Every week for the sixth season of AMC's acclaimed series Mad Men, our roundtable of Eleanor Barkhorn (Sexes editor, TheAtlantic.com), Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for TheAtlantic.com's Entertainment and Sexes channels), and Amy Sullivan (National Journal correspondent) will discuss the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Barkhorn: Wow. Well. Wow. Ok. Just...wow.
After the initial shock of everything that happened in this packed episode passed, the first word that came to mind is, finally. So many things took place in this episode that have been building for weeks, even years. Yet now that they've happened, they feel surprising. I've been lulled for so long by the slow emotional inertia of Mad Men that when big things finally materialize they're both startling and inevitable.
The most shocking-yet-predictable moment was, of course, Don and Betty's tryst. The possibility of their reunion has been building since the season four finale, when they said goodbye to the old house in Ossining. Betty had such a look of longing in her eyes in that scene, I thought they'd end up in bed right then. But, of course, no. It took another season and a half for the reunion to take place: For Betty to get fat and then thin again; to go brunette and then blonde again; to find herself again waiting for her husband at a party while another man hits on her, the exact set-up for when she first met Henry. And, conversely, Don had to get happy and then unhappy again, to be a faithful husband and then cheat again. And then they had to meet again, without their new spouses, at Bobby's camp, where it could almost look like they'd never split up.
Notice that their little affair depends on Betty's (relative) happiness and Don's unhappiness. It seems that the confidence of her renewed beauty and her renewed effect on men is what enables Betty to sleep with Don. She catches Don's eye by sitting outside in her shorts, then confidently leaves her cabin door open so he'll come in to her. The line Don uses to get her into bed is, "You are as beautiful as the day I met you." The obvious message is: Fat Betty is gone—beautiful, youthful Betty is back. But it's a line Betty feeds to him by asking what he thought when he first saw her earlier that day. Betty is in control.
Don, on the other hand, is, as ever, living in the past. As soon as Betty lights her post-coital cigarette, Don starts longing for what's gone. "I missed you," he says, somewhat preposterously. For me the line of the episode was from Betty, after Don tries to get her to talk about their marriage: "I don't think about that anymore...I'm happy in my life. Let's just enjoy this." Though she's in bed with her ex-husband, Betty has moved on. That point is driven home in the scene the morning after they have sex. Don arrives at breakfast and sees Betty happily eating with Henry by the window. Don must go to the back of the restaurant and eat alone.
Another big moment that's been a long time coming is the Abe-Peggy breakup. It's been a mystery why an ambitious copy editor and an idealistic radical are together, especially when they had such obvious contempt for one another. Again, it was both surprising and inevitable that what finally drove them apart was Peggy stabbing him in the stomach. Should we be worried about this article he keeps talking about?
We also saw, finally, Ted acknowledge his kiss with Peggy from a few episodes back. The first scene between the two of them, when he chastises her for touching his hand during a presentation, was so silly I thought it might be a dream sequence. But the final scene, when an exhausted and ragged Peggy tells Ted she's broken up with Abe and Ted responds like a clueless, heartless Don Draper, was heartbreakingly real. Last week's episode ended with Don walking out of Ted's groovy office into the orderly, streamlined hallway of the past. This week's conclusion saw Peggy staring at the closed doors of her two mentors, Don and Ted. What's next for her? Her own agency—another "finally" Mad Men seems to be pushing toward?
Other finallys: Roger trying to be a part of his son's life (though only after he's been told he can't be a grandfather anymore), Bob Benson and Joan getting together, the strain of Pete's personal life starting to affect his professional life. What did you think of those, Ashley?
And what did you think of Megan's storyline here: her confession of loneliness to Arlene, Arlene's pass at her, and her later insistence to Don that something in their marriage has to change? Thoughts on what lies ahead for her marriage, and her career?
Fetters: Oh. Man. Couldn't agree more, Eleanor—this was the juiciest episode all season, and it made me realize just how emotionally meager things had gotten on this show.
I'm still reeling from the Don and Betty reunion. I loved every minute of it, basically. But it was the opposite of the Weird Don-Weird Betty train wreck we'd been anticipating—rather, it was a lucid encounter between a clear-eyed Betty and a very frank Don. I think what we learned from it is how much Betty has figured Don out since they were married; her line about how Megan doesn't realize that loving Don is the worst way to get through to him was both searing and sad. It's true: Women who love Don become objects and obligations to him.
It's kind of nice to see the pair of them talk honestly about sex, too. Hearing Don admit that sex "doesn't mean that much to him" was both unsurprising and totally surprising, I thought; the sentiment isn't surprising, but the fact that he said it out loud—and to Betty, who spent a lot of years waiting at home while he was having all his meaningless sex—was a little jarring. I think, in a weird twist, he trusts Betty now more than he ever used to.
And when Don wakes up in a vacated hotel room and then finds Betty having a cheerful, affectionate breakfast with her husband, it's clear that Betty has not only figured Don out but learned a few of his tricks, too. Betty has sex with Don the way Don has sex with everyone: As an auxiliary act, something that takes place outside of her real life and therefore doesn't have any consequence in it.
Betty and Don's post-sex conversation was just one of a few great frank, necessary conversations in this episode. Peggy and Ted sorting out what to do with the fact that they kissed was refreshingly subtext-free and eloquent (even if Ted went and made things confusing again later on), and Abe's quasi-deathbed speech in the ambulance--well, it pretty plainly showed that Peggy dodged a bullet (even if Abe wasn't as fortunate in dodging a switchblade... either time... yikes).
Pete's conversation with Duck Phillips (!) was a pretty intriguing one, too. Did that whole chat have a funny glass-ceiling sort of feel to it? Pete Campbell can't have it all, apparently: He feels the pressure to finally get himself promoted to a management position, but there are only so many hours in the day, and Pete has somebody to take care of at home who needs him. Later he says he's "being pulled in a million directions" between his home life and his professional life. Hmm... the work-life balance has arrived on Mad Men, I guess. Another finally.
As for Bob and Joan, that's setting up some fun intrigue. The scene where Roger dropped in while they were packing up for the beach was deliciously uncomfortable—"We're all a little bit out of context right now"—and I hope there's more where that came from. The old-young interplay between suitors was funny, and Joan's cover-up line about how "some people never stop working" made me LOL. Because, Roger.
Joan said something in passing, though, that stuck with me. "Actually, he's the only person there who's never broken a promise to me," she tells Bob about Pete Campbell. Did that make you want to re-watch the entire series and make a running tally of Sterling Cooper employees' broken promises to Joan? Because it made me want to. And more importantly, it hints at the fact that Joan herself may have a running tally of that very sort somewhere in her impeccably organized file cabinet. She's keeping score, and I wonder if we'll find out more about that later on.
The Megan-Arlene misfire was pretty awkward, and I think we're supposed to think it could further endanger her already on-the-rocks soap opera job. And the confession of loneliness is just one more alarm bell going off, telling us that Megan feels abandoned in her marriage. We've known for a while that she's been conscious of it—remember when she confessed to her mom that sometimes it felt like with Don she was just trying to make conversation? Don has a way of pacifying Megan's concerns with kisses, as he did in this episode, and I get the feeling that trick won't work much longer.
But then again, I've had that feeling for quite a while now. And as Arlene seemed to be saying, if her whole "I'm so lonely" routine isn't a hint that she wants something else to happen—be that an experimentation with her female co-star or just an escape from Don—it isn't doing anything productive. It's just a tease.