“Meditations in an Emergency”
October 26th, 2008
“We don’t know what’s really going on; you know that.”
While there have been a lot of meta-critical statements made by characters in the universe of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, there is perhaps none more simple than this observation Don makes about the nature of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The entire series hinges on secrets, on facts hidden to everyone but a select few who are concealing something that is potential volatile. For the most part, these secrets are more dangerous to those who hold them than those who are in the dark: for others, not having secrets when you know that others do can leave you desperate for something, anything to identify with them.
The genius of “Meditations in an Emergency” is the emergency itself, the Cuban Missile Crisis which suddenly made the Cold War very real. Kinsey notes how everyone is looking at people in a different way, suddenly terrified that they’re a spy and that they’re helping to organize some sort of attack. For our characters, however, this culture of fear and concern is less a motivator to run for the hills in search of safety and more an opportunity to face what is truly inside of them. If there is a single unifying factor in our main characters, it is that none of them show any signs of running away in the face of this struggle: instead, they all run closer than ever before to that which has paralyzed them, that which has confused them, or that which has been causing them to question themselves.
What we get in this fantastic season finale, then, is a series of actions: letters written, confessions given, power plays made, acts committed, and feelings confronted. The end result is, without question, the ultimate test of these characters: it is a question not of whether we value their actions, but rather their choice in making them which defines who they are, and why they matter to us as a viewer, to Weiner as a writer, and to this series as a timepiece of a period of social and personal change.
I want to start in what might seem an odd place, by distinguishing what is the season’s greatest transformation: Harry Crane going from decent human being to selfish, one-minded and paranoid scum. It’s a fascinating turn, but more and more we see that he is not progressive in the least: it is he who is most concerned morally with Kinsey’s trip south, and who seems most put-off by Peggy getting Freddy’s office, and in this episode views Kennedy’s speech with concern not due to its politicized content but that it will push back the shows on which he has booked advertising. Now, don’t get me wrong: in a modern context, we complain about presidential addresses pre-empting our shows all the time (And some, although not very many, could complain on Wednesday when Barack Obama takes over the airwaves for his thirty minute address), and our knowledge of what Kennedy is going to say goes beyond Crane’s at the time. But as a season-long behaviour, Crane has gone from a man who earns himself a television department to someone who lets power go to his head, who ignores Joan’s potential in a new role, and who in this episode stumbles onto the merger from a perspective that he thinks is the big picture but is in reality only his own.
When we’re discussing an episode where, as noted above, most of our major characters ignore the doomsday scenario ongoing in favour of more personal introspection, it’s tough to draw that line between selfishness and self-interest. I do think that they are different here: while there are some actions taken that are certainly designed to improve one’s individual station in life, at the same time they are mainly an effort to rest their conscience, or allow them to move on to a new part of their life. For Harry, it doesn’t seem like he’s doing any of this: his lack of an existential crisis doesn’t render him useless to our narrative, but it does paint him in a different light altogether.
Let’s take, by comparison, someone like Betty Draper. Her actions in this episode are, perhaps, the most complex and are given the most time. While Don largely worked out his own issues on his trip to Los Angeles, Betty learns at the start of this episode what Peggy learned last year: that she is pregnant. I think it’s important to remember that, as much as we like to paint Betty as some form of child, at the end of the day her reaction is not the disoriented or psychologically damaged as Peggy’s last season. And it is also not concern over the environment the baby will be born into. Rather, it’s a question of whether she wants another thing tying her to this life, this life that she led with Don that she didn’t want to continue living, the freedom from which had set her on a dangerous, if certainly fulfilling, path. After she finds out she is pregnant, she ignores every one of the doctor’s wishes: she goes riding, she eats fried chicken, and she has casual sex with a man in a bar (Ryan McPartlin, “Chuck”).
Okay, so the doctor didn’t specifically mention the last point, but Betty’s actions in the episode are all about her doing what she’s been building up to all season: putting herself in Don’s shoes by committing adultery and having to live with that indefinitely. Faced with a pregnancy that she is powerless to stop, at least within what appear to be her moral bounds, she has to find some way to gain some sort of power. At this point, last week’s moral superiority for not sleeping with Arthur (when Sarah Beth did) is out the window: instead, she wants to have power, to feel free in a situation where most freedom appears to be slipping away from her. Before she went out to the bar, she told Don that she “had plans,” but it’s not clear to what extent she entered that bar hoping for her back room tryst. Regardless, though, no one can argue that Betty Draper was forced into anything: she was shepherd of her own destiny in that moment.
The question now, though, is what precisely she thought when she returned the next morning to find that Don had left a note admitting his mistakes and saying that he is willing to let her go and actually be free. Yes, certainly Don had no intention of leaving her in that moment, but it becomes clear that Betty is not as good at keeping secrets as perhaps she thought she would be. When she sits down at the table at episode’s end and says she needs to tell Don something, part of me felt that she was going to tell him about the sex, that her conscience was not as resilient as Don’s, and that she would need to unburden herself out of guilt considering Don’s newfound remorse. Instead, she tells him she’s pregnant: it’s the piece of news that does involve him most directly, and the one that sent her into this spiral to begin with. While I viewed last week’s choice of telling Sally about their marital trouble (which goes largely unfulfilled here) was teenage selfishness, this feels more real: the future is before her, and she is willing to work with Don to figure it out.
However, the burden of secrets and, in many ways, identity issues has shifted in the Draper marriage. Weiner has said that this season was about their marriage first and foremost, and moving forward they seem to be in the best place they’ve been, well, ever. While Betty will still have some issues to work out, Don seems more at ease with his identity than ever before, willfully switching between caring Father, kind Boss, loving Husband and shrewd Businessman without any sense that it is emotionally taxing. He’s not worried about being anyone but whoever the hell he self-identifies as. Whether this is just residual goodwill from his time spent as Dick Whitman in Los Angeles, a cleansing of sorts from months filled with self-doubt, or in fact a profound character change prompted by said trip, the fact remains that the Don Draper we see here is the least flawed we’ve seen since the show began.
I don’t think he is perfect, by any means: the letter he sends to Betty goes beyond being an honest expression of his feelings into a pitch for his character, self-effacing to the point of manipulation, as an example. But otherwise, it’s fairly clear that what Weiner is setting up is a character who is at peace with at least some part of himself, which we haven’t really seen before. For two seasons now, the central conflict has been Don Draper vs. Himself, a fight which has permeated all of his human reactions. The only times we’ve seen moments of clarity have been when he was in Los Angeles with Anna and, more importantly, when he’s in the various rooms of Sterling Cooper pitching his material, and in many cases finding greater emotion and meaning in those contexts than in any of his actual relationships. This episode had no “Carousel,” though, and this has to make us wonder: where does Don Draper go from here?
From the looks of things, with Don’s marriage on its best footing in a while and with his time in Los Angeles proving beneficial, the conflict will shift to Don Draper vs. The World, in particular the fact that Sterling Cooper’s new ownership has particular ideas of what the company should be doing that don’t involve clients. Yes, Duck’s power play was a failure due to Don’s lack of a contract, but this doesn’t change the fact that Puttnam, Powell & Lowe are an international company less concerned with Don’s creative perspective. Mark Moses did some amazing work as Duck this season, and it was no more clear here where we as the viewer are forced to balance his tragedy with his comeuppance. He was the villain of this story, getting in the way of Don’s way of doing things, so it is natural that we would want him to get it all thrown back in his face as opposed to being able to lord over everyone. We want to cheer as Pete tells Don of his plans, and when he realizes that with no contract to hold him back Don has more control than Duck ever realized.
But Duck is right: a modern advertising agency will need to focus more on buying time and placing their advertisements than they will about creative alone. Say what I will about Harry’s handling of the television department, but it is the wave of the future and Don is the way of the past. For a show that so values nostalgia, pretty soon it is going to become clear that Don represents the past: as Kinsey, Cosgrove and Salvatore are faced with a changing Sterling Cooper, they all realize that they want it to stay the same, and everyone feels that way. Redunancies aside, the world is changing around them, and for Don that conflict is now even closer to home.
Pete is, perhaps, my favourite story in this episode because it demonstrates, building on last week’s refusal to bow down to his father’s request, that the man is capable of having actual emotions. Mind you, his choice to tell Don of his plans is less a point of professional courtesy and more a grasp at ensuring the support of his original surrogate father figure (as opposed to Duck, who he only gravitated towards as a convenient replacement for Don), and I don’t doubt that he’d be willing to switch loyalties in the future. However, it does demonstrate that he is maturing, and that he is capable of handling these situations with the big picture in mind. After he so quickly attempted to use Don’s package from his brother to blackmail himself into a better job last season, here he used his information more carefully and, more importantly, in a way that was actually in direct opposition to his immediate promotion. In other words, Pete is no longer nearly as selfish, as demonstrated by how he uses this “secret” less to the advantage of himself and more to the advantage of his conscience.
Watching throughout the episode how Pete is pouring his heart out at every juncture, in particular to Peggy, it is all the more gutwrenching when we realize what she’s about to do. The episode, and in many ways the season, have been choreographing this moment. Of all the secrets we’ve seen, Peggy’s child is the most volatile. What we learn in this episode is that even we as an audience have been misled: Peggy’s sister isn’t raising her baby (As the flashbacks showed, she was also pregnant at the time), and it was rather given up for adoption. But what Weiner seems to be getting at is that it isn’t so much the facts that matter but the central reality, and its impact on Peggy as a character. When the show has such an attention to detail, it’s sometimes hard to remember that the broad strokes are what sometimes drive these characters, and that Peggy’s aversion to her nephew was more a general fear of babies than maternal diassociation.
There’s a lot for Peggy to be proud of this season, but she had to sacrifice a part of herself in order to do it. She had to compartmentalize, like Don did when he took on his new identity, so much of her past in order to keep on living the life she had outlined for herself. Of the reactions to the bombs (Trudy running off to her parents’ house, the woman in the salon with her bomb shelter, etc.), the one that is the most unfortunate is Father Gil using it as an opportunity to guilt Peggy into confessing her sin before she is condemned to hell in the event of a nuclear attack on New York. Their discussion of faith in that scene, combined with last week’s expansive religious imagery from Popsicle Jesus to Don baptizing himself in the Pacific, reminds us that religion is not a question of belief and non-belief: Peggy believes in God, but refuses to believe that he would judge her so harshly for what is a complex and extremely difficult decision.
If there is a single scene, then, that matches “The Wheel” in terms of depth of meaning and emotional power, it is Peggy’s decision to tell Pete the truth, a truth that he isn’t capable of handling and that she isn’t capable of internalizing any longer. It’s extremely tough to know whether it was, in fact, necessary for Peggy to tell Pete the truth, but that moment felt as real and genuine as anything each character (or each actor, for that matter) has done on the show. Faced with both Father Gil’s speech and Pete’s presumption that she is, in fact, perfect, Peggy is justified in feeling as if she can’t keep living a lie. In a way, it’s a situation not dissimilar to Don’s altercation with Anna in “The Mountain King” after she discoveres he is using her husband’s name: there is a central truth that needs to emerge in this scene, both to clear the air and to allow for them to move on from that moment.
It’s a decision that I don’t think the Don Draper of last season would have made: in fact, when Pete takes information about his identity to Cooper, he makes no attempts at coming clean both because he knows it won’t help him and also because he had become firmly entrenched in his identity. Peggy, however, wasn’t entrenched in her identity: she likes her new office, she’s damn good at her job, but like Dick Whitman selling used cars there isn’t that resolve, that determination that would let her keep lying. For some, it could be possible: to just push away Pete’s advances for years on end, to hope that he moves onto some other conquest in time. But Peggy had God peering over her shoulder, for one, and that was more than enough to compound her existing struggles and tell Pete that she gave away his child.
But Pete wasn’t prepared for that information in any fashion. While he may be appearing more human than we’ve ever seen him before, it’s a vulnerable humanity: it’s a choice to open himself up to his true feelings, or at least what he believes are his true feelings, and to have his entire world shattered in that state is almost, believe it or not, heartbreaking. I could have never imagined that it would be Pete who I empathized with most at the end of this episode, but it’s true: while Peggy is able to resolve her relationship with God and cross herself before she gets some sleep, Pete sits in a darkened office alone with a rifle pondering how it is he got to this point. In an episode where Pete does everything right, grasping for some semblance of human truth in a life defined by false pretences, Peggy’s truth blindsides and leaves him questioning everything all over again. It’s just as with Don and Betty: the secrets have transferred from one person to the other, either by choice or by unfortunate happenstances of truth, and where they head from here is an unknown path that will be further complicated by the changes at Sterling Cooper.
So, with our main characters switching roles and dealing with secrets kept, transferred or let loose into the world, we prepare to jump forward again to a period deeper into this decade. And yet, for one character this leap doesn’t feel right at all. Before this season began, I think I viewed Joan Holloway as an instigator more than anything else. She was someone who caused things to happen, who from her affair with Roger to her relationship with her rommate was focused most on maintaining an identity that was focused on being care-free. This season, however, has been all about us slowing learning more about the secret life of Joan Holloway: how she’s over 30, how she’s marrying a man who is threatened by the least bit of independence, and how she has aspirations to be more than an Office Manager and yet is so far into her “care-free” identity that no one takes her seriously. All of this began to paint a certain picture of the character, but it wasn’t until “The Mountain King” that Joan got her own secret shame.
The greatest frustration with “Meditations in an Emergency” is that Joan’s story is woefully unresolved, that we’re heading into next season having no idea whether she will kick Greg to the curb for raping her. It’s not that I expected her to stand proudly in her female empowerment and refuse to marry him within this episode: she is a maturing woman who has found an ideal mate on paper who will be able to provide for her as society expects, so she isn’t about to throw it all away. The Joan of the show’s second season is one who is compromising, and who has been forced at every turn to fall back on that compromise. Even as the TV gig gave her an opportunity to stretch her legs, so to speak, she’s right back at Don’s desk where she began, even watching Jane leap above her to marry Roger. I’m not suggesting that she would want to be in her position, but rather that she surely wants to be in a different situation than marrying a man who is so scared of her social and sexual emancipation that he needs to rape her in her boss’ office to feel like a real man.
And yet, she’s not the only one who we leave at a point of uncertainty created by their choice of relationship. It’s been a while since “The Gold Violin” shed more light on Salvatore Romano’s sham marriage with Kitty, but his repressed homosexuality was brought up again recently when Kurt came out of the closet at Sterling Cooper. The one problem with thirteen episode seasons is that characters like Sal are left out in the cold, and in this case it feels like we had a lot more to learn about his situation. He married her, we presume, because he wanted to conform to society enough that he could take part in the rituals he wanted most: dinner parties, houseguests, having a home to share with other people, and someone who he could cook dinner for. However, he truly wanted these things, whereas Joan, despite deciding to marry Greg for many of the same reasons, in reality only feels like she has to settle for those things before she isn’t able to land such a “catch.” Both of these people are more complex than their choices of partner, and both have serious identity issues that the show has brought to the surface and yet failed to give us a payoff for.
It feels as if this is part of Matthew Weiner’s intention, however. The break between seasons one and two was less about the results of the previous finale and more about the change that took place in between. That which is unseen, those gaps and omissions, are important: it was where Joan settled down, and where Sal married Kitty and began to live his lie. Whether Joan married Greg during this break, or whether Sal eventually leaves Kitty before season three begins, it demonstrates that lives are in constant motion during this period. Even if there is only enough time during thirteen forty-seven minute episodes to show the changes in a few key characters, there are very few individuals who are capable of standing completely still in an era of intense social change.
When Mad Men returns next year (and while Weiner has yet to sign on, AMC’s desire to continue the series and the overwhelming response to Season Two should guarantee another season), we’ll be adding another chapter to the lives of these characters. I was having a conversation with a friend tonight about the value of television in terms of being able to, over multiple episodes and seasons, expand on a character to the point of being able to ask fundamentally new and different questions with each passing hour. With Mad Men, this is amplified by the shifts in time, allowing new ways of the characters experiencing the world. By connecting these characters so closely to the time period, whether through television, radio, or simple human interactions, their secrets become relics, their lives becomes archives, and this show remains the strongest drama on television.
- First off, a big shoutout to those who have been following these posts from the beginning of the season, and commenting even! While I am perfectly content to just talk about the show to myself for hours on end, being able to enter into a dialogue is why I do this, and why this show in particular is so rewarding. Thanks to all of you, and I only wish I’d have had more time week by week to enter into that dialogue on a more active basis once the review was posted.
- For a show that can often be quite humorous, there was very little funny about this episode: in fact, only really Harry got anything close to a laugh when his paranoia at the impending merger got to a fever pitch as he checked out the quality of the food in the fridge. It appears that, even if our characters weren’t paralyzed by the Cuban Missile Crisis, they certainly weren’t in the mood for a laugh.
- That’s it for me, I think – if you’re looking for even MORE analysis, you can check out Alan Sepinwall’s review, Maureen Ryan’s thoughts, and Alan’s lengthy but fascinating interview with Weiner about the season as a whole. And, a special thanks to both of them for serving as a great source for analysis and reporting about the show.