Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "Meditations in an Emergency" (season 2, episode 13)

Mad Men - "Meditations in an Emergency" (season 2, episode 13)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review an episode of season two, possibly followed by each episode of season three. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on October 26, 2008/written by Matthew Weiner & Kater Gordon; directed by Matthew Weiner): When Don returns to New York after several weeks in California, he enters a whole new world. The Cuban Missile Crisis hangs over everything but closer to home, Duck Phillips' merger plan means that Don made a fortune during his absence - that is, if he can stand the reduced role for creative that Duck (the new president) envisions for the company going forward. Sneering about "the artistic temperament" as he demands that Sterling Cooper focus its resources on purchasing air time and ad space over fancy campaigns, Duck believes he has Don in a bind. He doesn't realize, and is humiliated in front of the British buyers when it's revealed, that Don doesn't have a contract to break; he can leave and go work for any other agency if he chooses, a major loss for the prospective new owners (and a major setback for Duck's power grab). Don is ready to parry Duck's dagger not only because of his own fortunate situation and confident temperament but because Pete helped prepare the ground. Informed ahead of time about Duck's plans when the cocky incoming boss promises to promote him, Pete has every reason to keep his mouth shut. But for reasons he can't quite explain, he warns Don.

Pete's life has been full of upsets lately, including his father-in-law's removal of Clearasil, the adoption crisis, and of course his shocking discovery at episode's end. Terrified by the prospect of Russian missiles, Trudy heads to her parents' home on the beach - a futile gesture as Pete cavalierly assures her, insisting that he prefers to die in Manhattan. "If you loved me, you'd want to be with me," Trudy asserts and Pete acknowledges she's right - an admission she apparently mistakes for an apology. If the world survives, their marriage probably won't, and against this apocalyptic backdrop Pete struggles to break through to Peggy: he doesn't truly connect with his wife, and he wishes he'd chosen her instead. That's when Peggy drops her bomb about giving birth to a son that she turned over for adoption, confirming the suspicions of the audience while astonishing an unsuspecting Pete. And "Meditations in an Emergency" delivers another pregnancy reveal as well: Betty is going to have a third child. Or is she? Even in this more conservative era, her doctor and friends know exactly what she's saying when she insists she can't have a baby right now; they all quickly drop their Ward and June banalities and in an even-toned voice allude to, without directly identifying, opportunities for abortion.

After dropping the children off in Don's hotel for the night, Betty visits a bar and picks up a young man (Ryan McPartlin) with whom she has sex in a backroom, without a doubt her first marital infidelity (and, quite possibly, the only other man she's ever slept with). This may unburden her of some feelings of resentment; "It must be nice to just go off like that," she jabs at Don when he shows up at her stable in the opening scene, returning from an existential adventure he enjoyed while she kept taking care of his household. Finally Betty receives a moving letter, composed by Don while the children watch TV in his hotel room (and while she was embarking on her own mini-odyssey), in which Don acknowledges, "I understand why you feel it's better to go on without me. And I know that you won't be alone for very long. But without you, I'll be alone forever." With no small symbolic significance, on the night that Kennedy and Khrushchev finally reach an agreement, Betty invites Don home and shares her momentous news over their kitchen table.

My Response: 
What's clear in this season finale is that Betty realizes whatever her ultimate decision will be, it has to be her decision. She allows Don back in her life only when he recognizes this too, even if he doesn't know what specifically (besides their marriage) is at stake. For a character who was repeatedly infantalized in season one, this is a moment of major growth in which she fights fiercely to ensure that what is to come unfolds on her turf. As noted, this personal drama is nicely amplified by the world-historical backdrop, echoed in the enormously effective Pete/Peggy climax, and ironically mirrored in Don's alpha defiance of Duck. Season two of Mad Men has been subtly sculpted from its opening moments as a tense dance between Don's bubbling midlife crisis and Betty's rejection of her subordination. Thus far, at least, her sense of independence has not been tied to any frustration with family duties or desire for a career and workplace environment. Instead, it's precisely her unquestioned dominance in the domestic sphere (think particularly of the dinner party that fueled their separation) that builds her sense of self-worth and makes her begin to see herself as the more responsible half of the duo. When Don continues to plead that she needs him, she observes drily, "I don't know. Honestly, things haven't been that different without you."

So the Drapers nearly split before discovering they're having another baby, Don flirts with leaving it all behind, and Sterling Cooper is heading toward a new, more global position (making all of the junior employees extremely nervous about their prospects). This was a well-executed and frequently compelling season that continued the good work of season one without matching the scale of its dramatic trajectory (despite moments that felt like breakthroughs). While the Drapers' separation was certainly significant, the Dick Whitman backstory remains Don's narrative high-water mark and Peggy's subtle adjustment to the male-dominated world of Sterling Cooper doesn't attempt to compete with the sweep of her rise from secretary to staff copywriter (while even her big personal moment at the end of this season is based off of what happened in the previous one). This is not to be critical, by the way - television thrives not only on the big moments but perhaps especially on the ability to maintain a constant, steady, not-too-exhausting stream of drama. Mad Men manages this process more smoothly than just about any other show I've ever seen. The quiet, tempered if still eventful season also fits the time period: with the exception of crises like Cuba, the early sixties did not quite have a mile-a-minute, deluge-of-change atmosphere of the later decade.

Where do we go next? Or rather, when? With both Betty's pregnancy and Sterling Cooper's merger on the close horizon we can't afford to skip as far ahead as we did from season one to two. It's already October now (the episode aired right in the midst of the forty-sixth anniversary of the actual Cuban Missile Crisis) so I'm sure season three will be set at least a month or two into 1963 - we don't want to pick up right where we left off - but the series can only get away with revealing so much in retrospect. And '63 is also a more momentous year than any in the sixties so far, with the March of Washington scheduled for around the time the Drapers' new baby is born and, of course, Kennedy's grim denouement in Dallas just over a year past the events of "Meditations in an Emergency" (I accidentally discovered at least one fictional event that will coincide with the assassination, so I'll stay mum). I had hoped that maybe - saving some of the civil rights-related storylines for '64 and '65 - season three would actually kick off with the shock of November 22, 1963, but season two's relative cliffhanger of a conclusion makes that unlikely. Still, it would have been nice to watch the Kennedy era rapidly transition into the year of the Beatles' invasion and the rising student protest movement over the course of a single season. Pretty soon, Mad Men won't be able to perform its act changes while the lights dim between seasons. Instead, the scenery will necessarily shift right in front of the audience, as part of the show itself: indeed, as one of the central features.


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