The Season 2 finale of Mad Men is set at the most imminently threatening moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The panic, rather than serving as the impetus for each brewing confrontation, invades the episode quietly, the characters behaving with a sort of eerie calm. It’s the moment before the bomb falls and they’re in search of redemption.
“Meditations” begins by dispelling the air of mystery that surrounded the last few episodes. There were so many questions taking shape in “The Mountain King,” the second season’s penultimate episode: Would Don return from California? Would Betty let him? What would become of her foreshadowed illness? Would Pete reconcile with his wife’s wishes? Who would be invited to work at the newly bought-out Sterling Cooper?
The beginning of episode 13 lays the plot-based teasers to bed. In the first utterance, we know that Betty’s pregnant. Then, Don returns and asks forgiveness. Pete refuses to leave Manhattan with his wife, and Don takes a stand against Duck’s business-obsessed leadership. The skeleton of the narrative emerges. What’s left to find out is how the characters will react.
And it’s the fear of nuclear annihilation that allows the handful to act decisively, to pursue what they want as if the world might end tomorrow. The heart of “Meditations in an Emergency” is the scene between Pete and Peggy—Pete, who miraculously became halfway likeable this season, and Peggy, who became incrementally less so. We thought this moment of reckoning would never come. And here’s the salesman, teary-eyed and free of artifice, offering himself unwittingly to the mother of his child, only to be abandoned by the ad woman who’s proven herself more Draper-ish than the Don of this episode.
But somehow they both manage to unburden themselves of a hidden truth, or as the act functions for Peggy, of her sins (foreshadowed earlier by Father Gill’s intervention). When Peggy says her prayers that night, there’s no hint of anxiety about bombs or her future at SC. She’s relieved herself of the guilt and made right with god, a release that facilitates her grand transformation. Peggy has what she wants now, which seems to be nothing more than herself and her ambition.
As for Don and Betty, they end up where we know they will. Don writes his wife a letter, the recitation of which contains more intimacy and vulnerability than we’ve seen from their relationship in two seasons. Betty weighs her options, sleeps with a stranger in a deliberate, anonymous setting (deliciously mirroring the behavior we’ve seen from her husband throughout the series), and in doing so is able to accept Don back, at least for now.