“Meditations in an Emergency” Review
“The Eager Note on My Door …”
Mad Men is a show that often seems like it’s going nowhere. For example, season two has been somewhat of a transitional year — problems arose, but nothing has really been solved. By the end of “Meditations in an Emergency,” we’re back where we started. Nevertheless, the subtle storylines that have been building throughout the year are wrapped up so masterfully … and so unexpectedly … that we already can’t wait to do it all over again in season three.
In “Meditations in an Emergency,” Don Draper finally returns home to New York City, Betty Draper finds out that she’s pregnant and Sterling Cooper merges with Putnam, Powell & Lowe. It hardly sounds like compelling television, but because we’ve spent so long building up to moments we didn’t even know we were building up to, the payoff is entirely worth it.
Just as the best scene of any given Mad Men episode is often the last, the best episode of any given Mad Men season is often the finale. “Meditations” is no exception. It’s the best installment of the year by far.
The episode takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which casts a doomsday vibe over the proceedings. In the background, the pouring rain only adds to the general sense of unease. Fittingly, “Meditations in an Emergency” is a critical juncture for the future of the series.
Mirroring the structure of season two itself, the episode starts off slow and builds to a dramatic conclusion. The final 10-or-so minutes are fantastic, stacking several emotional scenes one after another. But instead of giving us a touching and profound sentiment as in last year’s climactic Carousel speech, “Meditations in an Emergency” leaves us with nothing but emptiness.
For example, Peggy Olson finally confesses to Pete Campbell that she had his baby, and that she decided to give it up for adoption rather than guilting him into marrying her. Of course, this comes right after Pete has confessed his love for her.
Even though the revelation is a major step forward for Peggy, it’s a heartbreaking scene filled with years of unspoken history and shared struggle. Pete is dumbfounded and ends the season sitting alone in his office clutching a shotgun, probably wishing the Russians would just blow up the world already. A stunning conclusion to the questionable anti-romance that began all the way back in the pilot.
Meanwhile, Betty has felt like her world was ending ever since she found out that Don cheated on her with Bobbie Barrett. To add to her stress and overall confusion, she finds out that she’s pregnant in the episode’s very first scene. Betty immediately contemplates abortion but reconsiders due to the social stigma. But that doesn’t stop her from horseback riding and drinking alcohol against the doctor’s recommendation. Even though she’s the character most deserving of our sympathy, she’s become more emotionless and disconnected than ever.
When Don suddenly returns home and tries to pick back up like nothing ever happened, Betty has no idea how to respond. That’s why she ultimately takes the easy way out and lets Don back in. But not before hooking up with a random stranger in a downtown bar as a way to get back at him for years of infidelity.
However, Betty’s one-night stand isn’t powerful; it’s pitiful. She seems to do it out of obligation and takes no enjoyment from the encounter, keeping the secret affair to herself. In Mad Men’s world of twisted morals, Betty lacks the strength for abortion, divorce and sexual revenge.
The tragedy is that she’s entirely dependent on Don and will never be able to liberate herself. For example, when she finally tells him that they’re going to have another baby, they have no choice but to begrudgingly accept the fact. The episode ends with the two of them sitting at the kitchen table in silence, unsure how to react to a marriage built on lies and guilt. It’s the only way the season could’ve concluded.
In many ways, “Meditations in an Emergency” wants us to reflect on how the characters began the season — Betty goes from lovelorn to loveless, Peggy goes from confused to confident and Don goes from … well … he remains stuck in an eternal mid-life crisis. Nevertheless, he does exhibit a few signs of growth and maturity.
Just like in the season one finale, Don delivers an all-encompassing emotional speech that serves as one of the highlights of the episode. But this time he’s not selling cameras; he’s selling himself. And his audience isn’t a smoke-filled room of Kodak executives; it’s a handwritten note to Betty, asking for forgiveness.
But just like any advertising pitch, we’ve got to wonder how much he truly means it.
His other triumphant speech comes during a meeting with Putnam, Powell & Lowe, as Duck Phillips is about to be anointed president of the new Sterling Cooper. Duck’s first move: to cut ties with Don. But Don smartly beats him to the punch, noting that he never signed a contract and that he’ll quit before working at such an agency.
Naturally, Duck can’t contain his anger when he realizes his power play has slipped away. Meanwhile, the PPL executives — who were interested in acquiring Sterling Cooper mainly due to Don’s talent — decide to cut ties with Duck instead: “He never could hold his liquor.”
In an episode filled with somber moods and personal failures, seeing Don and the rest of the agency come out of the merger unscathed is a well-deserved moment of triumph.
So, at the end of the day, the characters wind up right back where they started. In the midst of divorce, a merger and imminent nuclear war, the world of Mad Men ultimately returns to some semblance of normalcy. Don and Betty’s rocky marriage will continue, Sterling Cooper will keep its autonomy and the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union ends with a stalemate. Yet nothing will ever be the same.
As mentioned before, season two is very much a transitional chapter for Mad Men. In a year filled with uncertainty, the appropriately titled “Meditations in an Emergency” is the calm that comes immediately after a storm — a temporary solution to a large-scale disaster.
The finale doesn’t raise questions and doesn’t provide answers. Instead, it faces an unpredictable future in the only way Mad Men knows how: by moving forward. The episode is a perfect capstone to another season that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
MERGERS & ACQUISITIONS
- Duck Phillips finally gets his comeuppance, and let’s just say that it’s been a long time coming. Ever since he abandoned his dog, he’s been the closest thing to a “villain” that we’ve had in season two. Duck is ultimately undone by his alcoholism and the tantrum he throws when things don’t turn out his way. Fitting also that he was the one who fired Freddy Rumsen for being drunk at the office.
- Duck didn’t really deserve to be Sterling Cooper’s new president anyways. He was only offered the position by PPL because he was the one who brokered the deal. Either way, Duck’s one-minute tenure as head honcho was to move the agency to a less creative-centric and more revenue-based (i.e., media buying) future. He assumes Don is under contract with a non-compete clause and will have no choice but to get in line with the new regime. Of course, Don never signed a contract and controls his own destiny. Ultimately, PPL chooses Don over Duck.
- The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world has ever come to full-scale nuclear war. It was a scary time to be alive. I give Mad Men kudos for not basing the entire episode around this moment in history. Instead, the feeling of impending doom colors the action without getting in the way.
- Don was M.I.A. in California for three weeks, but he arrives back at the office like nothing ever happened. In fact, I was surprised to see that he didn’t even care about Sterling Cooper being sold. The extra $500,000 he made from the merger probably had something to do with that.
- Even though Don’s handwritten note to Betty features some of his trademark sloganeering, I do believe he was sincere in his apology. If nothing else, he wants to be there for the kids. Nevertheless, he never actually admits to his adulterous affairs at any point throughout the episode (“I was disrespectful”). This also unfortunately sets the precedent that Betty can’t leave him for this reason, which is why she’ll resort to other exit strategies in season three.
- In last year’s season finale, Bert Cooper remarked to Don that “you never know how loyalty is born” in regards to Don wanting to fire Pete Campbell. Pete holds up his end of the bargain here, informing Don about Duck’s potential power play. In fact, Pete’s come a long way from the end of season one. Instead of trying to get Don fired, Pete now wants to save his boss’ job.
- Harry Crane is such an asshole. All he cares about is work, and not in the cute Peggy Olson way. He bemoans the news coverage of the Cuban Missile Crisis because it takes away ad revenue from his television department.
- “Meditations in an Emergency” was written by Kater Gordon and series creator Matthew Weiner, and directed by Matthew Weiner.
- “That’s why God put non-compete clauses in contracts.”
- “We are all sinners, every one of us. But at least give us the courage and the common sense to admit it, to confess it and to repair it.”
- “Without you, I’ll be alone forever.”
- “I sell products, not advertising.”
- “If the world is still here on Monday, we can talk.”
- “I had your baby, and I gave it away.”