Last week, we wondered whether the show's recent dive down into ever-more-grim territory was just a case of the plot turning darkest before the dawn. In this season's penultimate episode, the clouds — and the waves — suddenly break, and a light shines down upon a few chosen ones. Hallelujah! And yet, a few — like poor Joan — are left walking in the wilderness.
Are you prepared to meet the end? Did you ever want a new life? A new start? A new you? Act now and you too can be saved!
Hells bells, does this episode start out with an unholy tease: It begins in the deepest, darkest depths of Don's past, as he steps up to the mysterious house previewed in the last episode, to the sound of the dark, subterranean tune, "Hall of the Mountain King." A classic score interpreted by metal bands the world over, it was written for the oddly appropriate Peer Gynt: A mountain crashes down and kills trolls in the original, which later features Ibsen's Draperish line: "You have been selfish, but not yourself." Here, Don walks in to see a Haley Joel Osment–type creepily playing the piano faster and faster. Has Don been hiding another family?
Not exactly. The kid's just learning piano from the woman who confronted Don in that used-car dealership years ago. She's the real Mrs. Draper, the war widow Don originally didn't know existed. Flashbacks show that they became pals and improvised something of a family (and that Don's fashion sense improved over time). In the present, Mrs. Draper 1.0 knows all his secrets, and finds Don a fresh set of clothes. It's freaky only when you know the details, but when the two sit together on that front porch, it seems like the healthiest family in all of AMC, even as Don admits, "I have been watching my life — it's right there, I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can't."
For Don, connecting with his past is healthy. But others are breaking with history. Pete, who doesn't want a kid and (with a dead dad and broke mom) finally doesn't need his family's approval anymore, fights furiously with Trudy. Their marriage was on the rocks for a while, but now the chicken has truly flown the coop, as Pete hurls a roast bird out the window, tells Trudy's father he "loved her" (past tense), and loses the Clearasil account. Later, looking liberated, he sallies into Freddy's old office — which is now Peggy's! — and compliments her, as charming and genuine as he has ever been.
Meanwhile, Peggy just gets better. Selling popsicles like Christ or the Virgin Mary breaking bread, she's not only got her own office, but her own liquor cabinet (even if she has to drink to her own good fortune alone). And she's going to get her name printed on the door — by Joan, whom Peggy congratulates: "You're fiancé is so handsome. He's the doctor you hope to see but only exists in the movies."
Joan's insecure husband isn't just a standard-issue chauvinist. He doesn't even want Joan on top of him in bed — and only gets turned on when he thinks about role-playing as Don: "Pretend like I'm your boss." He's seen how powerful those mad men seem in the movies. So he rapes her on Don's carpet.
And Duck's merger is moving ahead, too — with Roger a laughingstock and Don, well, still in Los Angeles. We couldn't help but think that Don is caught between California hedonism and New York careerism, much like the sixties Joan Didion of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, aware of his disconnectedness and social "atomization" — loose between generations and well aware that the center isn't holding anymore. The last we see of him, he's a "rough beast" striding into the water to be baptized anew and born again, with George Jones singing about the "dark and dim" waves. Just one more episode to go: Truly, the End Days are upon us.
The Early Results
Thank God Don escaped the commune! Okay, the Tarot-card bit was lame. Not only did it not add anything, it muddled up this episode's already-waterlogged religious theme — and the sudden transitions seemed a bit rushed. But on the cusp of the finale, Betty and Don, and Peggy and Pete, now seem more like equal adversaries in almost every sense. The firm's fate hangs in the balance. And Roger and Joan are both primed for synchronized catastrophes. So: Will it end with a bang? Or a whimper?