Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mad Men's Phantom Wives

Sunday’s Mad Men season finale was entitled, “The Phantom.” Naturally, everyone thought that it referred to the ghost of Lane Pryce.

Then, when Marie Calvet declared that her daughter’s pursuit of her acting career was like chasing a phantom, the meaning shifted.

In the largest sense the show chronicles an important shift in American culture, the arrival of the Vietnam counterculture and feminism.

Admittedly, Matthew Weiner’s timing is off: feminism was not an important cultural force in 1966. Nor did 1966, as one critic noted, see wave of divorces that were to follow in feminism's wake.

Mad Men shows us the breakdown of the American family.  In the final episode we see one of the basic aspects of that breakdown: the American wife is vanishing before our eyes.

Housewives and homemakers are being driven into extinction, in one way or another.

Since the episode places women in central roles, the phantom in the title must be the American wife.

Marie Calvet notwithstanding, her daughter is becoming a phantom wife.

Allow me to backtrack. At the end of the penultimate episode we saw the partners cutting down the corpse of Lane Pryce and laying it out on a couch.

By the time the new episode began Lane Pryce was a distant memory. Don did pay a visit to his widow and offer her a check for $50,000… which was Pryce's investment in the firm.

Dramatically, that was surely not sufficient. We did not see the partners or the staff mourning a partner who had hanged himself in his office.

The writers threw in a line about how Pryce’s widow did not want a memorial service, but that was a cheap trick, an excuse for bad plotting.

Many reviewers found the final Mad Men unsatisfying. I suspect that they were responding to a glaring flaw: no one at SCDP knew how to acknowledge or commemorate the passing of Lane Pryce.

It doesn’t have a hidden meaning. It’s dramatically offensive and inexcusable. It cast a pall over the episode, not the one the writers would have wanted.

The last episode paid lip service to Lane Pryce, but it was really about vanishing wives.

Don Draper stated it clearly when he told Megan: “You want to be somebody’s discovery, not somebody’s wife.”

Several critics have noted that Don’s rotting tooth, called a “hot tooth” represents Megan. He is trying to hold on to someone he loves but who is causing him pain. Eventually he succumbs to the pressure and gets Megan the job she wants, in much the same way he succumbs and has his tooth extracted just in time… before it produced an abscess that would have infected his jaw.

Some critics have suggested that Don has agreed to allow Megan to pursue her dreams, thus that he is going to become more uxorious, a more compliant and supportive husband. He is willing, as one critic noted, to sacrifice his desire for a traditional housewife in order to make her happy.

I see that as a phantom wish. As the season ends Don Draper is ready to move on.

When it comes to Megan's happiness, we have already been told, by Marie Calvet, that Megan does not have the talent to make it as an actress. And why do you think that career success and a failing marriage will make her happy?

The metaphor of Don’s hot tooth coupled with his last scene says otherwise. As Megan takes her star turn Don is being hit on by two beautiful women in a bar.

He may be alone. He may feel abandoned, but not for long.

Forced to choose between real women and a phantom wife Don Draper is most likely to choose the former.

Of course, Megan herself is still loving and seductive. When she gets drunk she insists that she is more than happy to continue to make love with him.

Unfortunately, she is too self-involved to see that her husband is in so much pain that he has no immediate interest in sex.

Think about it: Megan does not want to be either wife or mother. She wants to fulfill her creative potential while being a great lover. Put them together are you get concubine.

As metaphors go, the toothache is lame, to say the least. Maureen Ryan suggested, correctly, that it shows the producers trying to tell us what to think, as though we are not smart enough to figure things out on our own.

And then there is Marie Calvet, Megan’s mother, herself another example of a phantom wife.

Marie has decamped in New York without her atheist husband because he refuses to celebrate Easter. Circumstances allow her to consummate her lust for Roger Sterling, another man whose young second wife became a phantom. Who among us still remembers her?

As for the other women in the episode, Peggy Olson is happily ensconced in her new job at a new advertising agency. She is hard at work on a new cigarette, presumably Virginia Slims.

When last seen she was looking out of a motel room window in Virginia watching two dogs copulating in the parking lot. Clearly, the episode takes place before motels had on-demand videos.

Peggy is is not on the road to matrimony.

Former wife Joan Harris is now on the way to divorce.

Then there is Beth Dawes, Pete Campbell’s former paramour, wife of Pete’s friend, insurance salesman Howard Dawes.

After running into Pete on the train, Beth calls him to tell him that she is not going on vacation, but is going to check into a psychiatric clinic to have another round of electroshock treatments. She wants to tryst with him before undergoing treatment.

Since last we saw Beth she had fallen into a depression and had confessed her infidelity to her husband. Her appalling husband was sending her to a psychiatric clinic to have, as the show put it, “her memory erased.” She has had the treatment before, suggesting that her life as Howard's wife is less than happy.

In 1966 electroshock was an accepted treatment for depression. It was done on an inpatient and an outpatient basis. While the treatment produced some memory loss, the show’s contention that Beth would have had her “memory erased” was simply inaccurate.

Yet, the image of a woman without memory presents yet another version of the phantom wife.

When Pete Campbell visits Beth after her first treatment, she does not remember who he is. So Pete talks of their affair as though it had happened to someone else. He adds that he has discovered that his own marriage is more phantom than real.

The only woman in this episode who seems to be functioning as something resembling a wife is Trudy Campbell.

But now that the Pete has revealed his liaison with Beth to Howard, Trudy is the only one who is in the dark, who is living in a fiction about her marriage.

After Pete gets himself beaten up by Howard and the train’s conductor, he arrives home to tell Trudy that he had fallen asleep driving home from the train station and drove his car into a ditch.

Dutiful wife that she is, Trudy suggests that Pete should rent his own apartment in Manhattan, the better to avoid the dangers of commuting.

Trudy Campbell is the only functioning wife in the show, but, as a wife, her days seem to be numbered. Her wifedom is more phantom than real.

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