First, I will say this: When the warning about brief nudity showed up at the beginning of last night’s season finale of Mad Men, Roger Sterling’s bare ass was the last thing I expected to see in an episode chock full of things that I mostly expected to see. The surprises that we did get were surprising in a very different way than the things that happened over the last few weeks, though.
The amount of anxiety I felt heading into last night’s show was incredible. I was sure that yet another shoe would drop, and drop heavily; I was partially correct. A shoe did drop, but softly, and in a way that didn’t really hit me until Nancy Sinatra was singing us out of the season, promising both James Bond swagger and near-universal renewal for our friends at Sterling Cooper Draper Whatever. Or is that renewal just a dream? If you listen closely to what Ms. Sinatra was saying, it might be.
Don Draper has a toothache. It was one of the only things that I truly didn’t like about the episode, mostly because it was so transparent; Don Draper is rotting from the inside out, and Lane’s suicide has only hastened the process, GET IT?!? That’s what I felt like Matthew Weiner was screaming at us, anyway. It wasn’t a particularly subtle episode, but the toothache, along with Don’s visions of his dead brother that it brought along with it, were two of the most tiresomely unsubtle things about it.
Spoiler alert: Don finally went to the dentist and got the tooth pulled just in the knick of time. If left any longer, it would have rotted off Don’s whole jaw, and what a shame it would be to waste a jaw so exquisite. During the extraction, the dentist turned into Adam, complete with neck bruises, just to make the whole thing more obvious than it already was. The tooth did make it out, though. We saw it sitting, bloody but intact, on the dentist’s tray. So are we supposed to take that as a signal that Don might be able save himself next season? That seemed to be the message, no matter how far-fetched.
At the house, Mrs. Calvet had come into town for reasons I didn’t exactly understand, narratively, but thematically, she was there to rub it in that her daughter isn’t yet a famous actress after a couple months on the audition trail. Megan even went for a ripoff screen test, but to no avail. The ripoff screen test was a ripoff, just like Megan probably knew it would be, because she’s no fool and never has been. She seems to have quickly tired of the whole “aspiring actress” thing, though, perhaps giving us a clue as to why she tried out the full-time advertising game in the first place. Did Megan think that having a rich husband would give her an automatic advantage in booking gigs? It sure seemed that way.
For the entire episode, Megan wallowed in her own sadness and failure, even undercutting a friend who had asked for help in getting an audition for one of SCDP’s commercials to put herself up for the part. Don said no and Megan wallowed harder, giving her mother the opportunity both to be absolutely cold as ice and also to explicate one of the season’s biggest themes: Hardly anyone ever really gets what they always wanted out of life. If what you always wanted is to be a successful creative of some type, that number shrinks down to almost zero. Predictably, that wasn’t what Megan was trying to hear.
When speaking of soul-crushing self-doubt and ennui, it’s impossible not to include Pete Campbell. After running into Train Buddy and Rory Gilmore on the way to work, Pete received a call to meet Rory in a hotel room, just like he had requested of her weeks prior. He acquiesced, of course, because what else was he doing with his time? Sitting around his office, trying to think of ways to lessen his own self-loathing? Particularly since she told him it might be the last time they could be together, Pete was practically panting at the opportunity, even if he didn’t want to seem like it on the phone.
Pete was so overcome with anticipation, in fact, that he stomped out of a partner’s meeting that Joan was trying so hard to oversee with professionalism and expertise. Joan didn’t play a big part in this episode, but what we did see of her, I absolutely loved. She’s trying hard to find exactly the right fit for herself in her new role, and although she’s still settling in, it was clear that she’s actually better at it than any of the existing partners. Particularly when it came to the issue of expansion, Joan took the lead where the boys couldn’t be bothered to pay attention.
It’s important to note, though, that Joan is probably also better at her job because she has to be. As a female partner, she doesn’t have the luxury of being given the benefit of the doubt by literally everyone she encounters like Roger or Bert are, and in order to be perceived as even close to equal to them, she has to be flawless in a way that would never be expected of a male businessman. That’s the cross that workplace pioneers like Joan had to bear in the late 60s, and it’s smart that Weiner gave us a reminder of it instead of letting her fall into the rhythms of the office immediately.
While Joan and the partners finished up their meeting, Pete was already headed to meet Rory Gilmore. When he arrived, Rory explained to him that she wasn’t actually going to visit her sister, as she had told him on the train, but that she was checking into a mental hospital for a course of electroshock therapy at the behest of her husband, and it wouldn’t be her first experience with the horrifying technique. Not only has Rory Gilmore had it done before, but she was sadly blasé about doing it again.
The revelation was another sad reminder of the role of housewives at the time, as well as a further peek into exactly how terrible a human being Train Buddy actually is. While he’s in the city, banging his mistress, the woman he’s emotionally crushed is expected to have her brain scrambled (AGAIN) because their marriage is too awful for her to bear. Although I suppose that the argument could be made that if the only way you can think of to distract yourself from your depression is to bang Pete Campbell, then perhaps electroshock therapy is a viable alternative, particularly if it means that you’ll forget that you banged him in the first place.
Pete and Rory Gilmore slept together once again, for old time’s sake, but the truly revealing part of the encounter was their pillow talk afterward. Pete spoke of love and fulfillment and the possibility that they should run off to Los Angeles together, where there is sunshine, and it became clear that Pete still thought, or at least wanted to think, that his own emotional salvation could maybe be found in another person, another woman, another relationship. That’s not true, of course.
Rory knew it wasn’t true, too, and she seemed a bit surprised, albeit quietly, that Pete had yet to come to that conclusion himself. Although I suppose when you’ve been subjected to multiple electroshock treatments by your cheating husband, you get pretty realistic about what it is you’re doing when you take home a strange man from the train station. Rory was never looking for salvation, she was just looking for a temporary serotonin rush to make her existence feel less painful for a couple of hours. Despite being crazypants and quite possibly brain-scrambled, she proved herself far more practical and realistic than Pete, and maybe more so than any of our characters. Except for the part where she vaguely mentioned killing herself, anyway.
Later in the episode, Pete went to visit Rory Gilmore after her electroshock treatments, in what was perhaps one of Vincent Kartheiser’s best scenes of the series. Rory didn’t remember him, so Pete sat down and sadly, quietly told her about his “friend,” who had tried looking for a cure to his sadness in other women and other relationships, only to find out that the hole at the center of his being likely couldn’t be filled, and anything that he was doing to try and fill it was little more than a temporary bandage on a wound that would never heal. For a moment, I felt a bit of anxiety that the show might be setting us up for a second suicide, but that passed pretty quickly; that would be way too gimmicky for Matthew Weiner.
Back at the office, we got one last Joan-Don scene to send us into the off-season. It was mentioned in Season 4 that all the partners have a life insurance policy that pays out to company at the time of their death, and Lane’s check had come in the mail to the tune of a whopping $175,000, which would be about $1.2 million in today’s dollars. They talked over the aftermath of Lane’s death for a bit, and we found out that not only does Don blame himself, but so does Joan, because she always rebuffed his meager advances. In their situation, I think it’s natural for anyone to feel a bit at fault, but Don assured her that there was nothing anyone could have done to prevent it. He said it convincingly, but we all knew how he really felt: it couldn’t be Joan’s fault because it was definitely his.
They decided that part of the insurance settlement should be used to pay back Lane’s initial investment in the agency to his widow, and Don did the dubious honors of delivering the check. Mrs. Pryce, in her endless Britishness, was composed and fairly calm for someone whose husband hanged himself in the not-distant past, and although she accepted the check, she didn’t do it quietly. First came the admonitions for filling a man like Lane with ambition in the first place (and she was right, he clearly wasn’t cut out for anything beyond his place as a cog in the machine at PPL), and then she produced the picture that Lane had stolen out of the strange man’s wallet at the beginning of the season.
Mrs. Pryce thought that it was a picture of a mistress, of course, because what else could a small photo of a beautiful woman that you found hidden in your dead husband’s wallet ever be? Don had no answers, naturally, because he had never seen the woman or the picture before, but to Lane’s wife, it just looked like Don covering for his fallen coworker. As she slammed the door in his face, she told him not to think that he had actually done anything nice for her by bringing her a check. Don desperately needed to hear that he was off the hook, but looking for absolution from a dead man’s wife is probably not the wisest of pursuits.
At home, Don found Megan awkwardly asking for an audition for a shoe commercial and a heavy breather on the other end of the phone. The heavy breather, hilariously, turned out to be Roger, who pretended to be Megan’s dad in order to proposition Mrs. Calvet for a second meeting. While they were discussing the terms of their rendezvous, Don was telling Megan that he wouldn’t give her an audition because she didn’t want to succeed because she was someone’s wife, but rather because she was the best person for the part. He was wrong, though. Megan just wanted to succeed, and at that point, she’d take it any way she could get it. Still, though, he denied her. For the moment, anyway.
On his own way home, Pete ran into Train Buddy, who was rip-roaring drunk and ready to celebrate his wife’s brand new, freshly scrambled brain. He invited Pete to get off the train at the next stop and head back into the city with him to party, at which point Pete couldn’t help but reveal that he knew Rory Gilmore wasn’t visiting her sister. Train Buddy indicated that she has a tendency to sleep with whoever’s around when she gets into a mood, and because Matthew Weiner loves us, a fight broke out and Pete got punched in the face.
In that particular situation, it was probably Train Buddy who most sorely deserved to get hit, but because Pete is Pete, it had to be him. Once the fight was broken up by some fellow commuters, Pete also got into a shouting match with a train attendant, who eventually punched him in the face as well. That time, Pete definitely deserved it. Back home, though, Pete sold his injuries to Trudy as the result of a freak car accident (although there were no scratches on the car, which is not entirely unbelievable when you consider the type of giant steel tanks people drove in the 60s), at which point she suggested, nay, insisted that they get him an apartment in the city. Score one for Pete Campbell, even if we all know that it won’t make a bit of difference in his actual happiness.
While Roger was pressuring Mrs. Calvet to take LSD with him (she flatly refused while guiding his hand down the front of her dress, in what would be easily the funniest scene of the episode), Don went to the movies, which has always been his old standby when he needs to clear his head and hide from people for an hour or two. At the movies, he found Peggy, doing exactly what he always used to do, and in the same position to be doing it. There was a subtlety to seeing the two of them sit together in the theater that had been sorely missing from some of the episode’s other scenes, and it was a pleasure to watch.
We knew from previously in the episode that Peggy’s firmly ensconced as the head of copy at CGC, which means that she’s assumed a role similar to Don’s, just at a different agency. Things aren’t perfect, of course; the people under her are incompetent in the way that underlings are generally incompetent. But she does get to go on a plane to visit the Virginia manufacturing plant of a new ladies’ cigarette, and she’ll get to name what eventually become Virginia Slims. It’s an undeniable promotion, but it’s also another reminder that in general, dream jobs don’t exist. That’s why they’re dreams. I didn’t get a feeling that Peggy was unhappy, though. Just slightly more attuned to reality.
This is the point in the show at which Don had that tooth extraction that I already mentioned, and afterward, he ended up back in the office, by himself, puffing on a cigarette he had specifically been told to skip and watching Megan’s audition reel. The video of her was a stark reminder of exactly how beautiful she is, and she might even be a good actress, we don’t know. There wasn’t a sound. Don didn’t look happy while he was watching, though. Not quite. More like he knew that he had to go ahead and give her the part, lest they stay in that unhappy limbo forever, where she’s constantly looking for work and upset that she can’t find any.
The scene of Don and Megan on set for the commercial, for which she was eventually cast, made the entire episode for me. She looked positively silly, not at all like a respectable businessman’s wife or the strong, levelheaded young woman with whom Don fell in love. He visited her on set, of course, because not only was she his wife, but it was his agency’s commercial. She looked elated and gushed that she loved Don more than anything, and although he smiled back, he also turned and walked away. Into the darkness, both literally and figuratively.
During the episode’s final montage, in which we saw Roger, butt-naked and clearly tripping by himself, and Peggy, also by herself with two dogs humping outside of her window (what did that even mean?), the focus was clearly on Don. We found him sidled up to a bar with “You Only Live Twice” providing the soundtrack, ordering an old fashioned (how appropriate, in approximately every way) and being approached by a woman on behalf of an interested friend. Again, Weiner earns back some of the subtlety that he lost early in the episode – instead of hearing Don explicitly state that he’s alone, we cut to black before he answered.
We all know what he said, though. Maybe not the exact words, but we’ve been waiting for the other shoe – Don’s inevitable infidelity – to drop all season, and it finally did. Megan had a drunk tantrum Mrs. Calvet swooped in at the right moment to remind him that it was the life he had given her that had made her this way, and because he knew how that would end (with another Betty debacle), he gave her what she wanted. It wasn’t what he wanted, though, so he went right back to doing the things that distracted him from his unhappiness in his last marriage – boozing and womanizing. There was no other way that things could end with Megan, even if they technically haven’t ended yet.
For some reason, I went into this episode expecting to get one final blow to my soul after back-to-back difficult episodes. I should have known better, though; in both Seasons 3 and 4, Matthew Weiner has used exactly the same structure. We get the heaviest stuff in the last few weeks (for example, The Suitcase from last season), and in the finale, he ties up some loose ends and tells us where we’re headed. Last season, that was Megan and Don’s engagement. The season before, it was the hotel room setup of the new firm. This season, Joan’s partnership and Lane’s suicide begat a Don Draper that’s no longer fighting his demons. In that context, this episode seems like a perfectly reasonable ending, if a bit of an uneven one at certain points. There are questions to be asked about the specifics, but tonally, we know what’s coming in Season 6. For better or for worse.
- ”You Only Live Twice” was pretty perfect, not only because there are parallels in audience reaction to both James Bond and Don Draper, but because the lyrics of the song, plus the montage to which they were set, gave us tons of clues about where things were headed. Pete and Peggy seem to both be set up for a second chance, even if this show seems to agree with F. Scott Fitzgerald that there are no second acts in American lives. It’s hope, if perhaps false hope.
Don and Roger, on the other hand, seem to have both used up their second lives. Roger, in one of the best lines of the evening, laments that his LSD enlightenment has worn off, and Don’s clearly off of love leave. What’s next for those two might be significantly different than what’s coming for Peggy and Pete, but considering how second lives tend to go on this show, maybe it won’t be all that different after all.
- There were lots of great quotes last night. Among them: “I need a window, I’m getting scurvy.” “Stop being demure, you’re already on the bed.” “Not every little girl gets to do what they want. The world could not support that many ballerinas.” I think I missed a couple of others in my notes, but by and large, a strong episode for quips.
- Teddy Chaugh asked Peggy if her boyfriend lights her cigarettes. The wingwoman at the bar asked Don for a light to break the ice and start their conversation. Not a coincidence.
- Also not a coincidence: Don watching Megan’s reel was a clear callback to the brilliant Kodak “Carousel” pitch that Don gave in the first season finale, except with a decidedly different tone.
- The visuals at the beginning of the episode (Don’s hands performing tasks, disconnected from the rest of his body) also reminded me of the episode that opens on him making a bottle for baby Gene. That, on the other hand, was likely not an intentional reference. Or maybe it was; I can’t remember what happened in that episode, either way.
- The visual of all five partners lined up to look out the windows in their new office floor was great, if a tad on-the-nose.
- The more I think about it, the more I hated the toothache storyline but enjoyed the episode as a whole. Up until the end, I was unsure if the episode was any good, but the final montage was so on-point that it managed to reorder how I saw a lot of the previous scenes.
- But really, though, what was up with the humping dogs outside of Peggy’s window?
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