SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, load up your Kodak Carousel and watch the Mad Men season finale.
There is something in people that loves persuasion, yet knows to fear it. Maybe that’s why it’s the devil’s greatest power, not fire or magic. Eat this fruit. Cast yourself on these stones. And Don Draper: what a persuasive devil. That carousel speech–if there is any justice, it’s Jon Hamm’s Emmy clip–was not just a sales pitch. It was a display of emotional weaponry. “It’s not called a wheel. It’s called a carousel. … It’s not a spaceship. It’s a time machine. … It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.” Damn. Not many shows could have gotten away with having one of their own characters moved to tears by the speech, as Harry was, but Don (and Hamm) obviously knocked it out of the park.
But just as the showmaker’s children go barefoot, the persuader’s wife goes unpersuaded. Betty finally voiced her suspicions about Don, but while Francine’s cheating husband and Don’s secret calls to her shrink helped push her, it was Don’s own words that sealed the deal: “Who knows why people do what they do?” That’s basically Don’s self-exculpatory philosophy of life, and, as a response to Francine’s story–and Betty’s implied cry for reassurance–it made a pretty lousy sales pitch.
Betty’s response was marvelously handled, from sending a message to Don through her treacherous psychiatrist to her breakdown in from of Helen’s son in the parking lot. People have been describing Betty as “childlike” emotionally, both because of her connection with Helen’s boy and, maybe, because they too easily agreed with the doctor’s assessment of her. But the parking-lot scene, contrasting her with an actual child, showed that that’s an oversimplification. Betty wishes she could be a child, wishes she could wipe the slate clean, and doesn’t feel she has anyone to talk to in the compromised world of adults, but she’s too far gone to see the world the way Glen does. (Speaking of which, his inarticulate dialogue, trying to keep up in a conversation that he knows is over his head, is perfect, reminding us what a child he really is: “I don’t really know how long 20 minutes is.”)
So Betty isn’t convinced by Don. But Don is, hearing in his own sales spiel and seeing in his family photos what he won’t hear from his wife: “He doesn’t know what family is.” He heads home on the train, with the desperate fantasy of swooping in and coming along on the Thanksgiving trip at the last minute. Instead, this fantastic season ends quietly, with Don sitting at the foot of the stairs–the site of his first flashback to his childhood–alone, the persuader persuaded, just a little too late.
Well, the season ended quietly for Don. For Peggy–wow. It started with a bang and ended with a wail.
Let’s save the baby bombshell for last. First: how amazing was she finding her voice and her confidence in that recording booth? A dog playing the piano indeed: She banged out Rachmaninoff’s Third there. One of the many beauties of this story is that, even though Peggy is clearly and realistically fighting to make it in a man’s world, Matthew Weiner hasn’t made her into a feminist saint. What she demonstrated–in her first assignment and here, brutally managing the voice talent–is that she can manipulate her own gender better than the boys can. (Incidentally: anyone think they’re foreshadowing a future relationship with Ken Cosgrove?)
So she proves herself by preying on another woman’s insecurity. So she moves up in the company partly because Don wants to stick it to Pete by putting her on the Clearasil account (which Pete’s daddy-in-law gave him as a stud fee). So what? Saving the world and womankind is great, but it’s hard enough sometimes to save yourself. And when Don handed Peggy her promotion to junior copywriter, it was a fist-pumping, thrilling moment, because we were cheering, not just for some abstract historical-social justice, but for Peggy, a flawed person we’ve come to love. Because that’s the kind of show this is.
And then a baby. A baby! I watched the episode twice. The first time, I thought this was a huge mistake. The second time I didn’t, but I still wonder if it could have been handled better. I mean, it certainly explained the foreshadowing weight gain. It raised the dramatic stakes and will give Peggy one more hard choice to make just as she’s gotten what she wanted at work. If Mad Men is, in part, a show about the past that’s about today, this is about as stark an example of the “work-life balance” issue as you can get. And it definitely makes me all the more anxious to see season two.
Still, couldn’t they have achieved the same thing by having Peggy find out she was a few months pregnant? You’d still have the obvious, creepy connection back to Pete. (I don’t recall when their couch hookup was, but certainly Weiner could have engineered the timeline to make it work.) You’d still have her newly promoted, facing the decision of whether to keep it. (Although, please God, I hope this wasn’t yet another example of a TV show doing anything to avoid a woman character having an abortion. I expect better of Mad Men.) You have the same stakes and drama, without a Ripley’s Believe It or Not twist to knock us out of the story.
Before you say it: Yes, I know has really happened. (Often, it seems to women far bigger than Peggy.) I’m not a doctor, but I’ve Googled some examples. But you know what? Lots of things “have really happened.” It’s a big world and mankind is two million years old. The fact is that, on top of Don’s fortuitous combat identity switch, this is maybe one possible-but-freakish event too many. Put it another way: while I have no doubt that it was entirely medically possible, having to think about that–wondering about Peggy’s menstrual cycle, her contraception, her weight gain, whether she would ever have felt a fetus kicking–gets me thinking like Peggy’s OB/GYN instead of thinking about Peggy the person, and I don’t see, as they say in the ad biz, the benefit.
That said, this episode, and this season, and Elisabeth Moss’s performance, have all been so great that I doubt this will bother me for long. There’s a baby now, a parallel to Don, the “baby in a basket” (maybe she’ll name it Moses!) and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
And you know, it’s an appropriate enough metaphor for this show. It came out of nowhere from AMC, when nobody knew to expect it–“It’s not possible!”–fully formed and kicking, a strange and surprising new creature. I’m keeping it.