Mad Men – The Phantom
What haunts the people of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce? Literally speaking it is that last name on the letterhead, the man it signifies, the seat he left empty and the most nefarious fate that found it that way. More so than any of that though it is the phantoms of the past as a whole that most pervades their private thoughts and turmoils of the soul as they step warily into the future. What did they do to get themselves here and what didn’t they when they should’ve? These are some of the questions running through their heads during the episode, but these like so many others are all questions that ultimately go unanswered by a rather ambiguous and seemingly uneventful finale.
Whether we knew it or not the show has in its own way always been about trying to escape these ghosts, usually by becoming something of a phantom like Don did when he took that name rather than Dick. Why try and outrun something that will seemingly simply disappear at the turn of your back? So the SCDP offices are haunted now, by Lane and by certain choices made before his death, they’re corrupted, but is physically running away from them really going to help? The partners in the firm ponder buying up the now empty Parachute company upstairs as part of a fresh start, but the irony is that all they’ll really be doing is constructing an exact replica of their current offices, their windows even showing the same exact view. Like in a nightmare these characters can run and run and run but they’ll never actually be able to make it outside, the logic and architecture of the world simply render their route a loop back to the beginning.
Of all people shouldn’t Don now know better than to think that such scary things can truely be escaped? That he would ever get to be a Final Girl in this horror show (one that began, coincidentally, with an attack on Token Black’s , as all horror movies do). He has run this race many times before and never bested it, but still he tries again, all the time knowing that he’ll never win. He is the sort that tries to ignore the pain of the tooth until it simply goes away, assuming that things will simply return to the status quo, that life will again become normal. This time though it seems that they won’t, this time the tooth would have taken the jaw out with it; times have changed and not for the better.
But can the people change with them, that seems to be the question of the season: can they adapt, hell can they change at all and this episode to me provides something of a scatter shot answer. On one hand you have the fact that it is, as Mrs.Pryce makes clear, of our culture to wallow in the past, to be forever burdened by the brunt of the mistakes we mere men are bound to make, of their permanence but on the other a lot of the episode is about learning to let go and the fleeting nature of life’s lessons. It’s conflicting philosophy, but not i don’t think, a confused one; it’s this complicated because life is similarly so.
Take for example the electroshock therapy, the other medical procedure in the piece; this session wipes the slate clean, it removes the pain entire by taking the personality with it like a tooth does its roots. It is then entirely possible to change but this is only a “Temporary bandage on a permanent wound;” you can rid yourself of your clothes and your discontents for a little while but the enlightenment doesn’t last, nothing does. Pretty soon after starting your new job you find yourself at the same cinema the old you used to escape into; we’re always changing, always moving, but again it’s in circles and so we always end up back where we began or somewhere close to it, never actually any closer to contentment, the phantom of perfection.
Don is also haunted this week by a literal phantom, in one of the weaker pieces of imagery, but how he reacts to that ghost is telling; the life that he has so fervently tried to escape from for all these years stands before him incarnate and he asks him not to leave, in a way he wants the past to stay, he’s spun around a corner and is now ready to embrace his beginning. We end the episode with him sitting in a bar, sleazy smile spread across his dial as he lights a woman’s cigarette: he hasn’t changed and neither have the times, the sixties are still the fifties are still the fourties are still now. We’re still haunted by what happened back then and hell if TV won’t forever be haunted by this show, if it won’t stand as the phantom all other programs pine to be as they spin in their on future loops.