It was Valentine’s Day on Mad Men, but unsurprisingly no one was feeling the love. At least not in the way they might have expected.
After leaning last week that Don was lying to Megan about his employment status, we got a better look at what a day in the life of unemployed Don looks like. It looks very sad. Don has built his entire life around the idea that if you pretend hard enough you can change the truth and he is handling this new situation the exact same way.
One reason that often nothing seems to happen is that nobody seems to be telling the truth. Without truth, there is scant capacity for growth. The show is all about lies, secrets, and misimpressions. Sally lies to Don about where she’s been. Don, more profoundly, lies to Sally about being employed, as he has lied to his wife. Roger lies to Pete about what went on in the meeting when the conference phone was not in fact disconnected. No one seems to offer the truth about who sent flowers to whom.
Don begins this Valentine’s Day looking for love from other agencies, even though, as he admits to his lunch date, he’s in no position to go elsewhere. (Earlier, Jim Cutler bitterly calls Don “our collective ex-wife who still receives alimony.”) He’s still getting paid, but every week that passes without him working, and with rumors of his Hershey implosion spreading around town, renders him damaged goods to other agencies.
It’s a pleasure to watch a show that carries itself with confidence down to the smallest gesture. Mad Men proved that it was that kind of show throughout season five. And it proved it again in its finale, “The Phantom” set in April, 1967, months after senior partner Pryce hanged himself in shame after getting caught stealing company funds.
“The Phantom” concludes on a pretty blonde, on her friend’s behalf, asking Don if he’s alone. Now, Don just walked away from a commercial shoot he was able to get his wife a part in. The part could change Megan’s fortunes. Don feared what acting would do to his marriage with her. Don’s never been happier than he’s been with Megan. Don’s contentment hurt his work, though he’s recovered from the malaise. No one’s actually happy in the season finale of season five. Well, Peggy’s happy, but she may be written out of the show because she’s happy. Pete’s miserable; Don’s basically miserable; Megan was miserable until Don got her the commercial part; Ginsberg and Stan are miserable after a company rejects their pitch because of the word ‘cheap’; Joan’s more sad than miserable, unable to celebrate the firm’s good fortune because the firm’s good fortune came from death benefits from Lane’s suicide.
I’ve taken issue with the season here and there — questioning, for instance, whether Joan’s decision felt natural, or like something where Weiner came up with the end-point and reverse-engineered the rest — but have for the most part applauded the formal boldness of it. Some of the most memorable scenes and moments of the series’ run occurred over these last three months, and I look forward to revisiting many of them during the long break before season 6. And, I’ll be honest: as someone who has had/chosen to stay up late each Sunday to write these reviews, I haven’t exactly minded that the themes have been more overt than in previous seasons. It’s all fine and dandy for the meaning to be hidden when I’ve got days and days to dig, but when 2 in the morning is staring me in the face, it’s a relief to be able to say, “Oh, the codfish is a metaphor for disappointment!”
Don was wrong. About a third of the way into “Commissions and Fees” Don tells Lane that he’ll get over getting quietly sacked from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce over the “13-day loan” he finagled for himself. “The next thing will be better because it always is,” Don tells Lane, distraught after realizing that Don isn’t going to change his mind about forcing his resignation. “I’ve started over a lot, Lane. This is the worst part.”
In private, Don gives Lane the chance to confess, then he demands his resignation. Lane promises to make good on the money by Easter and maybe pull his son Nigel out of school. He fears losing his visa, and the shame of returning to England a failure. All desperation is lost on Don, who gives him the weekend to think of an “elegant exit” plan to tell the partners. Don confides in Megan about it.
Don will blame himself, you can already see that. He has shame and remorse all over his face when he hears the news. Last week, Joan touched him kindly and said, “You’re a good one.” It’s likely he married Megan because she believed he was good, but it’s the one thing he never believes of himself. He often does terrible things, but Megan was right in Tomorrowland, he always tries to do better.