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Mad Men Season Finale: After the Fall

For three seasons, Sterling Cooper has sold Lucky Strikes, Hilton hotels, and Belle Jolie lipstick. And for three seasons, AMC has sold us Mad Men, in an effort to re-brand itself as something greater than the home of not-so-old movies. Sometimes the sell has been too ham-fisted, and sometimes we've resisted. But after the fireworks of that spectacularly satisfying finale, we can no longer deny that we're watching one of the most bold and unpredictable shows to ever air on television β€” and that AMC has given Matt Weiner full creative license to go for it.

AMC's new marketing is all about "original" content — and you will not find more original TV than a show that can accommodate Betty's Demerol-addled delivery (the most brilliant childbirth we've ever seen on TV), the lawnmower bloodbath (the boldest mid-season correction we've ever seen), Betty and Don's confrontation (simply the tautest piece of television we've seen in years), and a season finale as original, striking, and madcap-crazy as this one. We're sold. Signed, sealed, delivered, Matt Weiner, we're yours. (At least until next season.)

Didn't that just feel so good? How often does everything you dream will happen in a season finale actually transpire? This was the hardcore fan's office fantasy: Don, Roger, Peggy, Pete, Harry, Cooper, and Joan back together as rebels, starting their own firm. And it worked. Based on anecdotal reporting, we can confidently state that when Roger disappeared to make that not-so-mysterious phone call, there were screams of "Joan!!" at world-series decibel levels in many Manhattan apartments (followed soon after by the chant "Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce! Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce!"). The twist takes the show back to the basics that we love — and pushes everyone into the future.

By setting Mad Men in the early sixties and using the characters to refract the decade's convulsions, Matt Weiner has been confronting the almost impossibly complex issue of how change, both social and personal, occurs. How do we get from Kennedy's promise to Nixon's tragedy? How do we get from The Ed Sullivan Show to Altamont? From the SCLC to the Black Panthers? How do we survive a divorce? How do young women learn to stand on their own? "We need you to keep us looking forward," Don tells Pete. This finale was loaded with gobsmacking moments that left us rethinking season three — but in the end, we're most excited for how this episode positions season four. Sterling Cooper was never a half-step ahead the times, but now SCDP's rebel contingent might really be able to wade into the thick of the sixties.

One thing to remember about the fall of Rome metaphor that has dogged this season: When the Roman empire collapsed, its people didn’t just cease to exist. A new order rose up. In fact, when Freud wrote Civilization and Its Discontents, he also leaned heavily on the metaphor of Rome, as an example of how successive social orders warp and shape individual psyches, with each generational order leaving a different kind of echo or imprint on the superego. (In that work, Freud saw himself as a kind of archaeologist, digging through the ruins of culture to explain how man's libido was always in conflict with civilization.) Don is a child of the American century — but also more than his father's son. As Don says, he might never have an imperial office like the one they're leaving behind, but he never wanted that anyway.

For most of this season, Don had been staggering around in a dreamy haze of his own creation, willfully denying unpleasant realities. Don couldn't admit that his marriage was empty and broken, that he was quickly becoming a gray flannel company man, that the people around him might know something he didn't, or that he might have something to learn from older men. He was the gal with horsemeat in his dog-food can: reluctant to change his brand, unable to change what was inside. So Don begins this episode in a dead man's cot: sleeping with the ghost of Eugene, a guy whose generation made things instead of just spinning them. The alarm clock has broken, just like the heating system of the last episode. JFK is dead. The fever has broken. Don's not sleeping anymore: He's jarred wide awake.

Conrad Hilton (a friend of ours says he's the real hero of the episode) gives Don the kick in the ass that he needs when he whines about being knocked "down to size." Hilton sneers about complainers who expect to be given success, then says, "I didn't take you for one of them, Don." Sleeping in Eugene's cot, gaining some new respect for Hilton, Don then thinks of another old man: his father, who stubbornly left the farmer's cooperative to try and make a better life for his family. It's about the first time Don has seen his father as something more than a vicious, whore-bopping drunk, and the memory lights a fire under him. "I want to work," he tells Cooper, "build something of my own." Cooper rightly wonders if Don has "the stomach for the realities," since Don has been unable to look at that eclipse, or within himself, all season long. But Don mans up.

The office roundup plays a like a mad-cap adaptation of The Magnificent Seven, as Don gathers the desperadoes to oust the British bandits who've taken over their little cow-town. Roger is at his wittiest and sharpest (“From one John's bed to the next … ”) — and notices the shift in Don, who's always condescendingly assumed that he was different and better just because he was more conflicted about his job. Roger says, approvingly, "So you do want to be in advertising after all … "

Pryce joins in, dismissing his snake-in-the-basket employers ("Very good, happy Christmas") and the toadie Moneypenny (his poor wife!). Don's sell to Peggy is pitch-perfect: He assumes she'll just follow him like some "nervous poodle" and she calls him on it. She stands up for herself — but, lucky for us, Don begs her to come with him in a way he cannot beg Betty (because he respects Peggy more than he respects Betty?). "I'm hard on you because I see you as an extension of myself," he says, and it's both condescending and flattering. Like poor, exiled Kinsey, Don finally sees the value of her astute perception. “Something happened, something terrible … and no one understands that. But you do.” (Note: Don has often used Betty as his one-woman focus group. Is he thinking of her when he says this? And is that why he needs a woman to make sense of this for him?)

Pete's sell is just as fun, especially since Pete is about to wreck it when his true partner-in-crime, Trudy (now the most wonderful wife on the show), eavesdrops and calls in from the bedroom to save Pete from himself. "You'll do what it takes," Don says, before flattering Pete for his forward thinking. Pete's thin-skinned demeanor has always been petulant and irritating, but he has always been a step ahead of the rest.

Then the words we were dying to hear ("Mrs. Harris, what a pleasure to see you.") and a line we never hoped to hear ("Good morning, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce … "). Joan is as hyper-capable as ever; Roger is smitten. Will her hubby get killed in Vietnam before or during their affair?

The coup is complete: No British overlords, no Ken-and-his-hair, no pompous, privileged Kinsey, no barely-got-to-know-you Kurt or Schmitty. It's a nonviolent revolution, using the master's tools (contracts and corporate hierarchies) to dismantle his house. During the off-season, the showrunners can decide which company members to bring back. The result should be a more focused, honed show: more Roger, more Joan, more Peggy and Pete, more Don without Betty. This is a very good thing.

But the reason Jon Hamm should win an Emmy is that he wasn't just brilliant in those scenes with Roger, Pete, and Peggy: Over the last three episodes of the season, he displayed unexpected emotional depth and range. He nails these last, heartbreaking, raging, and, finally, accepting scenes with Betty.

At first, Don clings to his denial — "You haven't been yourself … see a doctor" — but Betty has other plans. In the lawyer's office, Betty is at her little-princess worst, clinging to Henry and trusting him past the point of common sense when he tells her to skip a divorce settlement and just trust him to take care of her. He's all too happy to play the role of the father figure that never suited Don.

Then Roger, with authentic empathy, tells Don that he's been cuckolded and Don returns home in a rage, shoving her awake. For a second, he loses it, anxious to blame her for the demise of their marriage: "Because you're good and everyone else in the world is bad!" He calls her a whore and a "spoiled Main Line brat." Hamm somehow makes it clear that he's not just hateful, but drunk and upset and hurt, too. Betty just trembles and clings to the baby, retreating to childhood again.

The confrontation with the kids is horrible. Sally is the underestimated, smart sixties kid who won't be fooled again. Betty tries to be strong, but she's just useless, primly sobbing as one kid runs upstairs and the other embraces Don, while forcing her husband to take the heat: "Father is going to be moving out." The last we see her, blank-faced Betty is on the plane to Reno, her eldest kids are with the nanny, and her marriage is about to end. Will Betty even be a main character on the show next season? We could very easily imagine her fading away, especially after Don's regretful morning-after phone call. When he tells her "I hope you get what you always wanted," it's kind and mature — but also, perhaps, a kind of curse. Betty should make an excellent politician's wife.

One last thing: Let's look at three main characters who weren't in the finale.

Sal. After all that's transpired with him, to yank Sal out of the bushes and into the office would have been condescending. Instead, we hope he gets the long, rich arc he deserves, and that he's still around for Mad Men's Stonewall episode in 1969.

Duck. Weiner fooled us. We totally expected Duck to ride with Grey and get his revenge on Don, but he didn't. Now what? How can Peggy keep loving a guy who woos her with Monte Cristo sandwiches when she has a man like Don in her life, saying more sincere things, like, "I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you." Will she need his ego boosting anymore?

Miss Farrell. Just a thought: If Don really does make a play for his kids, he's going to need a kind woman to take care of them. Someone experienced in child care. Maybe even someone who already knows his kids. Hmmm …

More Recaps:
Karen Valby
, EW.com: "They needed a skirt, the skirt. So how brilliant when, at Roger's summoning, Joan showed up wearing the pants."
Julia Turner, Slate.com: "Matthew Weiner has now made us incredibly excited to watch … the very same show we already loved... It's Mad Men: New and Improved!"
Alan Sepinwall: "It's entirely possible that midway through season four, Betty will be asking Don to move back in with her and the kids."

Photo: Carin Baer/AMC