Yesterday I watched the season finale of Mad Men. Then, today, I took my lady to see Snow White and the Huntsman. Out of the blue, one of my coworkers asked which I liked better — which is a little like asking whether I like apples better than, say, elephants. But I do find one interesting comparison: Snow White lacked anything resembling a denouement, while “The Phantom” consisted entirely of denouement.
First, Snow White. It’s actually a pretty interesting take on the fairy tail, to be honest. Charlize Theron is kind of fantastic in the role of the Queen, Bob Hoskins makes a weirdly good dwarf, and some of narrative choices (Disney’s grabby trees during Snow White’s flight from the Queen being framed as spore-induced hallucinations, for example) cleverly grounded the tale without making it too mundane. Despite being effects-heavy, only a few CG elements stood out too obviously (including, unfortunately, the plot’s central aging effect). Heck, even Kristen Stewart did a good job — no mean feat considering she had to deliver absolutely terrible dialogue. Much as I liked the story adaptation, the actual moment-to-moment script kind of sucked. And it ended with a single two-minute, nearly wordless sequences immediately following the climax, which always makes a movie feel abrupt and poorly considered.
Mad Men’s “The Phantom,” on the other hand, felt like a 50-minute coda to the past few episodes. I think that’s rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, but I found it an interesting choice. This past season of the show has been crammed with big, shocking moments, and the fact that the tone of the final episode skipped these and felt more in keeping with previous seasons has significance, I think. For starters, two major characters had been written out of the series (one definitely, the other quite possibly) over the previous two weeks, including one by suicide. It seemed only appropriate for this last episode to serve as a chance for everyone to stop, reflect, and react.
But on a bigger level, “The Phantom” brings the series around to where it began in a lot of ways. Nearly every characters has taken possession of their dreams — Don has rekindled his love for work, Megan has a crack at acting, Campbell has become ever more the pitiable version of Don, Joan has finally earned a partnership at the firm, etc. — but of these accomplishments, only Peggy seems to be genuinely happy with all the compromises made along the way. I sat through the entire episode wondering when the obligatory season finale plot twist would happen, the big shock the change the status quo, and the show held out on my all the way to the very last scene. But those five final seconds spoke volumes as Don lingered over temptation, and the entire season fell into place.
Mad Men has focused this past season on change throughout the mid-’60s, with the characters’ lives reflecting the changes in the world around them. But here, as this season ends and we wait nine months (at least) for the next, much of the series has come full circle. Despite all the changes, all the attempts at growth, all the accomplishments, everything that the characters have sacrificed in the process amounts to treading water in the end.
Don finds himself increasingly estranged from his glamorous young wife as he turns to drink and, possibly, infidelity. Campbell smarmily notes that he’ll have the same view as Don from his new office window, as if his affair with a depressed suburban housewife didn’t already demonstrate that he’s still walking pathetically in Don’s footsteps, as he has been since the very first episode. Roger Sterling continues to seek solace in substance abuse, though now he needs the total escape of LSD as the mere anaesthetic of alcohol no longer does the trick. And so on. “The Phantom” put the wraps on the second-to-last season of the show, but it could have served perfectly as the series’ finale, too. Nothing about the episode was final, and yet, you could find something akin to closure here — or at least as close to closure as a show like this can afford. The lesson: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as Marie Calvet would say to Roger… not that he’d have any idea what she was saying.
A great episode. But not despite being lower-key than the rest of the season — because it was lower-key.