In the season premiere, Don Draper read a fragment of a Frank O’Hara poem: “Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” Then Don slipped into a season-long freefall of jackass self-absorption. In the finale, Don leaves the home of the woman who received that poem — the real Mrs. Draper — finally fascinated by his own catastrophe again.
Things fall apart.
At times, Mad Men has seemed like a walking catalogue of mid-century American fears: women in the workplace, media manipulation, alcoholism, rape, abortion, race, and homosexuality, for starters. As such, it’s depicted a culture that suffers from a kind of panophobia — a fear of all things — probably because everyone has become so unmoored from any traditional sense of security. Don has always been the extreme emblem of this — cut off from all his roots, afraid of being found out — but all around him, families are shattering, roles are crumbling, and conventional wisdom is failing. Anxiety-attack paranoia has driven Mad Men from its first free-falling title sequence to this finale, where the Cuban Missile Crisis threatens to annihilate everyone.
“We don’t know what’s really going on,” Don says to Roger. “You know that.” If it’s not already clear, men like them are the classic Mr. Jones — afraid of things they can’t even name. Everyone else in the office expects the apocalypse too — but none more absurdly than Roger, who notes, “They’re daring them to bomb us, right when I got a second chance.”
That blood on Betty’s dress? She’s pregnant. And yes, she considers an abortion. Then Don shows up at the stables. “I was not respectful to you,” he says. Betty cuts him off. So Don babysits the kids in a hotel room — while she heads to a bar and does her best Don Draper, picking up a hot young thing with a bare minimum of dialogue (did she watch John Hamm’s SNL skit?). Betty finally has the affair she’s been considering since the first episode of this season. Is it disaster sex? Which disaster?
Pete’s wife is heading to the country, and Pete says, “If I’m going to die, I want to die in Manhattan.” In a mirrored scene, Peggy’s pederast-y priest tells her this “could be the end of the world and you could go to hell,” but she has finally learned to say no, too (next season’s question: Can she say yes to anything but work?). Thanks to Pete’s brilliant calculation, Duck’s takeover goes horribly wrong. Duck boils over and Don slaps him down with cold, curt logic. “If the world is still here on Monday,” he says, “we can talk.” Duck is done.
Pete, high on praise from his idol, proud of himself for breaking things off with Trudy, grins his way into Peggy’s office and suddenly and confidently confesses his love, saying that Trudy “doesn’t know me, but you do.” It’s less pathetic than thrilling — until Peggy tells him, “I could have shamed you into being with me, but I didn’t want to … You got me pregnant. I had your baby and I gave it away.” Why? Her explanation is strange and sad: “All of a sudden there’s less of you.” Pete is gobsmacked.
The season ends at the Drapers’ kitchen table. Betty tells Don she’s preggers but not about the man in the bar. Don, who talked about “scratching at” his life as if through a screen door in the last episode, reaches out and holds her hand, without saying a thing.
At the end of season two, we’re amazed to see that things have pushed and pulled to make Don and Betty, and Pete and Peggy, more like equals. You could practically graph the season to show how each has become a little more or a little less confident, cruel, powerful, independent, or sexual. At the end of this season, they are finally battle-tested, worthy adversaries for each other. We expected Pete and Peggy to emerge as the young stars of this season — but we had no idea that Betty (played utterly brilliantly by January Jones) would become just as fascinating as Don. Yes, Don’s catastrophe is more interesting than ever — but so is Betty’s. So what’s next for Don and Betty: abortion or a third kid, divorce or imperfect marriage? Will Don cheat again? Will Betty? What will Pete do? Is Roger headed for disaster? Will the next season skip to 1964? What will happen to the firm? And without Mad Men, what will you obsess over next?