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‘Mad Men’: Meditations in an emergency

Don290 “Mad Men,” you’ve really put us through the emotional wringer this season, so I suppose it’s appropriate that the last episode of Season 2 left our characters in a nation on the brink of nuclear war. That would be the Cuban missile crisis, and though at first I thought the narrative might be relying too much upon external events to bring this season’s tensions to a boiling point, by the end of the episode I was as somber and as existentially beleaguered as someone in October 1962 might have felt. And the Dow was down only about 300 points on the day I watched the show -– these days, that’s a bull market -– so it wasn’t simply our own current events that were coloring my mood.

Still, a more appropriate title (had the show not been referring back to the Frank O’Hara collection that has made a few appearances this season) for this episode might have been “Confessions in an Emergency.” You know how it is -– a crisis happens; emotions are heightened; proclamations are made; dramatic gestures become the norm. It was a clever way to end the season -– I felt that there was suddenly a great deal happening, but this peak of activity did not cause the show to lose the sense of bleakness that has characterized Season 2.

In addition to the onset of the missile crisis, another catalyst affected events: the return of Don Draper.

He reappears first at the stables, where Betty Draper has finished her ride, which she is doing against doctor’s orders (more on this in a moment). I at first thought this was a dream sequence, though I don’t think “Mad Men” has had any dream sequences thus far. It was only when Don strode back into Sterling Cooper that I believed he was really back. He does not explain his return –- or, rather, he explains it in several unconvincing ways that each effectively serve as a brush-off to whoever is asking. We do learn that he has been gone for three weeks. As a side note, on the day he returns to the office, it is raining heavily, and I assumed this must be because that day in October 1962 in New York must have been stormy, and I appreciated this attention to detail.

Betty is not ready to allow Don to reinsert himself into the Draper household; this is for the reasons she’s held most of the season, but also because she has found out she is pregnant. Deeply unhappy about this, she overtly -– or as overtly as possible for the era -– broaches the subject of abortion with her doctor and Francine. I’ve missed Francine. I assumed she was out for most of the season because the actress, Anne Dudek, was having a baby, but IMDb says that the baby is due in December, so now I’m just confused. What I’m saying is: I’d like to see more of Francine in Season 3. When Don returns, Betty doesn’t mention the pregnancy.

She does drop off the kids to see Don at his room at the Roosevelt, and she strolls off into the Manhattan evening to do some shopping. And then she’s at a bar, ordering a gimlet and having a cigarette. A tall, handsome patron sends her a drink. She tells the bartender to thank the man, and the bartender protectively says that he will, but then the man will come talk to her. This indeed comes to pass –- he tries to connect with Betty over the crisis situation -– but Betty brushes him off. A short while later, however, she leaves her purse and packages at the bar, gives the drink-sender a look, and the next thing we know, they’re having sex in an office near the restrooms. The concerned bartender encounters them walking out of the office, straightening their clothes, and Betty gives him the look of an insouciant vixen who does this sort of thing all the time. And then she goes home and eats a chicken leg out of the refrigerator, recalling the scene earlier in the season when Don, unexpectedly alone on a holiday weekend after Bobbie Barrett cancelled their rendezvous, drank milk from the bottle.

Don sends Betty a note expressing his deep regret and his certainty that while she could easily move on, he would be alone forever without her. Ultimately, this gesture -– plus Betty’s tryst, plus maybe her pregnancy, plus the Cuban missile crisis –- prompts Betty to call the office and have Don come home. When he returned, I feared that he was going to find that she had hanged herself or attempted a perilous at-home abortion or similar, but she was still there. At the end of the episode, she says she has something to tell him, and it’s not clear whether she is going to mention the pregnancy or the tryst, but after a pause she says she’s pregnant. We end the season with Don and Betty somberly holding hands at the kitchen table.

At Sterling Cooper, of course, things are about to change since the Brits are invading. They don’t seem at all troubled that they’re hanging out in New York on the brink of nuclear war. So jolly! Don finds out from Roger that he’s making a half a million dollars, meaning he wouldn’t get a tax cut under an Obama administration. Harry Crane, Ken Cosgrove, Sal Romano and Paul Kinsey sniff that something is going on, and they enjoin Lois (back on the switchboard after her ill-fated stint as Don’s secretary) to tell them what’s happening. Harry is particularly patronizing. Lois divulges that the merger is happening and that there are likely to be some redundancies eliminated, if you know what I mean. In today’s economy, some of you may know that all too well. Duck Phillips tells Pete Campbell about the deal in the works and that he’s going to be president, meaning Pete can take over account services. When Pete asks what this means about Don, Duck is unconcerned.

This should be straightforwardly desirable for Pete, but this episode developed him as a character rather adeptly. When Don returns, Pete, armed with the knowledge of his imminent promotion and, as a result, bolder than usual, asks what happened to him in L.A. Don tells Pete he knew he could handle the clients, and this startles Pete. Don goes further and says that he knows Pete always wants to get what he wants the moment he wants it, but that sometimes he needs to grow into it, and now he has. Really? Pete wants to know. Yes, Don assures him. Don’s approval seems to flip a switch in Pete because later Pete tells him that Duck is going to be the president of the new firm. Why did Duck tell Pete this? Don asks. Pete says that he guesses Duck was just picking sides. And then, turning to go and speaking about the missile crisis, he says that maybe the fact that the U.S. stopped a Russian ship had sent a message to the Russians and made them reconsider. This appears to be a signal to Don about how to play his hand in the merger.

When the Brits from Putnam, Powell & Lowe meet with Roger Sterling, Bert Cooper and Don, they propose that Duck should be the new president. Duck, it should be said, is heavily back on the sauce. At first, it seems to be working for him. Duck accepts the offer, then describes his vision of the new agency going forward –- he’ll bring it into “financial maturity,” and it won’t be an agency that indulges those tempestuous creatives and their “fantasies of persuasion.” Don says it sounds like a great agency -– one that Duck will be just the man to run and one that Don won’t be a part of. When Duck confidently brings up Don’s contract, Don and Roger say that Don doesn’t have a contract, meaning Don isn’t going to be restricted by any non-compete agreements. Whoops. Don strides out. This prompts a rather indecorous tantrum from Duck, who sees Don’s behavior as the classic sort of misbehavior that he was referring to. The Brits ask Duck to leave the room. Once alone with Roger and Bert, one of the Brits mutters something about Duck never being able to hold his liquor. So it looks as if Duck’s career as president of Sterling Cooper was very short-lived, indeed.

Finally, the most intriguing events of this episode involved Peggy Olson. At church with her mother during the missile crisis, Peggy encounters Father Gill, who exhorts her to confess her sins since they might all be meeting their maker a bit sooner than expected. Peggy doesn’t bite, but the message seems to have been delivered, though Peggy’s interpretation ends up taking quite a twist from what Father Gill intended. As the missile crisis heightens, Pete drinks alone at Sterling Cooper, his wife having departed to Delaware with her parents. As Peggy is leaving for the day, Pete invites her into his office and confesses his love for her -- "I want to be with you," he says. She says that she could have had him if she’d wanted -- she could have shamed him into being with her. He’s confused, understandably. “You got me pregnant,” she says. “I had a baby, and I gave it away.” He can’t believe it –- Vincent Kartheiser played this very well, the confusion and anguish -– but Peggy repeats the information. She wanted other things, she says, and she describes a feeling of having shed a piece of herself and realizing it's just gone. She leaves him alone in his office, dismayed and shattered. Later, we see him still sitting in his office, now holding a rifle, while Peggy, at home, climbs into bed, at peace and smiling. That was a nice reversal, and I’m intrigued to see how the characters of Peggy and Pete play out next season. Assuming Pete is still alive.

So there we are –- Don’s back, and he seems to be showing us his good side again. Betty has permitted him to come home. Sterling Cooper is being sold (probably). The world is on the brink of nuclear war. And while we here in the future know that nuclear war didn’t come to pass, we also know that 1963 will bring the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Season 3 should be interesting.

Please weigh in with your observations, corrections and analysis. They have been outstanding, and I look forward to your read on this episode and the season as a whole.

-- Sarah Rogers

(Photo courtesy AMC)

Comments () | Archives (10)

I suspect that the rifle Pete's holding is the one he bought last season with the money he got from the chip-n-dip he returned. It was a sign of Pete's immaturity that he traded in a wedding present to get a gun and Trudy was furious.

It was great to see Anne Dudek back. I thought maybe she'd gotten too busy with other acting jobs after her role on "House."

What is so enthralling about the show is the richness of the writing coupled with the phenomenal skill of the actors. Jon Hamm does so much with nuanced facial expressions. The different look to Don's face when he confronts Betty at the stables, more emotionally open to her than previously, and an equally different look when he returns to Sterling Cooper. He's still very self-controlled, but perhaps not quite as self-contained. That first season super slick persona is showing some battle scars. But still, of course, Don is the master manipulator, when he instinctively manages Pete's attempt at confrontation over his absence, and without even knowing what is at stake, takes an antagonist and turns him into an ally. And of course there is just that hint of the light going on when Don hears the comment that one of the Russian ships has turned back. Which of course leads to Don's triumph at the conference table. Jon Hamm is a remarkable actor, turning note-perfect from one mental state to another on the turn of a dime. Or a half a million dollars! And the writing! Just those little details: Don leaves for home without his briefcase, for example. The previous episode should get him another best actor Emmy, but the pleasure in this episode is having him back in context at home and at Sterling Cooper.

I was under the impression that Pete was was not holding an actual rifle, but the BB gun he exchanged for a wedding gift earlier and was forced to take back to the office once Trudy chided him for being childish. While his state of mind very well could be suicidal, I don't believe the danger is as immediate as it looks at first blush.

Great synoposis.

I absolutely love this show. Jon Hamm is a wonderful actor. He was fantastic on SNL. This show is right up there with The Wire and The Shield in terms of attention to detail and character development.

This is one of the best shows to come around in a long time. It reminds me how far we have come in the last 40 years. The issues with the women and the workplace are so accurate and really illustrate the conditions. My daughter is 24 years old and she would never put up with that kind of behavior. She loves the show and is constantly outraged at the limitations placed on women. The smoking is so constant throughout the show that I feel as if I have inhaled second hand smoke for an hour. The doctor's advise about not being active while she is pregnant and nothing about drinking and smoking would be funny if it wasn't so dangerous. Let's not forget that there are several issues on state ballots in November that could effectively overturn Roe v Wade.

It's a wonderful show and I hope it's around for a few more seasons.


That was a wonderful summary of the episode! I was looking forward to how Peggy would reveal the news to Pete. This season has been engrossing from beginning to end.

The rifle made me think of a show weeks ago when Pete was talking to Peggy and he was fantasizing about going out for a hunt and coming back to his cabin in the woods. He said his woman would prepare the meat for him. Peggy was very turned on and said "that would be wonderful". I think Pete has a deeply hidden old-fashioned manly side. Trudy tries to make him domestic, and his comfortable, upper crust life takes him away from his male animal instincts, but Peggy brings out the man in him. I think his holding the rifle really shows that he's tapping into that more masculine side. I hope he and Peggy can be together - although I feel sorry for Trudy.

One of the things lacking from the synopsis is Pete's true intention for telling Don about Duck's presidency. Remember Pete was told that it is always smart "to remain neutral" in the case of mergers. Pete knew that Duck was in his corner regardless and with the unexpectedly positive conversation with Don, Pete felt like it was appropriate to cover his bases. Pete gained a good standing in both men's eyes so he will likely be head of accounts regardless. Pete is always in it for himself, and I liked how he remained in character for that. I also took him with his gun to mean that he was comforting himself with his own selfish desires, I NEVER took that as a suicidal contemplation by any means. Pete loves himself too much to ever do anything that drastic. Great episode!

I had to watch the last scene another time just to relive and feel the emotion Matt Weiner forces you to feel. The emotions it dredged up were painful, yet there was a feeling of hope. From the very beginning Weiner wanted the audience to despise Pete, but as the show progresses you see why he is the way he is, what drives him as a person, why he made the decisions he did, and ultimately you pity and admire him at the same time. Whether it was the Cuban missile crisis urging him to confess his love, the fact is that it took a lot of guts to break down those barriers and the wall that he's built up to actually let someone really know how he truly feels. The anguish that's tormenting him as he sat there listening to what Peggy was saying, I couldn't help but wonder what was going on in his mind? I was hoping he was thinking: How could I have left her all alone and in a place where she wouldn't come talk to me, how could she think I would want her to be alone, how could she think I wouldn't want her? I by all means don't want to see Pete's character be killed off of the show, but I can't help but think that is why we see him with the gun. The tremendous amount of guilt and if he does truly love her, how much pain he must be feeling. I too want to see them together, but I fear that this is not something that's in the cards. While Don and Betty's love may be fixable--I have a feeling that Peggy and Pete's love will be forever hanging in the balance--as it's one of those things where it's just timing. The love is there. The passion is there. But the timing is off. And the moment is gone...just like her vague and ambiguous depiction of losing a piece of herself. The part that wanted Pete, that loved him, is forever gone.

It's interesting how Meditations in an Emergency continues to follow Don throughout both seasons. We see it with him and his relationship with Ms. Mencken, the woman we are led to believe he truly loves. But what we learn at the end of Season 2 is that each fling, each misstep, each marital affair was one woman closer to Betty. Though this may sound bizarre, I think that's why Weiner gives us the hallucination out in L.A. The fact that every woman holds some sliver of perfection, but when it comes down to it--Betty is the only perfect one. Even the former Mrs. Draper said it in the previous episode--that only Don would be the one to get in the way of his own happiness, e.g. try to fill his life with other woman in order to avoid the perfection he deserves.

My other point to Meditations in an Emergency is how interesting it is that human nature tends to bend toward love, family in times of crisis. We see this as a pattern throughout this episode: Trudy going to see her parents, Joan not being able to concentrate and worried about her fiance, and Roger making sure this doesn't steal his thunder at having a second chance--and of course the obvious Don and Betty, Peter and Peggy. It just goes to show you, and of course I realize that this is nothing but a visual depiction of life, simply fiction, but if a crisis were to happen the natural tendency is to think of loved ones and to want to be the one that matters the most. While the end gives you a feeling of climax, a sense of togetherness through the confessions that were made--I have a feeling that Season 3 has loss in store for the audience. It may or may not be Pete, who knows who it will be. But it seems the natural progression of where the show will take us.


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