By Ken Tucker
Updated June 11, 2012 at 03:45 PM EDT

Mad Men

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Mad Men wrapped up its fifth season with “The Phantom,” an episode that served as a refresher-course in the themes that had been explored throughout the previous weeks, as though prepping us for Professor Matthew Weiner’s final exam. Let’s run through them, shall we, class?

Q: Why was Don Draper unhappy? A: Before we answer that, let’s state what we can now see were the season’s two grand, over-arching themes: That achieving one’s goals does not bring anything like happiness, and that everyone — viewers and other characters alike — wants to see Pete Campbell punched in the face again and again and again.

Now then: This week his never-ending pain took the its most immediate form of a toothache, which caused a discomfort Don was too much of a he-man/masochist to admit. But Don suffered from great mental anguish as well. His subconscious, doubtless stirred by guilt over the suicide of Lane, brought his suicide brother Adam to the fore, as Don began seeing him in brief moments and then in a chat, during which Adam told him he’d “be hanging around — get it?” Oh, Don got it, alright. What Don didn’t get — and has had trouble grasping all season even though we get it, hoo boy, do we get it — is what is driving Megan’s burning ambition to be an actress.

This week, with her mother visiting (an always welcome Julia Ormond, who nonetheless felt wedged into the hour to belittle her daughter and engage in hanky-panky with Roger), Megan was determined to make some career head-way, so she angled around a friend who alerted her to a TV-commercial audition to petition Don to get her into the competition. Don resisted, he made yet another variation on his “why would you want to do that?” argument that he stubbornly refuses to realize is a loser because it’s a deeply held belief from a man who wants to hide, not expose, himself the way Megan does in her performances. Two moments stood out for their visual beauty: When Don looked at Megan’s black-and-white audition reel, and was rapt with admiration, adoration, of the lovely girl he’d married (all the lovelier for the flattering use of black-and-white, and the silent-film effect that further set her attractiveness off in a timeless manner).

The other moment occurred when Megan got the TV spot, was in her glory being fussed over by make-up and wardrobe people, and Don left this brightly-lit scene, knifing into the darkness of the real world, as the camera pulled back and we saw Megan’s ideal world grow smaller and Don’s dark world become bigger and more ominously enveloping. I said earlier that Julia Ormond’s Marie had been wedged into the episode — she was also placed there to utter the line that gave the episode its title, when she warned Megan that she was “chasing a phantom.” She was referring to an acting career, but we knew that, in the Mad Men context, the walrus was Don — ‘scuse me, the phantom was Don, in the sense that he’ll never be truly there for Megan, not the solid, sure, dependable man she expected him to be. He is, in this sense, a phantom, a phantom not unlike the terrific old comic strip created by Lee Falk that would have been very popular in the 1960s of the show: The Phantom, aka “the Ghost Who Walks,” who wore a mask and had a ring on his fist that left the imprint of a skull on the face of anyone he punched.

And speaking of punches…

Q: Why was Pete unhappy? A: Trapped in suburbia with a wife whose fondest dream for the future is to have a pool built in the back yard, Pete yearned for other, less tangible things: freedom, to “feel handsome again,” to not be “heartbroken.” Who broke his heart? His train-buddy Howard’s wife Beth, whom he has coveted. Suspecting we didn’t get the message previously when he titled an episode “Lady Lazarus,” Prof. Weiner made the invocation of Sylvia Plath more plain this week, subjecting Beth to electroshock therapy, the same treatment the depressive poet Plath endured. Perhaps because Alexis Bledel has played Beth with a certain lobotomized airiness from the start, her trajectory from object of flirty desire to memory-robbed mental patient did not seem like much of an arc, as they say in the writers’ room.

Nonetheless, Pete’s involvement with Beth concluded in the worst possible way. Yes, he bedded her, but she ended up not remembering him after she’d been zapped. And he won’t be sharing jollities with Howard any more, now that he (more than half-intentionally) let slip that he “knew” Howard’s wife, which led to a tussle in the train car and a very nice bop on Pete’s beezer by a train conductor straight out of a Preston Sturges movie. (Sturges would have cast William Demarest in the role, with Pete played by Eddie Bracken, of course.)

Q: Whatever happened to Peggy? A: She had her hands full trying to wrestle what I presume was a Virginia Slims account into submission, and, exhausted from the effort, sought solace in a movie theater, traditionally a palace of dreams, where the man of our collective dream, Don, came upon her, seeking escape himself. Their scene was as genuinely sweet and comforting as the scenes Don has had earlier in the season with Joan: With these two women, for different reasons, Don can drop his defensiveness and take pleasure at being in the presence of women who (whether he actually realizes it or not) get him, and (he certainly realizes this) put him at ease, because they aren’t dependent on him, they can take care of themselves. Yes, by the end of the hour Peggy was in a dowdy motel room with a view of two dogs humping, but she closed the curtain and faded out with a smile — on the road, literally, to a more successful career. Should I add a question mark to that sentence? Yes, probably; otherwise, Peggy would have to be interpreted as happy, and no one is happy in the Mad Men universe. There are characters in Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead who are happy, joyous, and free compared to the bleakness of Mad Men-world.

Compare “The Phantom” with last season’s finale, “Tomorrowland,” which propelled the series into the future, most strikingly with Don’s proposal to Megan. By contrast, the sole scene of a future to come occurred when Joan took the other partners to a new floor, and showed them where their new offices would be, in an as-yet, yes, phantom version of the expanding SDCP ad agency.

But I wasn’t looking for a cliffhanger; indeed, the general mopping-up was, all in all, quite entertaining. The shot of a naked Roger, in thrall to LSD once again, was a little triumph to cap off what I now think was certainly the best episode of the season (“Far Away Places”).

The episode took place around Easter time, that period during which the Church celebrates the death and resurrection of the Savior, a phantom who ascends while appearing to his flock. It is by no means a stretch to believe that Prof. Weiner intended this framing device to focus our attention once more to the centrality of Don Draper in the Church of Mad Men.

But if we’re going to continue taking Communion in this place of worship, I don’t want to body and blood of Don — I’ll have what Roger’s having.

Twitter: @kentucker

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