Let's start at the end. As the final minutes of the fifth season of "Mad Men" come to a close, the carefully chosen Nancy Sinatra song "You Only Live Twice" begins (a song which originally played as the theme for a much different hero). But even as Nancy's voice begins to soar, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his like only seem able to fall. "You only live twice," sings Nancy, "one life for yourself and one life for your dreams." While that line may be the most on the nose, especially for Don Draper alias Dick Whitman, I actually think the most important line of the song is what comes next: "This dream is for you," croons Nancy, "So pay the price."
"The Phantom" is about a lot of things: That happiness is an illusion. That getting what you want is never enough. But most importantly, all of our characters learn that getting what you want has a price.
After the relatively plot-heavy last two episodes, which found Joan (Christina Hendricks) prostituting herself to Jaguar for the good of SCDP and for her very own partnership, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) leaving SCDP for greener pastures, and Lane (Jared Harris) committing suicide, "The Phantom" feels very slow indeed, especially as a finale. The impending sense of doom I've felt all season culminates not in disaster -- or, at least, the loud explosive deadly kind of disaster -- but in a quiet deadening of the soul. What makes the end of this season so horrifying is not that SCDP has turned into some nightmare house of horrors which chews people up and spits them back out (although we might make the case for that, with Lane's suicide being one of the most genuinely awful things I've seen on television in quite some time), but that each character had brief happiness in their grasp at least once this season, only to find it crumble to dust. Each one of them has found that, as Glen (Marten Weiner) noted last episode, "Everything you think is going to make you happy just turns to crap."
Joan is haunted by the specter of Lane Pryce floating around the halls. She blames herself for not giving him what he wanted, and she makes it clear that all the money that is now pouring into SCDP due to their success with Jaguar (a tainted success to begin with, even without Lane's death to think about) is just a reminder of what had to be paid out to earn it. The $175,000 the company receives as a life insurance payout for Lane's death is just one more heaping of dirty irony. The death of the man who was in such dire financial straits that he took his own life has now enabled SCDP to finally buy that second story in the Time Life building. SCDP is literally profiting off of Lane's demise and everyone knows it. For his part, Roger is still trying to reclaim that lost sense of purpose he briefly found in his mid-season flirtation with LSD. He tries to get Megan's mother Marie (Julia Ormond) to take LSD with him again, but he's trying to recapture a moment that was an illusion to begin with. He ends up tripping, naked and alone in his hotel room.
Even our two quick glimpses of Peggy reinforce the message that no matter what you do to try and make things better, your problems will follow you. New boss Teddy Chaough chafes Peggy the wrong way when they're talking about pitching women's cigarettes (which are clearly going to turn out to be Virginia Slims), and it becomes clear in the blink of an eye that the ideal job Chaough pitched to her doesn't actually exist. She ends up sitting alone in a theater (with Don) trying to think her problems away. And even though we don't see them in this episode, Sally and Betty also fit in to the bigger picture of disappointment. Betty's (January Jones) new and beautiful life with Henry Francis couldn't fill the void in her soul, so this season we had her stuffing it full of food instead (which also didn't help). And on "Mad Men," growing up isn't necessarily associated as much with loss of innocence as it is the loss of illusion. Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) had two moments of illumination this season: when she got her period in the museum, and when she witnessed Roger and Marie's tryst at the Codfish Ball, both events stripping away the illusion and shine of adult life for her. The latter also made for a whopper of an episode ending statement, when pal Glen asked her how the city was and she responded with one word: "Dirty."
Pete's (Vincent Kartheiser) affair with his train buddy's wife, Beth (Alexis Bledel) -- which he had built up to a glorious soul-affirming, love affair in his mind -- ends with Beth willingly accepting electroshock therapy for a depression that is probably equal parts nature and nurture (I'd be depressed if I was married to that yutz of a guy as well). He'd built Beth up into a beautiful fantasy creature, capable of curing all his ills, and is absolutely crushed both when she tells him that she's accepting the treatment (which damages his perfect image of her) and when he visits her after the treatment and she doesn't even remember him. In a moment of honesty for the character -- notable because it might be the first time he's being honest with himself as well -- Pete confesses to Beth that "his friend" had been having an affair with a beautiful woman, and it crushed his soul. And, more to the point, he now realizes that this affair broke his soul for the simple reason that it showed him what was really wrong underneath. He tells Beth that "his friend" realized that what he "already had was not right either. And that was why it had happened at all. And that his life with his family was some temporary bandage on a permanent wound." It's a brutal moment precisely because Pete is usually such a belligerently delusional individual, perhaps because he could sense this realization creeping up on him, and he wanted to avoid it for as long as he possibly could. His life is a permanent wound, and nothing he does will ever fix it.
And that leaves us with Megan (Jessica Pare), who spends the episode mourning her failing acting career, and Don, who spends it ignoring a festering tooth. The tooth is an obvious symbolic stand-in for everything else in Don's life that he is determined to ignore because, as he tells the dentist later, "I thought it would go away." That's exactly the state that Don has been in all season. He was determined to be happy, even as problem after problem, both at work and in his marriage, kept cropping up. He wasn't just hoping the toothache would go away, he was hoping that, just like Pete, that gnawing hole of doubt and despair that has been growing steadily even as the illusion of happiness from his new beginning with Megan began to fade. Reality always creeps back in, and he wouldn't be Don Draper if he didn't find a way to push it away again. Maybe that's why working as an ad-man is the perfect job for him: there's always something new to sell, always another illusion to create, even if it's only temporary. In the end, Don helps Megan to achieve her dream (at the expense of her friend), but Marie's words to Megan as she lay on her bed and cried about her marriage and her career still apply: Chasing your dreams is like chasing a phantom, Marie states all matter-of-fact, and besides, she says, all little girls can't get what they want: "the world could not support that many ballerinas."
The most telling image in the finale comes as the partners of SCDP take the elevator up to their new second floor to survey their new territory. None of them even seem happy about their new success -- perhaps because Lane's suicide is still the elephant in the room -- but also because their success has not made them happy the way they thought it would. They aren't happy with what they do or what they have, and to receive more of what they already have only means they're getting more of the same problems. This is a world where success only means more empty spaces that have to be filled up. This is a world where dreams the way we imagine them do not exist, and cannot, because there is always a price to pay, whether its your own happiness or someone else's, and there are always going to be people on the bottom who will never even catch a glimpse, just because that's how the world works.
We began the season with new beginnings, with people trying to start over and pretend that this time, things would be different. What we end up with is a cast of characters who now know that those beginnings were crocks of false promises, and who work in a profession where their only job is to convince people to buy things to fill up those holes that they themselves now know can never be filled. That's why at the end when Don is approached by the sexy young thing at the bar, we don't need to see him telling her that he's alone. It's understood.