More so than any of the four previous finales, The Phantom resolves very little, especially after the world-spinning, show-upending changes in the past two episodes. Betty and Sally make no appearances, and the material for Joan, Roger and Peggy is slight. The main focus here is on Don, Megan and Peter.
I don’t dislike Don Draper per se (I mean, I don’t dislike his character, even though I sometimes dislike him as a person), but he’s not my favourite character. Still, sometimes his plight does strike an emotional chord with me. He’s fake, all the way down: “Don Draper” is a constructed persona on top of Dick Whitman whom he regards with disdain. At the beginning of the series, two people knew his secret (his brother and Anna), and both of them are now dead. Two more people know now, Betty and Megan (Sally knows bits of it); Betty divorced him for it (though it’s part of a much larger problem). Whatever he accomplishes, whatever he gets, is unreal, meaningless, because that’s not really him. But Dick Whitman is long gone and buried, too. The tooth pain in the episode felt a bit too on-the-nose as a metaphor, at first, until the episode showed the bloody extracted molar, and I realized how much the episode’s title and apparent themes were reversed by it. Somehow I just imagined the whole time it was phantom pain, and Don probably did too—but it had a specific physical referent, even if the emotional pain which tied into it doesn’t.
Somehow, Megan in that silly, bulky dress for the Beauty and the Beast commercial hit hard. Megan was so good at everything, at the end of last season and at the beginning of this one, that she seemed unreal, maybe even a characterization mistake. A far better wife than Betty, accomplished as both a secretary ala Joan and copywriter ala Peggy, with sexy dances and a great singing voice. Betty and Peggy’s jealousy was highlighted this year, though both rose “above” it, sort of (rather, Peggy rose above it pretty quickly; and Betty sunk deeper into ridiculous behaviour until her daughter needed her and she could feel validated again). Eventually she left copywriting because it wasn’t her dream, which frustrated the main cast intensely, because the fact that someone with genuine talent and a future with every advantage would give up the job suddenly makes their tenuous belief that what they are doing matters shatter. She had—well, she had spine; she had talent; she had integrity.
Now all three are gone. She may or may not be a talented actress. But while she got the copywriting job because Don gave it to her, she quickly started showing actual skills there. We haven’t seen any confirmation that she has strengths as an actress. I don’t know how to read the film reel that Don looks at in the episode (I don’t know how audition reels are supposed to be). It’s not to say I think she’s not good. In fact, it doesn’t really matter whether she’s good or not. After half a year in which she simply was good at everything and got immediate feedback, it’s devastating for her, and for Don, to see her continuing to wallow unable to find any roles, knowing that she gave up (and could probably, if she really wanted to, return to) SCDP right away. (With the loss of Peggy and clients angry they are sans female copywriters, I don’t think that anyone besides maybe Don and maybe Ginsberg would really object if Megan wanted to come back?) When you are used to being good at things, the temptation to give up when suddenly it seems as if you aren’t is overwhelming. And so she gets a part that’s not art through her husband’s job, despite trying to make it on her own. And she does it on the back of her friend. Megan’s not European, she’s Canadian (though who knows the difference—I love the joke about Roger not knowing what “Regina” is), and she is surely going to hurt or lose that friendship in order to get the part.
Don tried, earlier in the season, to stave off an ex while in a fever dream. Finally, at the end of the episode, he seems closer to accepting again. “You Only Live Twice” (the theme therefrom) on the soundtrack, Don’s too-cool James Bond-ism comes back, and, well, how can he not cheat on Megan? The Don Draper persona is all Don has—and the purpose of the persona is to be attractive and powerful and to get lots of women. It’s not a side effect of the persona, it’s its raison d’être. Of course he only gets to that point after his wife has “fallen.” The quotes are not because Megan hasn’t fallen—I think her disingenuousness to her friend sucked, if nothing else—but because even fallen, Megan’s still several rungs above Don on a reasonable moral scale. But Megan has just used whatever resources to do what she needs to do to feel better about herself, which includes using her beauty and her husband. The idealism of Tomorrowland is gone, as we all knew it would be.
Lane’s shadow on the episode is rather long. I could have done without the empty chair in the meeting, or at least Joan’s fixating on it. Joan’s trying to fill Lane’s role as the responsible one is a measure both of the positive impact he had while he was present that no one besides Joan ever particularly appreciated, and Joan’s idealization of the man who secretly embezzled. Her conversation with Don was interesting, because of course Don projects his brother’s death onto Lane’s (I guess it’s kind of hard not to make connections between hangings) and so insists that suicide is meaningless and not understandable. But still. Joan is sitting there, thinking that maybe he died because of her not “giving him what he wanted,” while Don knows rather more why Lane killed himself and won’t say. One could spin this as being for Lane’s benefit—no need to tell Joan that he embezzled. But mostly, the fact that Don dealt with the embezzling the way he did will probably look bad on Don right now. Don fired Lane for embezzling a small part of the collateral he put into the company, and now in his death Don and the company benefits. It’s not an easy thing to deal with.
Same for his visit to Mrs. Pryce. It’s amusing and heartwrenching that Don makes no bones, at all, about cutting a cheque for more than the kind of money Lane had to sneak around for: the company is doing better in the spring than in the winter, but still. (Had Joan been a partner at the time, would Lane have been able to convince her to cut him a cheque? Would he have been able to swallow his pride and ask?) He gives her back the money that the company actually owes to Lane a few years early, and acts as if this gesture will somehow make things better. It’s good that he did it: it’s better than keeping the $50K. And the solution actually is what would be good for Lane, in the end: Lane killed himself over money. But Don, the brilliant ad man and copywriter (though rusty of late) can’t think of anything to say but to repeat “I’m sorry for your loss” in the face of accusations that they killed Lane by putting him into a position and life of ambition and lust and decadence. There’s probably nothing else he could say, but he has that deer-in-the-headlights look he always gets when people don’t bow at his generosity.
Peggy’s departure from SCDP was triumphant. So far though, her new job doesn’t look too promising. Don was often (usually?) harsh on her, and she was sometimes harsh on Ginsberg and Stan, but there were other things to balance it out; here at her new job the hierarchy seems to be harshly imposed, where she’s ordered to take up smoking and she yells at her inferiors. What was it that Peggy and Don were seeing at the movie theatre? (Ah, Jim Emerson identified it as Casino Royale, the Bond parody.) I love how the Don/Peggy mild reunion, with Don’s dreary ruminations on how people always leave you after you help them (like Trudy to Pete, I wished Peggy could tell him to dispense with all this doom and gloom), undercuts the seeming finality of their encounter two episodes ago. In life, you rarely get perfect endings, and changes that seem to be life-altering don’t fundamentally change the daily grind. Life goes on, and that sometimes just means dogs screwing. Back at SCDP, the Peggy-less dynamic is already settled into a dull clash that Stan meta-comments on by saying that he’s already bored with the dynamic as viewers must be. How we’ll miss Peggy.
Roger’s first acid trip was remarkable in that it gave the guy with nearly no self-awareness some degree of it. But it was almost immediately undercut: Roger’s Wise Man act by Don early on (with one of my favourite exchanges of the season, paraphrased: “You know, sometimes people seem to be looking at you, but their mind is actually elsewhere.” “You know, some people have figured that out without taking acid”), and by last episode, it’s worn off. Now he finds Megan’s mother and tries to combine his two drugs of choice, sexy ladies with LSD. That life-changing experiences can only change your life for so long before you revert to form. I love Megan’s mother simply saying she’s not going to be his mother. The image of Roger naked staring out the window is funny in its clichéd nature: he’s living the acid dream as closely to the actual stereotyped experience as he can. This is a guy whose entire identity was handed to him by his father of the same name, after all; it shouldn’t surprise us, or him. The idea of experience
The darkest story in the episode is of course Peter’s. Oh, Beth. My gf pointed out to me the connection between Peter’s recent fantasy (“I forgot you and then I saw your name in the Sunday Times”) and the actual story here, wherein Beth allows her connection to Peter happen again because she knows it will disappear. It pays off the image at the end of Lady Lazarus in which Beth traced a heart in the perspiration on her windshield and the immediately erased it, wiped it clean. A blank slate. Love as a phantom. Rather like Don’s role in Lane’s death, Pete feels, and should feel, guilt: Pete pressured Beth into an affair, into continuing to see him. She made those choices herself, too. But the consequences are something Pete was never all that interested in. He never really tried to find out what it actually meant for Beth to deal with her asshole husband. The idea that the relationship, their unhappiness, is partly what is the proximate cause of Beth’s “blue”-ness puts Pete’s awakening that sadness and want in her as part of the cause of her agreeing to the memory erasure, to cutting herself off from the source of that pain. Or rather, a source of that pain. It’s a partial suicide following Lane’s literal suicide last week; it parallels Don having the tooth that is hurting him torn out of him. Peter as something becoming an abscess for her. But Pete also identifies that emotions don’t work the same way as the dental surgery, that fundamentally everything he does in life to be happy is just a band-aid over the deeper wound. Like Roger, repeating his LSD experience to reset himself to a prior state of enlightenment and bliss, Beth is doomed to repeat electroshock therapy again and again, cutting months out of her life, never addressing the central wound. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Dollhouse in the 1960’s.
The erasing parallels the erasure of history with Lane's death. Lane's wife shows Don the picture of the girl -- Delores, right, like Delores "Lolita" Haze, one of the most famous literary phantoms lodged in memory, whose last name refers to the same fog that Beth talks about -- that meant so much to Lane, and who we in the audience know about. But now the path is untraceable: with Lane's death, the history of that photograph is erased, permanently. Pete may reveal some of his history to the husband, but otherwise it's all in his memory, and when he dies, that will be gone too.
It’s easy to say that it’s the asshole husband who is that central wound, or society identifying blueness as something that needs to be confronted and solved with electricity is. And surely the husband is a monster. He even knows that he’s doing, erasing any other men from his wife’s mind. She feels she has no choice because he forces her into it, and has no real options to escape it. And he wants her quiet and “happy” at home so that he can go on screwing people in the city without having to deal with her whiny self at home. Maybe there is some lighter lining to his character, some genuine interest in his wife’s welfare, but the story is Pete POV and there’s no way it’s going to find it. But meanwhile, the husband’s behaviour of course parallels Pete’s, keeping his wife in the dark in order to keep her sedate and happy while he has affairs in the city. Like Lane’s death benefiting SCDP, Pete’s bloody confrontation with the husband of the woman he’s cheating on Trudy with ends up getting him his “wish” to have a life in the city, because Trudy genuinely wants to cure Pete of his blueness through any means necessary while respecting his agency. In the end, Pete benefits from Beth’s memory erasure, too, with his own cheating erased as if it never happened, and a chance to start over with more advantages than he had at the season’s start, his bad actions erased from history entirely. He only lives twice.