How does one top an episode punctuated by a fan-favorite character's shocking suicide? If you're "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner, you don't — and that's perfectly fine.
The Emmy-winning AMC drama closed out its fifth season on Sunday with all the subtlety and nuance the show has become known and loved for. Instead of ramping up the season-long suicidal undertones with an explosive finale, the season's closing episode, "The Phantom," instead explored the ramifications of Lane Pryce's death and how his drastic decision affected the people he left behind.
Mortality was the theme of the hour, even for those unconnected to Lane. Every character from über-confident Don Draper to the self-loathing Pete Campbell gave a good, long look at their own fragile lives, each of them coming up with different answers for how to step into the future.
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Pete, for example, spent much of season five wrestling with his personal life, chasing after fancy new offices and fantasy-driven affairs to keep himself distracted from his simple suburban existence. In "The Phantom," he once again enjoyed a fling with his train-buddy's wife Beth (played by "Gilmore Girls" alum Alexis Bledel), but it wasn't meant to last: Beth, afflicted with a serious case of the blues, underwent electroshock therapy to fix her depression, a decision that eliminated all traces of Pete from her memory. After staring into the eyes of a woman he had no business loving, and seeing no recognition in return, Pete was forced to confront a sad truth: His life with his family is "a temporary bandage on a permanent wound." The tragic epiphany was promptly followed by a fist-fight with Beth's husband, Pete's second rumble of the season, which itself was followed by a third punch to the face from a train conductor. Even though the finale ended with Pete receiving his wife Trudy's blessing to find an apartment in Manhattan, the victory was a bright, fleeting blip on his otherwise bleak season.
Roger Sterling left "The Phantom" on a considerably lighter note. After an LSD trip several episodes ago led the silver-haired ad man to divorce his wife Jane, Roger reclaimed much of his youthful energy and embarked on an affair with Marie Clavet, the mother of Don's wife. She wouldn't join him on his next acid trip, no, but even riding solo, Roger arrived at a place of renewed self-worth and self-awareness, reacting to Lane's jarring death by finding new ways to "really appreciate life." His final and literally butt-naked appearance at the end of the episode stands out as a testament to his new outlook on life.
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Megan, the daughter of Roger's secret new lady pal spent the hour dwelling on many of the problems that plagued her all season long. The "Zou Bisou" singer left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce earlier in the year at the height of her creative success, deciding instead to chase her dreams as an actress. Several months into the new pursuit and Megan found few leads, prompting a harsh reality check from mother Marie: "Not every little girl gets what she wants. The world cannot support that many ballerinas." The cutting critique led Megan to the bottom of a bottle, where she drunkenly moaned and mourned her inability to do anything other than please Don on the domestic front.
But Don, who is far from the biggest fan of Megan's decision to leave advertising in favor of acting, saw more in his wife than her mother did. The onetime Dick Whitman spent the finale suffering from toothache-induced visions of his deceased brother (who, like Lane, hanged himself in the face of a desperate situation) and quiet guilt in response to Lane's death. Don's attempt to make peace with Lane's widow failed, but he was at least able to make strides in his personal life by helping Megan land her first major television gig at the center of an ad campaign for Butler shoes.
Unlike Pete's self-destructiveness and Roger's drug-fueled pursuit of enlightenment, Don seemingly reacted to Lane's exit strategy by appreciating the good things already in his life — his wife, specifically. Marching away from an elated Megan on the Butler set, with James Bond music blaring in the background (good luck getting "You Only Live Twice" out of your head today) and looking more dapper than ever, Don appeared more satisfied with his personal life than he has in years.
And then the other shoe dropped.
In the closing moments of the episode, Don, alone at a bar, found himself the target of two young and beautiful actresses. "Are you alone?" One of them asked, eliciting nothing more than a loaded look from Draper and a smash to black, leaving the question of Don's return to his old ways very much up in the air.
What did you think of the "Mad Men" finale? Tell us in the comments section below or let me know on Twitter @roundhoward!