“Mad Men”: A few thoughts on the season finale “The Phantom”

“This is what happens when you have the artistic temperament but you are not an artist.”

I don’t have a full essay at hand about tonight’s “Mad Men”, nor the season as whole. Mo Ryan and I have been doing weekly podcasts on the show all season, since this is the type of show that can support such analysis. That’s not to say that this has been the best season of the show, by any stretch. I’m not in the habit of ranking seasons, especially so close to the end of one, but this feels less successful as a whole than the last two seasons. Rather than building up to something, this show deflated towards something, if that makes any sense.

That’s not to say Matthew Weiner can’t build his season any which way he likes it. In fact, the quote above stood out in tonight’s finale, because while it’s Megan’s mother laying the smack down on her daughter to Don Draper, it also feels like a not-so-subtle jab at television critics that deign to analyze the show on a weekly/seasonal basis. This season of “Mad Men” was finished long before anyone saw a single frame of it, so it’s not like this finale was written with critical analysis of the fifth season in mind. But it’s part and parcel of the way that “Mad Men” establishes the prominence of the artist over any other life form on this planet, and in the figure of Megan, one can see someone who enjoys the idea of being an artists without the requisite skills to actually be one. She thinks it will be easy, a matter of will power and temperament. And when she realizes that it takes more than time and money to achieve such a goal, the show slams that dream in her face.

And yet, even when Megan does achieve some success in acting, it’s tainted with the idea that it’s the beginning of the end of her time with Don. “That’s what happens when you help someone,” Don tells Peggy when they accident meet at the cinema to see “Casino Royale.” “They succeed and move on.” Megan’s fears that Don has been holding her back all season have apparently been true. And while he does relent and give her a chance at a national commercial after seeing her screen test, he only does so after literally removing a dimension from her. She’s less a wife than an image on the screen. She’s moving, but she’s no less unreal than when he saw Betty as a model and not as a human being. And having put her back onto the screen, Don’s free to fill the metaphorical hole in his life with whatever cute girl will ask him if he’s alone.

Amnesia was a core aspect of this episode, and maybe the entire season. The way in which people ignore what’s happening around them in order to forge a better future played prominently throughout. Joan paints the new office floor blood red, even if that floor was paid in literal and figurative blood money. Beth has electroshock therapy to erase her unhappiness, and by proxy her time with Pete. And Don employs the hobo code to forget that time has moved on as well. The bar at the end of the episode might as well have been the bar from the pilot episode. The removal of his tooth removes the temporary guilt inspired by Lane’s death, embodied by visions of his late brother Adam. With that “root” problem removed, Don can ignore the pain of his current life and regress towards a place where he feels…nothing at all. We’ve deflated the show’s goals in favor of people who want to replace progress with stasis. But while Roger can strip off his clothes and howl at the Manhattan moon, his clothes will still be crumpled on the ground come morning. As Tony Kushner might say: The world only spins forward, even if everyone on “Mad Men” is trying to stop the carousel with all their might.

But who knows. Maybe that analysis is wrong? Stupid artistic temperament.