“You Only Live Twice”, Nancy Sinatra
The Phantom, Season 5 Episode 13
Looking back on each season of Mad Men, and the show as a whole, it’s clear that the series is constructed as a journey of evolution and self-improvement, on a personal and a (still ongoing) national level. It tells us that one can always progress, or failing that, start over. The complicated people we come to know don’t just live one life, in a sense: They shift through many from year to year, compartmentalizing their personalities depending on their situation and their company. They lie to themselves and to others, face obstacles and persevere, much the same flawed organism, but having grown in some way. Realistically, however, this journey is never complete. There’s always some new opportunity ahead, and a residual emptiness being gradually filled.
The characters make this fitful development in a variety of arenas: work, interpersonal contact, fashion, home and family life, and above all, love. These people romantically collide, latching on to others as a cure for their flaws or a way to embrace different sides of themselves. It could be a status symbol, a source of financial stability, puppy love, or just a hedonistic fling. This eminently relatable need for connection and longing for meaning is present throughout the series, and serves as a tantalizing question mark to the episode The Phantom.
This climax is my favorite scene in television history. Its dazzling presentation suggests that, contrary to the metaphysical puzzle the song seems to present, the emotional subtext hinges on love rather than living. Although it is fun to interpret when and where every character started their ‘second life’, after a season where the shadow of death was always around the corner.
In fact, reinvention and rebirth are among the most common plot devices on Mad Men. The ad agency constantly rebrands and relocates. The characters stumble into and out of relationships, marriages and job titles, redefining their outlook and behavior amidst rapidly changing cultural norms. Sometimes the writers even spell it out: the main character literally began a new life that was someone else’s! Mad Men makes it evident that no matter how often you start over and forge a new persona, there will always be the regret of what could have been and the echoes of what was. This sequence revels in that melancholy way of thinking.
I’m still finding brilliant takes on all the hefty implications packed into this piece of art. Peggy is overjoyed on her first business trip, but repelled slightly by the crude lovemaking right outside her window, having temporarily sacrificed romance for work. The freshly single Roger is open and welcoming, naked as a newborn child and high as a kite, yet with a twinge of loss in his eyes. We get a rare unvarnished look at family man Pete’s true dissatisfaction and loneliness, accompanied by his suburban accessories in sorrow after this new life chapter fizzled out due to his own inadequacy.
Of course, Don ends up in a bar, poised to repeat the cycle of abuse and deception that his life has become, after a year of changing for the better. Betty and Lane are unseen in this episode but still present in the viewer’s mind for their significance to the season. She, the one who braced for death and lashed out at others, but matured as a spouse and parent at the other end. He, the one who only lived twice, in London and New York, and died torn in between. Then there’s Joan, who appears earlier in the hour looking out toward a better future, having cut ties and compromised herself for it in several ways. Megan reinvented herself this season too, leaving behind a world she excelled in but which never quite suited her. And finally we have Sally, going through life’s seasons from a child’s lowly status to the concerns and respect of a grown adult.
So certainly, all these people have lived a particular way and had that self metaphorically perish at least once. But once I wore out that unbelievably rich thread of nuance in the lyrics, I realized that this was just one line of the climactic song. That level of polish and detail is what makes this musical sequence TV perfection. There are plenty of other revelations, like the way everyone has realized their ambitions but forfeited something else to balance the scales. They applied themselves and perhaps stretched too thin, neglecting other opportunities which withered away – the life not lived.
I should say that for all the thematic weight this passage carries, it wouldn’t have half the resonance if the scene wasn’t such a pleasure to watch. It’s kicked off by that excellently rousing and jarring dolly shot of Don striding forward with his current romance already receding like a staged fairly tale, which is immediately recognizable as a stark stylistic departure. The pacing is perfect, establishing the gist of the tune while saving the most devastating line for the last shot. The director, Matthew Weiner, steals a glance at each character while editing and embellishing the song’s mix for maximum effect. His camera evenly pans across everyone, tying them all together in their bittersweet desperation.
Overall, the ending of season five is propelled to my favorite moment of Mad Men because of this song, sung by Nancy Sinatra. First of all, it is absolutely gorgeous. The acid-tinged guitar and bombastic orchestration is so timelessly retro, if that makes sense, and the harmonious vocal performance is suggestive yet rueful. Considering the cinematic source of the track, it also opens up very apt and numerous associations between Don and James Bond, another 1960s icon from across the Atlantic. I had never heard the tune before this, and now it’s among my favorite songs ever. (Anecdote: I was having trouble figuring out what the melody was over this seemingly prosaic montage, and then right after the credits rolled, I heard the title and everything instantly fell into place. I was stunned, and may have possibly applauded right there.)
I’m a sucker for a well-executed smash cut and clever final line, and this episode has the crown jewel of both. After thirteen hours that yearned for better and a year that changed everything, looking flashy but dropping bad omens the whole time, the world Don and SCDP knew is subtly, gradually yanked out from beneath them in one tiny exchange over drinks. And isn’t that how it always happens? That sudden panic, the sinking feeling in your gut, the last damning detail you overlooked? Despite his freedom, respect and power, Don has nothing lasting. No romance, no true companionship, no meaningful connection to the world.
The final shot of The Phantom just may be his sobering moment of realization, and by proxy, the show’s. These characters have become successful, they have bargained and persevered and eaten White Castle, but the one thing they all needed has eluded them. And they sit in separate locations, alone in the frame, suppressing that nagging emptiness with friends and music and work and drugs, as one does, unsure of what to do next. This is Mad Men depicting the Sixties in a nutshell, the famed Summer of Love on the horizon – and yet in this quiet epilogue, there’s none of it around. Nancy Sinatra beautifully concludes a season about existential despair by suggesting that, after all the different lives you’ve led and lost, when your dreams come true at too steep a price, love is the mysterious thing holding your life together, maybe the one thing you haven’t paid enough attention to. But someday, it’ll hit you.
Are you alone?