Mad Men – ‘Meditations in an Emergency’

AMC’s Emmy Award winning Mad Men wrapped up its sophomore season on Sunday night with the brilliant ‘Meditations in an Emergency’. The episode not only dealt gracefully with some of the major story arcs of the season, but set up a few more for the recently confirmed third season.

Set in the midst of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the episode is cloaked with a sense of fear and urgency; and it is this fear and urgency that propels much of the story. Don returns from LA ready to do what he can to save his marriage, and I truly mean what he can; his version of an apology to his wife for his infidelity – “I was not respectful to you,” – wouldn’t fly with me, but it is clear that it’s a big step for him as he stands hat in hand before Betty. Don’s timing of his apology though is unbeknownst to him un-inspired; Betty has just finished a horse riding session she hopes may take care of her recently discovered state of pregnancy. She isn’t ready to deal with the crisis of her marriage, she is already dealing with the crisis of her unwanted baby. I can’t help but wonder if the look of surprise, of lost breath on Betty’s face as she sees Don, is more to do with guilt over what she was hoping to achieve at the stables that day, than of any sense of feelings she still may have for Don.

At Sterling Cooper, Don learns the happenings of the past few weeks with the merger with Putnam Powell and Lowe, and the little over half million dollars he will take home from the deal, “Best vacation you ever took,” Roger informs Don. Peggy is becoming more confident with her position in the office, as evidenced by her new hair, her sexier and more form fitting clothes, and her demeanour with the other employees. She greets Don as a fellow colleague, and not as a former secretary, “Don…you look well, how was California?” “Sunny…do I work for you now?” he replies with a smile.  The developing working relationship between Don and Peggy is increasingly rewarding, ever since the mesmerising flashback scene between the two of them in the psychiatric ward earlier this season, there has been a knowing understanding between the characters; they both know there are great heartaches in their pasts, and it is enough to know they exist, without needing to know what they are.

Later, Peggy attends a church service with her mother where the theme is most certainly doom and gloom. Father Gill urges all parishioners to confess their sins, and prepare “for the most important summit meeting of all”. Later he lectures Peggy, “Don’t you understand? That this could be the end of the world and you could go to Hell”. Peggy, unsure of her faith, informs Father Gill that she refuses to believe that that is the way God works.

Betty takes the children to spend the night with Don at his hotel room, and then heads to a bar for a drink. Though, its clear drinking isn’t the only thing on her mind. After sleeping with a Don look-a-like stranger (played with charisma by Chuck‘s Captain Awesome, Ryan McPartlin) in a dimly lit back office of the bar, Betty returns home to her silent, empty house to eat leftovers cold from the fridge. Her sense of isolation, of desperation and fear is palpable, yet there is not an iota of any sense of remorse.

Betty’s infidelity is complex; although she is clearly unhappy and heartbroken over the state of her marriage, her actions are deliberate and calculated. It is the culmination of a season long seduction with the idea – she has flirted with several men – a reaction to her place in the world: the dutiful wife who accepts that men have affairs. Except that Betty wasn’t buying it. The casual sex is a tool to her, a way that she could take Don back and reunite the family without feeling so powerless. Don’s actions hurt her, but she knows that what she did would hurt him more. It was a power play, Don’s now living on her terms.

Back at Sterling Cooper, the final meeting to discuss the outcome of the merger between Putnam Powell and Lowe is taking place. Duck Philips pretends to be surprised when he is announced head of the company, and proceeds to sprout his beliefs that quantity outweighs the need for good creative, “there’s no need for us to be tied to creative’s fantasies of persuasion”. Don informs them all that it sounds like a great agency, and Duck is certainly the man to run it, but if it means creative will be compromised, he will no longer be working there. “This is what I am talking about, artistic temperament”, Duck replies, “Don, you can either honour your contract, or walk out that door with nothing and start selling insurance”. The look on Duck’s face when Don replies nonchalantly “I don’t have a contract” – undercutting his assumption of a non-compete clause –  is priceless. I have a feeling we won’t be seeing much of Duck next season.

With the office almost empty, Pete decides out of fear of there not being a tomorrow, to tell Peggy how he truly feels. He loves her and he wants to be with her. Father Gill’s lecture obviously got the better of Peggy, for she decides to tell Pete the truth: That she had his child and gave it away. Peggy’s new found confidence tinged with heartache is spellbinding in this scene as she tells him “I could have had you in my life forever if I wanted to…I could have shamed you in to being with me, but I didn’t want to, I wanted other things”. Peggy’s situation is glaringly juxtaposed against Betty’s, and becomes even more heartbreakingly clear when Peggy continues to tell Pete,

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 realise, it’s just gone.

Peggy could be referring to the loss of the baby, the guilt she may feel over giving it away, that something is missing inside of her. I however, believe that she is referring to the birth of the baby, and the loss of freedom and sense of self that she felt during that time, something she feels guilt over till this day. This is clearly the emotion that Betty feels, the desperation of a lonely housewife.

While Betty was out satisfying her need for power over Don, he was back at his hotel trying to win her back the way he knows best, with words. “I understand why you feel its better to go on without me, and I know you won’t be alone for very long, but without you, I’ll be alone forever”. The letter accompanied by the fear of nuclear war and her acceptance that a baby is on the way despite her efforts, lead Betty to ask Don to come home. In the final scene, Betty confesses her pregnancy to Don, he takes her hand in silent solidarity with acceptance of what their future holds and in the knowledge that this is partly why Betty asked him back. The camera pans out on the two of them sitting silently in the kitchen and we are left with a sense of almost sorrow, of apprehension and uncertainty for where their relationship is.

It was an amazing end to an already fantastic season. I would have liked to have seen some sort of acknowledgment of Joan’s rape in the previous episode, but I am not surprised we didn’t. I doubt unwanted sex with your fiancee was even considered rape in 1962, rather something a woman was obliged to do. I was also pleasantly surprised by the scene between Peggy and Pete, I truly didn’t think she would ever tell him about the baby, but obviously her character development this season brought her to a place where she had the confidence and maturity to do so. Elisabeth Moss’s performance was stellar as usual, she really is remarkable, and January Jones also did some of her best work this week, Betty’s desperation and fear coupled with a calculated coolness leapt from the screen. Of course, Jon Hamm is always fantastic. I can’t believe we have to wait another year for more of this brilliant show. If you’ve never seen Mad Men, you really are missing out. Hopefully my thoughts will prompt you to find it and devour it. It really is worthy of its Emmy Awards title of Best Drama.