Spoilers for the "Mad Men" season two finale coming up just as soon as I order room service...
"Well, one day you're there, and then all of a sudden, there's less of you, and you wonder where that part went, if it's living somewhere outside of you, and you keep thinking maybe you'll get it back, and then you realize it's just gone." -Peggy
As the wondrous second season of "Mad Men" comes to an end, it's October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis is underway, and as far as the men and women in the orbit of Sterling Cooper know, the world could be coming to an end at any moment. And that sense of impending doom shocks all of our major characters out of their comfort zones, forcing them to do or say things they might never have considered if there wasn't a chance that bombs could start dropping. And in their words and deeds, they acknowledge that they've had to leave a part of themselves behind -- sometimes a very large part -- to become the person they are right here, right now, waiting and wondering about the nukes.
This is a show about Don Draper, and this season has been predominantly about the Draper marriage, but I want to start off by talking about Peggy. If there's a moment from the finale that's going to haunt my dreams in the same way that Don's Kodak sales pitch did last year, it's Peggy and Pete alone in his office, Pete trying to sincerely profess his love for Peggy and Peggy shutting him down by telling him (and us) the truth about their baby.
What an amazing scene, so expertly-played by Elisabeth Moss and Vincent Kartheiser. I've given them both a hard time in the past -- Moss for sometimes (mostly last year) being a little too inscrutable even by "Mad Men" standards, Kartheiser for trying too hard to seem like a man of 1962 (though, as I said in my "Flight 1" review, that approach really fits the way Pete's been written as an artificial human). But both were note-perfect here.
Pete has, shockingly, grown up over the course of this season, to the point that when Don praises his maturity, we realize that he's not just shining him on to cover for bailing on the rocket fair. And Peggy and Pete of them have gone from dysfunctional lovers to genuine creative partners, maybe even each other's best friend in that office. The Pete trying to tell Peggy he loved her isn't the petulant child who told her he didn't like to see her happy; he's a man who, though his motives and timing may be suspect, has realized just how much he really cares about this woman. Pete is human around Peggy in that scene, in a way he's never been before -- not play-acting, not taking his behavioral cues from the other men around him, just a happy version of Peter Dyckman Campbell -- and so when Peggy finally takes Father Gill's advice (in spirit, if not in letter) and confesses her sin, it broke my heart almost as much as it did Pete's. When Pete first bought that rifle last season (using the money he got from returning the Chip 'N Dip), it was funny, a symbol of Pete battling his own emasculation. But watching him there in his office at the end, sitting in the dark, wondering if Armageddon is coming, clutching that rifle (and understanding again that his own equipment does not shoot blanks), the gun was no longer a joke -- and neither was Pete.
As for Elisabeth Moss... wow. Maybe Peggy was in denial at the moment she gave birth, maybe even in the weeks to come, but what she makes clear in that speech is that the Peggy of 1962 knows exactly who she is, and what she did to get there. She has no illusions about abandoning that baby, but also no regrets. And what's amazing about Moss in that scene is watching Peggy's mood change as she delivers the news to Pete. At first, she's simply trying to shut down Pete's advances once and for all -- and to unburden herself from the secret -- but as she talks, and especially as she sees the hurt and confusion on Pete's face, she begins to realize what a cruel thing she's just done. Pete didn't need to know -- Peggy is now assured enough personally and professionally that she could have fended off his passes forever and a day -- and though she feels much better for telling the truth, she realizes that some secrets are better off being kept.
In our post-season post-mortem interview, Matthew Weiner said that Peggy isn't literally referring to the baby in the quote at the top of this review. Peggy, as Don's protege, had to give up more than the baby to become the independent career woman she is at the end of this season. She had to give up her innocence, and some of her compassion, and many of the other qualities that defined her when we met her back in the pilot. In most ways, Peggy's station in life has been vastly improved. But just as we saw how at peace Don was as Dick Whitman during his trip to San Pedro last week, and how much he had to sacrifice along the way to his Coupe de Ville, in that speech Peggy is recognizing the cost of her own success.
And what's interesting about Don's return to New York is the way that he seems to be integrating his two personas. The man we see in "Meditations in an Emergency" isn't the cold bastard who reacted so cruelly to seeing Betty "flirt" with Roger Sterling (Don Draper), nor is he the coward who told Rachel Menken he wanted to run away with her (Dick Whitman). He was, at least for this hour, during this crisis in both the world and in his own personal life, an amalgamation of the best qualities of the two: able to stare down Duck Phillips' power play but also be so warm around Peggy and Joan and even Pete, pleased just to be in a moment with the kids, fessing up to the truth (at least, as much as Betty wanted to hear) about his affairs, being as open and vulnerable about his feelings for his wife as he could. If Don and Betty are going to have a chance together -- and I feel like the final shot suggests they will -- then he doesn't necessarily have to tell her all about his true identity, but he has to be more honest in some way. He seems off to a good start.
It was another tour de force by Jon Hamm (I don't know that I'll ever get tired of watching the moment, screencapped at the top of this post, where Don finds out that Betty's pregnant and so many emotions wash over his face) in a season where he somehow topped the brilliant work he did last year.
Now, the reconciliation was helped along by another end-of-the-world piece of news for Betty, as the odd "Mommy, you're bleeding" moment from last week was explained as spotting in the early stages of pregnancy. I lost count of the number of times Betty plainly tried to explain that this was not a good time for her to have another child, and between those declarations and her attempts to force a miscarriage through horse riding, I didn't feel particularly confident for the possibility of a third Draper child. But between Don's return, his repeated apologies, and -- perhaps most importantly -- Betty finally giving in to her season-long desire to see what adultery is like and to have a sexual secret of her own to keep from Don, Betty eventually found herself willing to take Don back, and apparently to see this pregnancy through.
I don't know what a pie chart of Betty's reasons would look like -- 50 percent baby, 30 percent Don's apologies, 20 percent anonymous sex in a bar manager's office? -- but whatever the proportions were, the Drapers are back together. Where last season ended with Don finally wanting to do right by Betty, it didn't take (Weiner expands on exactly what went down in the interview), because he hadn't examined himself as thoroughly as he did this year, and because Betty hadn't openly confronted him about his cheating. Last year ended with Don alone; this one ended with Don holding his wife's hand. If Weiner's right that Betty went through adolescence this year and came out the other side a grown-up, then maybe we come back in season three to find a relatively healthy, much more mature Draper marriage.
Don's return from California also found him having to repair the state of his professional life, though not in nearly the apologetic manner he applied to his marriage. It's funny how we all thought that Don going walkabout would blow up in his face at work, when instead it saved him. It created a situation where he had to pay several big (and, again, sincere) compliments to Pete -- giving Pete the affirmation he's been waiting the entire series to hear from Don -- and that in turn inspired Pete to give Don fair warning about Duck's power play.
We learned last year in "Shoot" that Don insists on working without a contract (the better to suit his inner hobo), and we were reminded of this by Roger earlier this year in "Six Month Leave." So when Duck made it clear to Pete that his entire plan to get Don in line hinged on the non-compete clause in this non-existent contract, it was obvious how things would play out. But it was still a pleasure to watch his face fall when Don calmly informed St. John Powell what was what. It's not that Duck was a two-dimensional villain who deserved this defeat. We'd learned a lot about him that made him more sympathetic, and whatever his reasons for engineering the merger, he was absolutely right when he told Powell and company that he put all that work in while Don was off on holiday for three weeks. I just have enjoyed Mark Moses' work so much this season, particularly in the second half as Weiner started to peel Duck's onion, that I was glad to see him get one final acting showcase before he's presumably written off the series.
Whoever is in charge of the newly-merged Sterling Cooper when the show returns -- and would Don even want that job if offered? -- we're in a very interesting place going into next season, whenever it will be set. (The most Weiner would commit to is that he doesn't want to deal directly with the JFK assassination, but then he also said he might have it take place during that season, just as in the background as possible.) Don is back with Betty and committed to making a more sincere go of it than last time. Duck is likely gone, Pete may yet get the head of accounts job, Sterling Cooper is now part of a larger machine and can work on a bigger stage, and no matter when season three takes place, we'll be heading deeper and deeper into the period that we actually think of as the '60s, rather than the chronological decade.
I can't wait. Can you?
Some other thoughts on "Meditations in an Emergency":
• One of my favorite small touches of the hour, meticulously set up over the previous two episodes: Don is the only guy in the office to immediately recognize that Peggy got a new haircut, and Peggy is so pleased by her mentor's attentiveness that she smooths her dress after he walks away. Almost as funny: Peggy's slightly defensive tone whenever she mentions the Popsicle account as justification for getting the office. ("Popsicle" is just a funny word.)
• One nice thing they can do with the period setting is to show Don returning to Betty with hat literally in hand.
• I had to fight very hard not to make some kind of Captain Awesome joke in the subject line. For those of you who don't watch NBC's "Chuck" (not remotely as deep as "Mad Men" but easily the most fun show on television right now), Betty's anonymous paramour was played by Ryan McPartlin, whose "Chuck" alter ego has been nicknamed Captain Awesome because... geez, look at the guy. And start watching "Chuck." Immediately.
• In the Weiner interview, we talk about how frequently we see characters lie about things where we got to see what really went down. Tonight, it was Roger trying to play to Don like he didn't want to do the merger and had to be talked into it by the Cooper siblings.
• After disappearing once Don kicked her off his desk in episode three, Lois resurfaces from switchboard purgatory to fill in the chipmunks on what's happening with the merger. Which circumstance do you think will lead to more misery for all involved: the chipmunks going back on their word and leaving Lois on the switchboard, or one of them attempting to make her into a secretary again?
• It's amazing how much I've grown to hate Harry this year, after he was arguably the most likable of the chipmunks last year. Where the other guys are cruder and far more abrasive around women, they at least seem good at their jobs, which is the real mark of status on "Mad Men," and they're at least somewhat politically aware. Harry just has his head in the sand, not caring about anything but what directly affects his fiefdom; the Cuban Missile Crisis only annoys him because it means "The Lucy Show" won't air in pattern. Perhaps the best (and funniest) example of his myopia: his panic at seeing that there are canapes ("Good ones!") in the office fridge for the meeting with P,P&L.
• Apropos of nothing, my daughter loves the "Dwayne the bathtub" knock knock joke that Sally tells to Don. As my daughter's five, I'm wondering how long I have to wait before I can show this episode to her, and whether she'll remember her love of the joke by then.
• In what I'm assuming will be Colin Hanks' final appearance, we see that despite his fondness for folk music and unorthodox versions of Grace, Father Gill still believes deeply in Church dogma, to the point where he feels he has to scare Peggy into confessing her sins before the end of the world comes. And after assuming all season that Peggy was agnostic at best -- just went to mass to appease her mother -- we see her cross herself before going to sleep. As she says to Father Gill, she believes in God -- she just doesn't believe that He is as strict and judgmental as Gill kept insisting He would be.
• Betty's moment alone in the Draper kitchen, munching on a chicken leg, worked as a nice bookend to Don alone and swigging milk back in "Maidenform." The key difference is that Betty actually had sex, where Don's alone with the milk bottle because Bobbie was busy and he doesn't have anything better to do.
Finally, as we come to the end of another season of "Mad Men," I want to thank you all for both the quantity and quality of your comments each week. I thought that nothing would top the interest and level of discourse that I got for my "Sopranos" posts, and then for my "Wire" reviews, and yet you people have been bringing it, week after week, to analyze every small point in the Sterling Cooper universe. It's been a pleasure to read so much articulate, enthusiastic fan response; this kind of the show is the reason I do this blog.
When you have an hour or so to set aside (and that's only a slight exaggeration), I highly recommend reading the Matt Weiner interview. Even in the course of a 90-minute interview, we couldn't touch on every detail of the season (I would have loved to get some of his thoughts on Salvatore's marriage and his reaction to Kurt's coming out party), but we go through a whole lot in there, including Weiner (who isn't currently under contract) expressing his desire to stick with the series for a very long time.
What did everybody else think?