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.)

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