SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers for Mad Men coming up—right now! Because I haven’t figured out yet how to do a jump page in the new blog platform. [Update: Fixed it!] So climb into your bomb shelter and watch the season finale of Mad Men if you haven’t already.
Last week I’d wonder how Mad Men was going to manage to resolve, or even return to, all the plotlines it was dealing with in that episode. The season finale, “Meditations in an Emergency,” handled that the right way: it didn’t. It resolved a few things, visited a few others, and left still others lying. Which is as it should be. Mad Men is on its own schedule, and at this point it’s earned our trust that it will do what it needs to when the time is right.
First of all, the Sterling Coop storyline. Seeing Duck melt down at the table—after wrongly assuming Don has a noncompete clause and finding out he didn’t even have a contract—wasn’t quite as satisfying as Don Bert Cooper shutting down Pete’s attempted blackmail last year, but the suddenness and finality of it caught me off guard, in a good way. A sticky wicket indeed.
The entire episode was framed, as signs had long pointed toward, by the Cuban Missile Crisis. To the show’s credit, it had several opportunities to do the TV thing—to have characters resolve their personal crises by contemplating their imminent death; I was afraid we’d see Betty run back to Don under the threat of the missiles, people hooking up and confessing love, etc.
Well, we did see people hook up and confess love, but not with the results you might think. Betty hooked up with an anonymous man in a bar, not exactly getting even with Don or even becoming like him (where Don tends to have affairs that become relationships, Betty didn’t even give her name). And yet it was Don who ran back to her. Pete told Peggy he loved her, only for her to tell him about his baby, by way of telling him that she’d already had the chance to be with him and passed it up.
The crisis was not a deus ex machina that caused people to change their lives. As crises do, it just caused them to live their lives, the way they have been or the way they might have anyway, but more intensely so. Don came back from California to witness his own metaphorical death: he has been gone for weeks, but life has gone on. The guys in the office divide their anxieties equally between the Russkies and the British, displacing their anxiety onto the coming merger. (Or is it the other way around?) Peggy affirms her decision—while in a marvelous monologue, recognizing how she has changed—but getting her confession with Pete, not in the church. (“One day you’re there, and then all of a sudden there’s less of you.”)
[Update: As long as I’m gushing praise, though, one quibble. It seemed like part of the reason for this scene was to build up to the “reveal” that Peggy had given up her baby; i.e., that the baby boy her sister was raising was not in fact Peggy’s. That whole mystery seemed like a pointless red herring for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not really a bombshell for Peggy to announce that she’d given up the baby; even if her sister was raising it, her attitude toward the boy—uncomfortable at best—would have been proof that, “Aunt Peggy” or not, she had still given up the baby for all emotional purposes. Second, as Maureen Ryan points out, the earlier reference to the baby—”Say goodnight to him“—was purposely misleading, since we now know there was no real reason for Sis to single out the youngest baby. I’m starting to think that Matthew Weiner’s need to write in mysteries and twists into Mad Men is compensation for the fact that Mad Men is not like The Sopranos; that is, no one is going to get whacked, so there needs to be a compensating popcorn element to get viewers hooked. It doesn’t seriously affect the show for me, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Update of update: In the comments, orla7 notes that the show did already allude to Peggy’s sister’s pregnancy, so the mystery was cleared up indirectly earlier, at least to those more attentive than I. But I still feel the same about the show’s playing it coy about Peggy’s baby to begin with.]
That may have been the single best scene the entire season, not simply for how well Moss handled the revelation, but for showing how well the series has humanized Pete. Who would have thought a year ago that we would actually feel bad for him in a situation like this? And who would have thought we’d seen him take Don’s side in a showdown with Duck? The great thing about Pete’s change is that it feels earned, through difficulty. In this episode, Duck wants to reward him for his “character” in the American Airlines pitch, when Pete was actually rudderless and went against his better instincts (largely because Don wasn’t around to counsel him). Instead Pete backs Don, who finally praises him as being ready because he earned his responsibility the hard way. The big change in Pete is not that he’s earned his accomplishment rather than get it the easy way. The big change is that he’s actually able to recognize a difference between the two, and to prefer being recognized for the latter.
Finally, Betty (who was indeed pregnant, as some of our commenters guessed) takes Don back into her house, but not necessarily into her heart. After last week’s disorienting episode, Don returns confident in the office and if not confident at home, at least determined. He knows the pitch he needs to make. Until now, he’s been trying to win his way back home as Don Draper: swearing he is and will be a good husband, asserting that the kids need him, and above all, denying, denying, denying. But to find his way back, he had to return to being Dick Whitman, at least in part, by going to California and re-confronting his whole identity. Returned, he drops his shell and admits that he has been “disrespectful” to Betty, while confessing how badly he needs her, not the other way around. To become a successful person, he needs to find a way to merge Don and Dick; maybe this is a step toward that.
Meanwhile, the open question is whether Betty took Don back because something has changed in him or because something has changed in her. In the closing tableau—recalling Don’s returning home, alone, at Thanksgiving at the end of last season—Don gazes at Betty with love in his eyes. She stares back with… something else. What, exactly? Tune in next year.