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Mad Men: "Meditations In An Emergency"

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At various points during this second season of Mad Men, I've wondered to myself whether creator Matthew Weiner has been making this series largely for himself. A lot of Mad Men's quieter moments–like Sally mixing drinks for her parents, or Don spending an afternoon at a foreign film–aren't especially relevant to the story, no matter how much we fans scrutinize them for hints as to where the show might be going. They're more bits of character shading and era-definition, and even at that, I sometimes feel like Weiner includes them because they're fragments of his own memory, or because he's preoccupied by the contradictions of this world he's chosen to explore.

It's because I'm equally fascinated by this world that I rarely care much whether Mad Men's plot advances, and why I sometimes get impatient when it advances with too heavy a foot. But I recognize that Mad Men is still a drama, and drama requires conflict and resolution. So tonight I withdraw any tongue-clucking objections I may have made over the past 12 weeks about Weiner and company moving pieces around somewhat erratically (not that I complained about this very much, but still…), and instead I'll just marvel at how the careful development of Mad Men's characters brought us to a finale which I think rewarded the investment we've made in these characters over the past two seasons, while also leaving us a lot to ponder until next summer.

First off, no matter what you may have thought about Don's sojourn out west and its spiritual/metaphorical ramifications, surely you appreciated the relief and tension of his return, first to Betty, whom he surprised at the stables, and then to the office in the middle of multiple storms. Outside, it's literally raining and thundering. Inside, the office is preparing for the merger with Putnam, Powell & Lowe–a development that Don takes surprisingly well, perhaps because he appreciates the "fuck you" freedom that a half-million-dollar windfall provides. And in the world beyond the circle of Sterling-Cooper, President Kennedy is rattling the American saber at Russia and Cuba, demanding that they remove their offensive missiles or face the consequences.

Don of course learned all about rockets in California, and knows that if JFK pushes the button, that's all she wrote. So maybe that inspires his flippant attitude toward Duck's plans to take over S-C after the PP&L; takeover. Or maybe it's the new influx of money into his bank account. Or Pete's casual comment about how, "The Russians are reconsidering now that we made a stand." But while tonight's episode didn't have a Don Draper Moment as sublime as the pitch for the slide projector in last year's finale, I was just about as jazzed by Don informing Duck that since he's not under contract to Sterling-Cooper, he doesn't have to sweat any non-compete clauses, and thus can take his pitchman skills anywhere he wants. After Don leaves the meeting with PP&L;, Duck spits that it'll only "take a second to find a kid who can write a prose poem to a potato chip," but it's obvious by his bosses' reaction that there was only one person at that meeting who was irreplaceable, and it wasn't the washed-up, not-so-recovering alcoholic.

And speaking of how a casual comment or a matter of timing can have a profound effect, consider this chain reaction: Don excuses his California disappearance to Pete by feeding him some bullshit line about how he was testing Pete's readiness to take on greater responsibility, and how Pete proved himself. That rare word of approval from Don leads Pete to spill the beans to Don about Duck's plans to assume the presidency of S-C. And just like that, Pete may have saved his job, by showing loyalty to Don over Duck at a crucial moment. All because Pete just needed to hear that Daddy really loves him.

Of course, these things don't always work out so well. Perhaps emboldened by his new, seemingly stronger relationship with Don–and definitely frustrated by his situation at home–Pete confesses to Peggy that he loves her, and wishes he'd been kinder to her after their fleeting office romance. And Peggy–inspired in part by her priest's warning that if the world ends this weekend, she may well be taking the express train to Hell–responds to Pete's confession by telling him that she had his baby, and gave it away. "I could've had you… if I wanted to," she says with a little smile. Then the episode ends with Peggy praying, and Pete sitting silently in his office, fondling the rifle that he bought back in Season One to prove that women don't rule his life.

I know I've written a lot over the course of the past few Mad Men blogs about how the show has been exploring the idea of alternate lives, and certainly Pete gets a strong glimpse at what could've been in his conversation with Peggy. He could've had a kid of his own, and a woman who understands the kind of work he does. But just the way Peggy describes how she could've "shamed" him is enough to indicate that she realizes she dodged a bullet. A marriage to Pete with that kind of beginning probably wouldn't have worked out so well. At the end of last season, her life was at a crossroads; and judging by where she's ending Season Two, she made the right choice (no matter how much penance the Lord is now going to have her do).

Not coincidentally, the last episode of Season Two is driven by another character facing a similar choice. Betty begins "Meditations In An Emergency" sitting in a doctor's office (just like Don began this season… and it's the same doctor, yes?) and getting the news that she's pregnant. When Betty mentions the idea of abortion, he doctor sternly chastises her, saying, "That is an option for young girls who have no other options." So Betty spends a few days alternately reflecting on her situation and trying to bring an end to it by natural means. She goes riding, against doctor's orders. And when Don returns from his sabbatical, she hisses, "Must be nice… needing time and just taking it." When Don grants her a little time to herself, she spends it drinking and smoking and having a casual sexual encounter with a man she meets in a bar. Then she asks Don to come home, and she tells him she's pregnant. Options closed. Fade to black.

Did you think the episode ended maybe a little too soon? Because of tonight's "limited commercial interruption," I certainly didn't expect the episode to end where it did, and given Weiner's propensity for skipping ahead, it's going to be brutal waiting until next year to find out what effect the merger will have on the staff, or whether Pete will continue to be an emotional wreck after Peggy's rejection. (And what about Joan? She was all but absent in this episode.)

Still, I was pretty knocked out by "Meditations In An Emergency," because I thought Weiner and company tied these major events in their characters' lives to the Cuban Missile Crisis just beautifully. Some crises are public, and some are private. The staff at Sterling-Cooper learns that the Russians have caved to Kennedy's demands, but they won't know the full details of what happened for years. Until Betty tells Don about her pregnancy, the news is hers to keep, and to do with what she will. She might've had an abortion, and Don might not ever have known. (Although that's unlikely, given that the family doctor knew her condition.) She might've continued down a self-destructive path of liquor and sex, doing her best Don Draper impression. Instead she chooses the relative stability of motherhood and marriage, and Don tentatively embraces it too, albeit with a somewhat deflated look.

In the end, no matter how much Mad Men's characters try to assert control of their lives, there continues to be emergencies they hadn't planned on–including the historical ones that we in the audience know about, but they don't–guiding their choices in subtle ways. Or as Don puts it when he faces down his pile of unopened mail: "The world continues without us. There's no reason to take it personally."

Grade: A

Stray observations:

-So, at your collective urging, I re-watched "The Mountain King" this week, and I do now think that I underrated it. My complaints still pertain–too blunt, too busy–but the stuff I liked last time dominated the episode more than I recalled. So I'll upgrade to a "B." But I still think that "The Jet Set" kicks the ass of "The Mountain King." And that "Meditations In An Emergency" brings it all home.

-So the title is "Meditations In An Emergency" after all, even though my DVR still says "On."

-Don notices Peggy's haircut, something the other men at Sterling-Cooper did not.

-Good to see Anne Dudek again.

-"Do you want a milkshake? It'll take 45 minutes you know."

-What did you think of Jon Hamm on SNL? (And most of the rest of the Mad Men cast for that matter.)

-There was some concern earlier this week when it was announced that Mad Men had been renewed for a third season, but that Weiner was not yet signed to continue on as show-runner. No cause for alarm here, I don't think. Mad Men is so completely Weiner's fantasy that I can't imagine he'd leave it behind.

-I heartily recommend this interview with Matthew Weiner. Also this one.

-Lastly, I want to sound a note of mourning for Andrew Johnston, a fine critic and a friend, whose recaps of Mad Men for The House Next Door were an inspiration. I couldn't hold a candle to what Andrew wrote during the first part of this season, which was some of the last writing he did, and I think the best work he did. We only met in person a couple of times, and exchanged e-mails only a few more, but I will miss him, and his analytical skill. R.I.P., Andrew.