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June 11, 2012 at 04:07 AM EDT

(UPDATE: Adam B. Vary’s recap is live!) It’s been an understandable complaint issued by even some of Mad Men‘s most ardent fans (including EW’s Ken Tucker) that the last few episodes of season 5 have traded subtle character shifts for sledgehammer shocks. Not to mention that every new installment threatened to spin its plot threads a little bit more obviously around a central unifying theme. So you would have guessed that the finale, titled “The Phantom,” would have saved the most jarring reveals for the end. But not so! By my reckoning at least, ‘The Phantom” was a welcome return — maybe even a payoff — to season 5’s early potential as a prismatic character study and not an inventory of “shocking twists.”


At the very least, the finale featured a bunch of great, great moments: Roger affecting a pitiful Québécois accent to seduce Megan’s mother, Marie, over the phone; Pete falling 0-2 in fisticuffs this season, against Beth’s cuckolded husband; Pete falling 0-3 in fisticuffs this season, against a by-the-book train porter; Don unexpectedly meeting Peggy in a movie theater for a screening of the Bond spoof Casino Royale; Don’s toothache-fueled hallucinations about Adam, i.e. Dick Whitman’s half-brother, who committed suicide in season 1; Mrs. Pryce completely denying Don the guilt-assuaging closure he was looking for regarding Lane’s death.

Season 5’s greatest potential seemed to be its inclination to change a couple of our key characters. Roger, in particular, evolved out of a pretty clichéd mid-life crisis and into an LSD-fueled discovery of new possibilities. His awakening led to a clever break from Jane, a détente with ex-wife Mona, and a possible new romance with Marie. A lot of us were disappointed then that he seemed to fall back into his old routine shortly thereafter. “Wore off,” he told Don, when asked about what happened to his new outlook. But his pidgin-French chat with Marie — an older, more sensible potential partner for him than Jane ever was — shows that he may still be on the right track. Oh, and there was that butt shot at the very end, which explains AMC’s “brief nudity” warning. That’s gotta be indicative of transformation somehow, right?

Likewise, Don seemed to be heading in a healthier direction for much of this season. For one, he was genuinely in love with Megan. But a keen lack of awareness about her theatrical aspirations could have planted a seed of destruction in his conjugal bliss. In “The Phantom,” he first shut down her suggestion that she be cast in a client’s commercial — indicating that it would be an unfair bit of nepotism. But after watching some dailies of his wife’s luminous, gamine face, he relented. Mad Men‘s been keen on art cinema references over the years, and Don, like Anna Karina hypnotized by Maria Falconetti in Vivre sa vie, found himself transfixed, maybe even transformed, by what he saw onscreen. He had to give Megan the opportunity. I mean, what’s the point of being a Madison Avenue executive if nepotism isn’t among the perks? At the same time, though, he was more than aware that his choice may ultimately cause him to lose her. If not to another man, then to the sunny shores of California. That’s why I really don’t know what his answer will be to that girl at the bar who asked, “Are you alone?” That twist of his head, as Nancy Sinatra’s “You Only Live Twice” played, sure seemed loaded.

What did you think of the finale? Is Roger really a new man? Is Don reverting to his old ways? Is Peggy out of SCDP’s orbit for good? Were you as oddly saddened as I was by newly electro-shocked Beth’s complete amnesia regarding Pete and their brief affair? And where does season 5 rank among Mad Men‘s all-time best?

Be sure to check out Adam B. Vary’s full recap, and stop by later for Ken Tucker’s season wrap-up.

More about Mad Men:

‘Mad Men’ season 5: Where we have been, and where are we going

‘Mad Men’ review: Losing enlightenment as the show heads to its season finale

‘Mad Men’ recap: The Resignation

‘Mad Men’: Are you as devastated as we are by [SPOILER]?

Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama
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