Mad Men

Mad Men Roundtable: Season Two, Episode 13 – “Meditations in an Emergency”:

The season finale of Mad Men was, in many ways, an exercise in frustration. That’s not to say it was poorly executed, by any means. It’s just that, after the supporting cast all had their own storylines this season, they were left open come the end. Sal, Harry, and Paul were all relegated to fretting about the merger, with no resolution to their arcs. Joan, after last week’s horrific outing, has two scenes and talks only to Don. Jane the secretary was nowhere to be seen, and even Roger’s screen time kept to a minimum. Of course, this refocused the season on the major players (The Drapers, Pete, and Peggy), and in a way, left the viewer with some of the uncertainty the characters themselves were going through as the episode ended. True, Roger’s divorce and Pete spending the night cradling his rifle don’t actually compare to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it’s enough to keep us unbalanced.

By the way, last season, Atlas Shrugged was the key reference for the finale. This season, based on the episode title and the number of episodes in which it’s appeared, I wonder if this season’s key is Meditations in an Emergency, which I haven’t actually read. I’ve already placed my order, though.

Well, Betty’s bleeding wasn’t a miscarriage as I thought, but actually an indicator that she’s pregnant. This pregnancy is not exactly met with joy, though. After the doctor tells her she can’t ride anymore, Betty can’t get on horseback fast enough. Betty’s behavior in this episode is sort of a tutorial on things not to do when pregnant. Ride a horse, smoke, drink, have sex with strangers. I don’t know if people were really aware that pregnant women shouldn’t smoke and drink vodka back in 1962, but it’s pretty jarring to see in this day and age.

And what are we to make of Betty’s hookup? She’s flirted with this sort of thing all season – remember her fascination at finding out her old friend was an escort? She came this close to trading sex for a fan belt early on, and she got as close to an actual affair with Arthur as she could bear before she got cold feet and set up her friend instead. Is there a secret freak in Betty waiting to come out? Is she looking for revenge? Or is it that she knows she can never forgive Don, so she has to commit the same sin to lower herself to his level? There’s no way she’s ever going to tell him about it – it’s not something to be held over his head. She’s actually punishing herself by having sex with Captain Awesome. (My first reaction to the guest appearance was one of pure joy. And then it devolved into pure horror.)

Over on the corporate intrigue front, well, it took me most of the day to realize that Lois the chatty switchboard operator was Don’s former secretary. Nice continuity there. And Roger’s take on the merger was significantly different than what we actually saw. Really Roger? Bert and Alice were sold on it so you just went along with it? Let me check my notes from last week….

Anyway, Don seems to take the merger fairly well at first. No doubt his half-million dollars helps with that. It’s only in the big meeting that we see the old Don Draper come to life. Duck, of course, is a dirtbag. I get the feeling that nobody in the room was terribly excited about his “If we buy up enough TV time, who gives a rip what we fill it with?” plan. Bert was especially horrified, and even Roger seemed a little upset by it. The guys from PP&L didn’t seem impressed, but we don’t really know them enough to get a good read. Two things really stood out from that scene. Don Draper, whatever his flaws (and they are legion), legitimately cares about what he does. He is passionate about advertising, and the creative part of it in particular. I think that he uses these appeals to the heart to make himself into a real person. He doesn’t have the background of familial love and tradition that other people do. (Would he in a million years have known about how a mother splits the popsicle in two?) Don approaches these things with logic, since they’re a foreign concept to him. Creating emotion in others lets him feel like he’s experienced it right along with them. Advertising is the thing that makes it possible for him to be Don Draper.

The other thing I found notable was the way the PP&L execs reacted to Don’s exit. It’s clear that Don is one of the assets that interests them the most. They know full well that Don Draper could take most of their accounts with him. Other than the guys who really like it when Ken pimps for them, nobody’s been terribly interested with Pete and the other account men. It’s the creative angle that sells them, time and time again. Don’s departure could lay waste to Sterling-Cooper, and I think the new bosses know that. You have to love seeing Duck’s one moment of triumph last approximately five seconds. He went from ineffectual to loathsome to ineffectual and loathsome over the course of the season. (Also nice – Roger’s reaction. He was actually smug telling Duck that there wasn’t a contract. Whatever his transgressions, Roger usually ends up on the right side.)

Over on the Pete front, we have a man who, when dealing with his wife, is a robot. He doesn’t even make the slightest attempt to comfort the panicked Trudy. (By the way, they did an excellent job of portraying the confusion and paranoia of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Between the varied reactions of the cast and the background news reports, there’s a shroud of crisis over every scene.) And then, as if in payback for his inability to show his wife any affection, Pete gets put through the wringer. First, he gets the big promotion from Duck, then he gets the validation he’s always wanted from Don. Never mind that Don’s approval actually came as a way for him to avoid giving Pete any information about his sabbatical. That approval was dismissive as can be, and Pete lapped it up, desperate for somebody to like him.

Pete’s so touched, that he spills Duck’s big secret to Don. And watch Pete throughout this scene (Damn, Vincent Kartheiser is good. As much as Pete angers me, it’s such an excellent performance.) – he knows full well that this is not information Duck wants Don to have. He’s tipping Don off, and I think Pete’s bright enough that if Don has the lay of the land going into the meeting, it puts Duck’s plans at risk. Pete is putting the big promotion at risk just for that tiniest glimmer of acceptance. In a way, it’s desperately sad. In another way, it makes Pete seem salvageable.

Speaking of sad, Peggy gets to absolutely devastate him. Now, I don’t believe for one minute that Pete loves Peggy. Or at the very least, love doesn’t motivate his declaration of feelings. We’ve seen how Pete’s a master at finding women at their most vulnerable. And if the dalliance we saw this season was any indication, he probably never sees them again. I think it’s the fact that he sees Peggy every day that makes him confront what it is that he actually does. He saw Peggy gradually fall apart from his treatment of her, which had to eat at him. He may be wormy, but he’s not a monster. But then, Peggy gathered herself and rallied. Keep in mind, all the desperation and sadness we saw this season was in her home life – corporate life has been difficult for her, but she keeps ascending. Maybe Pete looks at her and sees somebody whose life he didn’t ruin. Maybe that’s what he misinterprets as love, the idea that somebody exists who is not worse off for having known him.

Now, I don’t know how plugged in to the office gossip Peggy is at this point. Has Pete’s secretary leaked the talk? And if so, does anybody bother to tell Peggy anything? Without that information, we don’t know exactly how she meant it when she told Pete about the baby. If she knew he and Trudy were trying to adopt, she might have been pressing the red button for a full-out nuclear strike. But if she didn’t know, it was just her way of shutting him down. (It’s not as if Pete’s actually really been decent to her on any kind of regular basis.) And to an extent, it’s something Peggy needed to talk about – she needs to acknowledge that little boy. Whatever her rationale, the response was devastating. In Pete’s mind, his declaration would result in some sort of emotional catharsis for the both of them, and he wouldn’t have to be alone at the end of the world. Not only was that hope dashed, but he finds out that he has a son he will never, ever know. Even for an unsympathetic character, that was hard to watch.

At the end we see Peggy happy in bed, making the sign of the cross. She is the only person happy at the end – and it really seems like church is a positive force for her now. It’s not often that we see Peggy smile when she’s alone, unless she’s wearing the special pants. She alone, out of the entire cast, is at peace. Pete, on the other hand, is in his office, cradling the rifle from last season. It’s a long dark night of the soul for Pete, and only time will tell how he emerges from the other side. And don’t forget Chekhov’s Pistol. The rifle is introduced in Act One and we’re reminded of it in Act Two. Granted, Matthew Weiner’s previous show took great pleasure in setting up the same scenario with a hand grenade and then never paying off, but it feels like that rifle is going to go off in Act Three.

Where does that leave Harry’s baby? (I feel like his behavior at the shower indicated an unannounced miscarriage.) Sal and his wife? Where is there relationship right now? What effect did Paul’s trip South have on him? Can Joan hold up in the face of her engagement to a man who she knows to be a monster? Did Jane count on Roger’s proposal or did it force her into an awkward obligation? We don’t know. We’re heading into the hiatus the same way they’re headed into the longest weekend of their lives. If the world’s still there on Monday, we just might get some answers. Instead, we’re left with questions, the image of a despondent Pete cradling a rifle, and Betty sharing her pregnancy with Don, in the most heartbreaking reaction that I’ve ever seen. Neither of them wants to bring a baby into their relationship right now, and that poor child is going to be a living reminder to the both of them of their infidelity, a snapshot of the absolute worst time in their relationship. Poor kid.

And that’s Season Two, folks. Emmys all around!

If you didn’t see this gem from SNL last weekend, we thought it necessary to share.  See you next season!

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