“Meditations in an Emergency,” this past weekend’s much-anticipated Season 2 closer of Mad Men, was rumored to be action-packed…inasmuch as the roguishly scrupulous AMC series could be. (Look for Paste‘s review of the episode later today.) The finale sneak peek on AMC.com casually drew taught of strings of season 2’s many repressed conflicts—Don’s infidelity, Betty’s mysterious health problem, the corporate future of Sterling Cooper, Pete’s marital discord—while the ad men threw around optimistic suggestions about the expansion of the business, futures burgeoning with corvettes and financial independence. But the boyish banter cut short when Paul joked, “Why am I feeling sick to my stomach?”
Sick, yeah. That’s kind of how the audience felt during the first moments of episode 12,”The Mountain King,” when we witnessed Betty (January Jones) yanking her child by the hair and stuffing her in a closet. Then gifting penitent tokens in the next scene.
“I ruined everything. My family. My wife. My kids,” Don tells his alter-ego’s widow. In this sunny California home, his relationship with Anna Draper unfolds in a series of short scenes. She’s the wife of the officer whose identity “Dick Whitman” stole, in order to flee his military contract. In a matter of moments, we see Don revealed as never before—from the anxiety of their first meeting, where he informs her of her husband’s death and offers to pay her off, to his wide-eyed proclamation of love for his future fiancee “Elizabeth,” then the desperate, present-day man. The one who gets to still be “Dick” in Anna’s house, who asks, “I’ve told you things I’ve never told Betty. Why does it have to be that way?”
The stark, clean lines of Don’s Sterling Cooper office setup, the perfect shapeliness of Betty’s Marilyn curls, her starchy riding uniform—Anna’s house is the foil to Don’s New York life. In California, he walks down the street in loose-fitting clothes, stops to talk with a classic cars mechanic and asks if he’ll be needing any help in the future. Dick sits on wicker rocking chairs, or in Anna’s bright, multi-colored living room, wind chimes tinkling in the distance. The big question is whether or not Don will abandon his Madison Avenue life for the simplicity and warmth of the west coast. Of course, he won’t, but in this sequence the viewer is jolted out of Mad Men‘s trademark intimacy-by-inches deliberation. Here’s our prickly, misogynistic hero frightened, then awe-filled. It’s heartbreaking, his face when he divulges his feelings for his future wife, but even more affecting is to see Don grateful, to see him close to someone.
This revelation was not the only surprise offered in episode 12. The show’s closed-door sensibility (in regards to its charcters’ dirty laundry) flies open with a close-up of Jane Holloway’s (Christina Hendricks) face pressed to the carpet by the hand of her would-be husband. When the newly office-appointed Peggy—who has revealed herself this season as something of an ambitious, calculating, female Don character—remarks to Joan, “he’s the doctor you hope to see but only exists in the movies,” the head secretary responds sweetly, explaining that he does charitable work for “negro children in Harlem,” and that they’ll be married around Christmas. Joan’s smile is juxtaposed with the same droning of ambient office noise that surrounded the rape scene, and the viewer can’t help but impose the terrifying image of her fiance’s fingers flattening her beehive against the floor.
After Betty’s bleeding in episode 12, many are speculating that an unplanned pregnancy will force Don and Betty back together. My vote’s on illness, another goose for reconciliation, but then it seems unlikely that Don would leave her anyway. Will Betty abandon Don? Not yet, I think. Not until the end of the series. But if anything can be gleaned from AMC’s teasers, “Meditations in an Emergency” promises to force her to a point of reckoning.