I'm a week late in reviewing "The Phantom," which was the season finale of the Fifth Season of Mad Men because, like Don Draper in "Mystery Date," I had a terrible fever all last week. Instead of having a fever dream about killing an old lover and shoving her body under the bed, I simply had the worst headache of my life, an aching body and plenty of time to read and think about "The Phantom" and this past season of Mad Men as a whole.
Much has been made of this Fifth Season having been the darkest season of Mad Men to date, which is true; there were fever dreams, toxic fog, death imagery dead ends, an actual death, a soiled white carpet, marital unrest, real-life serial killer headlines, an abundance of punches, and all other manner of things that would cause one to sit uneasy. The season finale was even called "The Phantom," which, in the wake of Lane's suicide, didn't carry the same ominous tones it would have earlier in the season, but it still fed into the same unsettling, edgy, slightly chimeric quality that the entire seaon had. There is something glimmering out there, something we want, but often times we don't know what it will actually take to get it; what kind of casualties we have to witness and live through; what kind of actions we need to take.
When a season of Mad Men is over, I'm usually sad; I'm not sad this year. In many ways I'm happy that the season is over. First, because, for so much of my post-collegiate life, watching Mad Men has always been a ritual and symbol of the summer in New York city. I'd sit with my friends and watch Mad Men each week as we tried to stay cool by drinking thawing beer or cold gin and tonics in my old, heat-retaining apartment. Now, there will be new summer rituals to make because Mad Men is over before the solstice, not right before Halloween.
The second reason I'm happy that Mad Men is over is that I need a few weeks to breathe on Sunday nights and not watch the most challenging television I have ever watched. Please don't misread me: the past three months of Sundays have been thrilling in every way. Each week the show seemed to push the envelope further in a different direction. Sure, the symbols were up front, but then they would be obscured for long moments at a time or the action given to you would be so honest, too true (such as Roger and Jane's LSD experience or the closing montage of "Lady Lazarus") that you just couldn't be sure what exactly you were watching. Things happen slowly on Mad Men until they don't and then you are always left wondering where you are and what things mean to you. As introspective and searching as I am, I think I can take a break from furiously wracking my brain for an hour each Sunday. Then, when I've had my space, I'll dig right back into it all again-you know, once the New York summer has cooled.
"The Phantom" wasn't the best episode of Season Five. It was awkwardly paced and there was a strange emphasis placed on certain characters, like Roger and Mrs. Calvet whose storyline only seemed to exist so that Mrs. Calvet could tell Roger, " Don't ask me to take care of you." There was the too obvious symbolism with Adam Whitman's ghost and Don's tooth as well as the too obvious speech that Pete gives to Beth in the psychiatric hospital. Yet, from the time Don ran into Peggy at the movie theatre, through his late-night viewing of Megan's reel alone at the office (calling to mind Season One's "The Wheel"), all the way up to the moment the woman at the bar asked him if he was "alone" and Don gave back that knowing smile right before we cut to black, the episode hit a fantastic high point. And that's what this Fifth Season was. There were experiments in tone and storytelling; there were obvious symbols and there were red herrings; there were fantastic small moments between characters that we have come to know so well; and there were obscene high points that made you wonder if you were even watching a TV show anymore. For better or for worse, "The Phantom" had all of those qualities.
I thought about the episode all through my fever. I thought it wasn't the best and I thought that the symbolism was obvious but that the end was good. But it was the idea of the "phantom" that stuck with me, just like it was Glen and Don driving the car to "Butchie's Tune" that stuck with me the week before. There is nothing that we can ever own, nothing that we want that won't eventually let us down. That freewheeling moment of driving, for Glen, will eventually run out because you'll want something more than that; you'll want something to be more free. Like Don said in "Commissions and Fees" we all want one hundred percent of something; we don't want fifty percent. So, things become "phantoms" to us: youth, independence love, marriage, kids-these are all the chimera of our lives, things we want, but then when we have them we want more of them, or rather we want them to be more like the way we wanted them. Nothing matches your longing for something quite like the longing for something else, or something more.
This past weekend I was still thinking about "The Phantom" when I had a chance to go a large party in upstate New York. It was a man's house I'd been to before and he had opened his doors and extended his generosity to his friends and friends of friends to come and camp on his grounds and drink and eat and enjoy. There were kids running around, kids with talented and good-looking parents; there were other people my age or slightly older dressed in nice clothes, clothes I see in pictures in magazines but don't have the brains to figure out how to afford; there were good looking young couples and good looking old couples; there were old men hitting on young women; there was sun and fresh cut grains and grass and a pool. I swam in the pool and each time I surfaced, I felt myself surfacing more and more from the depths of the fever I had been in. I had just finished reading Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus and because I will chase the phantom of writing my entire life, I wanted more. I wanted Roth's youthful fame and his lifetime legacy all at once. And later at night, I sat out underneath the stars with a pretty girl who I very much wanted to kiss, but there was another girl from my past out in the milky blue light above the mountains, a girl who was obscured somewhere deep in New York City and I wanted to kiss her even more. I smoked with the girl sitting with me and looked up at the stars and wondered about her and the girl from my past.
The night was cool and I felt like I could stay up forever walking through the damp grass with two girls on my mind. And I thought about that the next day, driving back to New York City, and felt sad. I felt sad because I wanted each of those girls and I wanted to make and to have the feeling that Goodbye, Columbus made me feel at certain points of its pages and, above everything else, some part of me also just wanted to be alone and to never think about anything ever-I wanted all those things at the same moment. And so I was sad because I understood more than ever how much the phantoms were swirling in my own life.
On to Season Six.