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‘Mad Men’: Meditations in an emergency

October 26, 2008 | 11:01 pm

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)

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