Monday, October 27, 2008

Mad Men: 'Meditations on an Emergency' (2x13)

Mad Men’s season finale is full of creeping menace, an impending apocalypse that makes all the characters abandon their inhibitions and be true to their own desires in a way we don’t usually see on the show. Watching it today, it’s ironic that they should be so scared of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we know that it will all blow over, but the show gives a good sense of the very real feeling that the world could end tomorrow, left as nothing but ashes. In that sense, perhaps the key line of the episode is Peggy talking with Father Gil, where she says she’s scared the world might end tomorrow, and he says that’s true any day, and we should live as such. In this case, it takes a crisis to make all the characters reassess their lives, and confront the issues that have been simmering under the surface all season.

Unlike the past few episodes, it wasn’t the Don story that really hooked me. The most interesting pieces of this episode centered on Betty and Peggy. We finally find out what actually happened to Peggy’s baby, she gave it up because she didn’t want to live that life. Don’s advice to her from the flashback scene makes even more sense now, much like Don just walked away from his family because they didn’t match with the image he had of himself, Peggy chooses to give her baby away rather than struggle to deal with what it would do to her perception of herself.

She’s definitely still feeling the emotion of what she did then, but she’s not guilty in the way that society probably feels she should. Father Gil tells her that she’ll go to hell if she doesn’t atone for what she did, but there’s really no way for her to do that. She made her choice and it’s working out for her, she’s ascending in the company and living out a dream she couldn’t have even imagined really happening a few years ago. One of the best scenes in the episode is Peggy revealing what happened to Pete. That is her confession, the moment when she finally acknowledges what happened, and realizes that though it might hurt, she did make the right choice.

Things are more complex for Pete. He clearly has strong feelings for Peggy. At home, he might want Trudy to obey him, but outside his marriage, he’s attracted to a stronger, more independent woman, not unlike Don Draper himself. At first he’s hurt by the fact that he could have had Peggy when he first met her, but still chose to go through with the marriage to Trudy. Later, he’s hurt by the fact that Peggy had the perfect excuse to be with him, the perfect chance to save Pete from his loveless marriage, but instead chose to give away his child and go on with her single life. You’d expect Pete to be mad at her for giving away his kid, after being so thoroughly against adoption early this season, but we get a more human side of the character than we’d seen early in the season. He’s hurt by the fact that Peggy doesn’t want to be with him, and the realization that he’s left alone with no one but Trudy.

Elsewhere, Betty has to deal with her own unwanted pregnancy. Peggy had the freedom to do what she wanted with her kid, she doesn’t live within the societal code that prevents women from getting abortions. The scene with the doctor at the beginning is particularly effective at setting up the societal status quo, women may not want to get pregnant, but if they do, they don’t have any choice but to go through with it. Eventually they’ll get over the reluctance and realize it’s good, right?

Betty opens the episode by rebelling against her doctor’s wishes. She goes riding, and soon finds herself drinking in a bar, flirting with that guy. I really like the look and feel of those scenes, the moody darkness of the hallway where she waits for the bathroom. It reminds me a bit of the red hallway from Irreversible where Alex gets attacked. The past few episodes of the show have done a fantastic job of creating mood and menace just through the cinematography and character behavior.

It’s notable that Betty doesn’t have this tryst until Don confirms to her that he did sleep with Bobbie. Betty knew it, but she needed to hear him say it for it to be totally real. Why does she sleep with the guy? Part of it is that she’s got nothing to lose. The world is on the verge of ending, she’s already pregnant and deeply unhappy, so she might as well do what she’s been tempted to do all season. I think it’s also about getting even with Don, showing that she can do the same things that he can. When she finds out she’s pregnant, I think she knows that she’s either got to take him back or get an abortion, and though she’s more independent, but at that point in time, it’s just not likely that she’d go through with an abortion. So, by sleeping with the guy, she can feel more equal with Don, she’s not crawling back to him, she’s got her own secrets too.

I don’t know how that bodes for the future of their relationship. It could be a cleansing thing, they’ve both betrayed each other in a way, and now they could come back and be together. Or, it could just as easily be symptomatic of the fact that despite Don’s eloquent note, they aren’t really meant to be together at all, and this reunion is just postponing the inevitable. This arc has obvious parallels with season five of The Sopranos, where Carmela kicked Tony out of the house, and he eventually found his way back in because she couldn’t support herself without him. The major difference is that Betty seems to be doing okay, she tells Don that she’s gotten used to being on her own. She can deal with it because she’s essentially been on her own anyway, Don spends so much time working, as long as she has his money coming in, she’s fine. Unlike the Carmela story, Don has a legitimate job, and his check is still sent home, so she still controls the family finances.

For Don, the season finale is largely about selling himself to Betty, trying to prove that he’s a changed man and should come back home. His letter to her is the same kind of pitch he’d make to a client, and like most of his pitches, it’s successful. The major question is why exactly Don chooses to come back? I’d argue that it’s largely about rediscovering the reason why he chose that life with Betty in the first place. In the flashback last week, we saw Don when he first met Betty, giddy with the initial spark of love. He probably won’t feel that again, but after spending so much time adrift, he realized that on some level the family he’s built isn’t just for show, he does have strong feelings for the kids, and for Betty. He has taken them for granted, and much like the end of last season, being alone made him realize that without them, he’s not much more than those European gang of vagabonds he met in “Jet Set.”

Part of it may also be that it’s easier for Don to go back to that world than truly try to build himself up again. What would he do in California? He may love Anna, but he doesn’t have a life there. Going back to New York, he’s got a job, money and security. The journey he took over the course of the season parallels the original Dick Whitman journey, abandoning his family and drifting before finding security and perhaps love with Betty. Only this time he’s coming back to the same people he abandoned. I particularly like the first scene where Don returns, and Betty yells at him saying that she doesn’t have the luxury of going to find herself. Don can just walk away and come back, but people depend on him.

Notably, when he does return, the world he left behind is falling into disarray. There’s the overarching Cuban Missile Crisis, of which he was blissfully unaware out in California, but there’s also the sale of the company. He’s invested a lot in Sterling-Cooper, in making it work with his idea of what advertising should be. Now, he finds Duck trying to warp it to match his vision, a more corporate and less personal concept of advertising. Don doesn’t agree with that, and he seems to win out now, but for how long?

By the end of the episode, Don has essentially restored the status quo. We know that the world won’t end, this crisis will pass, but underneath the seeming normalcy, even more ill feeling is brewing. Everyone’s had to confront things that they probably didn’t want to deal with, and those scars will linger. The season ends on a melancholy note, everyone seemingly gets what they want, but feels even worse because of it.

Ultimately, the characters seem to find their greatest happiness in transgressing societal expectations. Don is relaxed and happy in California in a way we’ve never seen him in New York. He took a vacation from his life and became someone else, with none of the problems the ‘Don Draper’ identity carries. But, as the vacation goes on, it accrues its own problems, a lingering guilt at abandoning his children. They are his link to Betty, and I think a large part of why he comes back is that he doesn’t want to be the kind of awful father that he had. He knows how much that can mess someone up, and even if he doesn’t love Betty, he wants to come home for the kids.

Betty loves the fact that she can walk into a bar and just have sex with someone. She eats that chicken after, just cold right out of the box, not caring about societal decorum. But, again, she can’t do that forever. The first transgression is exciting, to do it again would just get depressing. That’s the problem that Don had with his affairs, he started them to get away from his wife, from responsibility, and soon found out that he was involved in complex relationships that took as much of him as his marriage did.

On the whole, I thought this was a fantastic season, richer and deeper than year one, the rare TV series that becomes true art. I love all kinds of TV shows, but few are as smart and meticulously constructed as this one is. I don’t think this episode was the high point of the season, for me that “Jet Set,” but it was a really strong, emotionally potent conclusion, and as that last fade out was happening, I was hoping for just a little bit more. I didn’t want a season this good to end.