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.