reveals to Sally that he is being bullied by older students at school, she tells him, "Henry got picked on when he was little. Now he runs the city." We don't know of any abuses that Roger endured, but both he and Don survived the hell of war. Almost all of them are scarred in one way or another. But, while Lane turns all of that into duty and onto himself, others turn it outward. Tonight we saw Don do that with relish. He decides, after his encounter with Lane, that he needs to take a new direction. Does this come from seeing Lane beg and deciding he needs to be more agressive with the businesses that looked down on him for the letter? From reminding himself--along with Lane--that he'd already "started over a lot" and needed to do so again? I don't know, but he heads into Roger's office, pours himself a drink, and announces, "I don't like what we're doing. . . I'm tired of this piddly shit." He's not happy with Jaguar; he wants Chevy. And he's no longer going to put up with any fallout from the letter. He demands that Roger get him a meeting with Ed Baxter of Dow Chemical and is even willing to fire Ken Cosgrove if Ken gets in the way of them acquiring his father-in-law's business. In a most un-Lane-like way, Don assertively argues the reasons Dow should dump its current ad firm to give its business to his, demonstrating his understanding of what advertising is all about: success and happiness ("even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary; you get hungry even thought you've just eaten"; and "What is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness.") He even offers a slogan to sell the Dow product that young people are protesting outside the offices--Napalm: "When our boys are fighting and they need it, when America needs it, Dow makes it"--masking a don't-give-a-shit-about-the-effects profiteering attitude as Lane Pryce-type devotion to duty. Whatever happens to him, I can't imagine Don Draper ever committing suicide. But, when his partner does, he is the one person who insists, "You can't leave him [hanging there] like that" and goes--with Pete and Roger--into his office, faces the horribly distorted face of the corpse, removes it from the door, and gently lies Lane's body on the couch.

The only positive counter to all of this is Sally's and Betty's interactions after Sally has her first period. I don't know how many times Sally has professed her hatred for her mother this season, but when she feels embarrassed about beginning to mentstruate while at the museum with Glenn, it is to her mother she runs (or takes a cab, running up a $25 fare for Henry to pay). It was touching to see her throw herself into her mother's arms, and Betty--for all of her horrible parenting skills at most times--handles this so well. Like Lane, Betty is someone who has lived her life the way others expect, but here she doesn't push that on to her daughter. Lying on the bed with Sally, she tells her, "There's a lot of responsibilities, but that's what being a woman is." But, she doesn't--as would be common in 1967--tell her that marriage and children are definitely her future. Instead, she tells Sally, "It means everything is ready for a baby when you want one." When YOU want one (not IF--but, again, it is 1967). Sally has choices in Betty's eyes. That's a big step forward. Glen too. When Don gets into the elevator with his former neighbor's son, he listens to a statement that could have come from Lane, who is weighing so heavily on Don's mind: "Why does everything turn out crappy? Everything you want to do, everything you think is going to make you happy turns to crap." "You're too young to talk that way," Don responds, but then asks him what he would do if he could do anything--he wonders what Glen would CHOOSE. Interestingly, instead of responding with some large life/career choice, Glen goes for what would make him happy in the moment: he drives Don's car. The young people are driving forward. We can hope. That's what this otherwise too sad episode has to offer to stave off despair.