Mad Women: 'Why Do They Get to Decide What's Going to Happen?'

Women are not simply happy because they're being provided for in this post-Betty Mad Men world. They want more, and more is varied, complicated, individual, and sometimes problematic.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Pete Campbell death conspiracists, Sunday night's episode started with a clue. In the first few minutes of the episode, Pete rides the commuter train from Cos Cob to New York City and is joined by his train-pal Howard, a life insurance salesman (shades of Double Indemnity!). But in this case, Howard's trying to sell to Pete, and Pete already has life insurance—it even covers suicide, we find out. This insurance talk also functions as a plot device, left there for Pete to come back to later in the episode, and maybe later in the season. More important for now is the rest of the conversation between Pete and Howard, in which Howard confesses he's got a "spectacular new thing," a "strawberry blonde with huge tits" in the city, as well as a new apartment where he might entertain his new dish. Pete, jealously (doesn't he want this as well?) asks, "What does your wife say?" Howard's response: "She's happy because I'm providing for her."

Therein lies the crux of the episode. Women are not simply happy because they're being provided for in this post-Betty Mad Men world. Not that Betty was happy, either. But there's a new push for freedom and independence. They want more, and more is varied, complicated, individual, and sometimes problematic. We see this with Peggy, Megan, and Howard's wife Beth (a cameo from Alexis Bledel); we've seen it with Joan throughout the seasons. In contrast, we see the men, especially Pete, flailing. We see Don getting "old," and a little bit out of touch. And as even the inpenetrable Roger tells Don later in the episode, in response to Megan departing the agency to pursue her acting career, "I sure as hell didn’t get to do what I wanted to do. My father told me.”

As for doing what they want to do, Megan gets a mysterious phone call at the beginning of the episode, then goes to take it, looking nervous and upset. Meanwhile, the men of the agency are doing a pitch in which a bunch of women chase after a man for the client Chevalier Blanc. As usual, this campaign is not an accident—it's a foil for the rest of the episode. Roger, in the other room, gives Pete some skis from another client for no real reason, it appears, other than to watch the distrustful Pete, who asks if the skis will explode, wrestle them out of the room. Later, Megan claims she has to meet Don for dinner with a client to get out of work with Peggy, but when Don calls Peggy to ask where Megan is, they both realize Megan is lying.

In the suburbs, Pete meets Beth, Howard's wife, in the parking lot of the train station. From this very first interaction it's clear what's about to transpire. Beth knows her husband is up to something—she says to Pete, "You're enough of a stranger that I've never heard your name, but you know where he is and I don't." But so does Pete, who sees opportunity here—despite Pete's attempts for control and power, sexual or otherwise, almost never actually going as planned. Pete offers Beth a ride; she accepts, getting hit in the head with the skis on the way to her house (symbolism heavy much?). It becomes clear, however, that Beth is in the driver's seat. After Beth and Pete have sex in her and Howard's house, they lie on the floor and talk, Beth saying she used to be like this, i.e., more reckless. She continues, "I’ve had men paying attention to me since before it was appropriate. They don’t care what I say. They just watch my lips move.” Pete, who may or may not sort of be in some lustful kind of love, says, "I’m paying attention to everything you say."

“This can never happen again,” says Beth, both fending off and inviting future advances. “I’m fine now. I’m going to have a snack and go to bed.”

Then we return to Megan's lie. She confesses to Don that she lied to Peggy to get out of work to have drinks with some friends. This, of course, is yet another lie, which we find out the next day. Megan apologizes to Peggy; Peggy is incensed, saying "don't put me in that position" (of having to lie to Don). Megan confesses that she got a callback, that she doesn't want to work at the agency at all, and that Don will never fire her. She feels trapped. Though Peggy doesn't get it, asking Megan if she knows people are killing to get a job like hers, it's hard not to connect the dots between this renewed ambition and last episode's scene with her dad, in which he tells her not to give up her ambitions so easily. Is Megan, indeed, thinking for herself and doing what she wants to do, or is she shifting allegiance to another man? After all, it was just a few week's ago that she was loving work at the agency and telling Don she didn't want to give it up.

We move to Megan and Don doing an adorable bit over Cool Whip, while Pete attempts to contact Beth and set up another rendezvous. Beth incorporates the tempt and shut down technique yet again, telling Pete to "enjoy the memory. Leave it alone. Fantasize about it, I will too...but don't call me again." Pete does not take that at face value.

In the middle of the night, Megan finally confesses to Don, telling him she misses acting and that she feels better "failing in an audition than succeeding at Heinz"—even though, as Don says, sometimes we don't get to choose what we're good at. Understanding new-model old Don says, "I don't want to keep you from your dream," and so, Megan will quit her job the next day. When he sends her home that afternoon in the elevator, he looks down the neighboring elevator shaft, where there's no car waiting. Portents?

Note, as soon as Megan is out of the agency her appearance changes: She's wearing her hair back in a ponytail, less makeup, she looks younger. At the same time, Don is just getting older, as we see when, at the end of the episode, she gives him a Beatles album to listen to and he makes it about halfway through the song before turning it off.

But before that, there's a scene with Peggy, now "Megan's substitute," in the Creative Cookery Kitchen where the team is pitching their Cool Whip idea. Peggy fails at the bit, though, not even able to remember "Just taste it," the tagline that had been so adorable when Megan and Don did it. Peggy bridles under Don's criticism, though, telling him, "You're not mad at me, so shut up!" and that Megan "thinks advertising is stupid." We learn in a conversation between Don and Roger that Don's worried if he doesn't give Megan free rein to follow her dream she'll end up like Betty, or her mother. Don may be crumpling under the pressure of so many women and their dreams.

Pete, rejected from his hoped-for hotel room rendezvous, becomes more desperate, turning to Harry Crane, who happens into his office, and asking of women "Why do they get to decide what's going to happen? Why do they give you a glimmer of hope in the midst of rejection?" Crane is practical, if basic: "They just do," he says (the Mad Men women have seen that sex can be power, even as it both is and isn't).

In an attempt to prove Crane wrong, Pete ends up conniving his way home with Howard via the possibility of a life insurance sale. He gets a dinner invite, even though Beth escapes with a migraine after he kisses her in her house with her husband in the next room. The end message is the same as it has been the entire episode: This will be on her terms, if at all. In the last scene, Beth draws a heart on a foggy car window as she sits in the parking lot with Howard. In the next car over, Pete watches. She rolls down the window, erasing the heart. It's a message for him, clearly, but what does it mean—and more importantly, what does Pete think it means?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.