After last week’s action packed trick finale, a lot of people were left wondering where Mad Men could possibly go from there. Answer: to places more depressing than you ever thought possible. Or just as depressing as you thought possible, if you’ve been paying attention.
Anyone feeling Pete Campbell had been insufficiently humiliated in the episodes following his epic trouncing by Lane Pryce (R.I.P.) was gratified by two more blows to Pete’s face and one particularly devastating one to his soul. In this episode, his manic pixie dream housewife Beth contacts him for a tryst like he’s been hoping, only to tell him her next stop is One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest territory (i.e. electroshock therapy). I love this side plot not just for Rory Gilmore, but for its deconstruction of 1960s sexism, because God forbid a woman should be allowed to feel sad, lest she realize where said sadness is coming from and try to overthrow the patriarchy. Isn’t this partly what Betty Friedan was on about?
The amount of self-awareness with which Beth submits herself to that mind-erasing butchery is truly heart wrenching, but all too realistic, considering her historical circumstances and the fact that not everyone is born to fight against crushing odds. Pete then spills his guts to his newly zombified lover in the third person, saying that their affair made him realize that “everything he had was not right either, and that was why it had happened at all…his life with his family was some temporary bandage on a permanent wound.” On the one hand: aw, Pete. On the other: those were your own choices, bro.
And what does he do with his realization? Nothing good! First he lashes out at his train buddy, which is somewhat understandable considering what he just learned about him/his marriage (even though Pete should know he can’t fight by now), and then he squanders what little pity he’s earned once again by getting all snotty with the train conductor. Pete’s lucky he lives in the pre-iPhone era, or he might have ended up all over the internet like that “very educated” lady who briefly became a meme last year.
Megan continues to cling stubbornly to her desire to be an actress, but her mother’s subtle undermining takes its toll, and she grows desperate, despondent and irrational. She rejects Don’s sage advice that she should want to be “somebody’s discovery, not somebody’s wife,” and even goes as far as to try to snake a job away from her friend, an unprecedentedly nasty move for her. (Related: Does anyone else think Megan’s parents are a tag team hell-bent on driving her insane? First her dad pressures her to chase her dream, then her mother tells her to give up. WHICH IS IT, PARENTS?) Don ultimately sees something in Megan and gives her what she wants (an audition), but it’s unclear if what he sees is actual talent or just an impending mental breakdown. Don’s nepotism towards his wife could be read as regressive, but think of it this way: he’s seen what being a bored housewife with no life of one’s own can do to a person, and he doesn’t want that to happen to Megan. Better to get a leg up from your husband than end up like Beth or Betty. And it seems like “Miss Calvet” wins the part on her own, anyway. He just helps her get her foot in the door.
Roger continues his LSD-fueled journey towards self-actualization, and although he fails to get Mrs. Calvet to help him out with anything but his erection (i.e. she won’t drop acid with him or listen to his problems), it seems like the experience is once again constructive for him, or at least keeps him from jumping out a window. And considering he delivers all the show’s best lines, I can’t get mad at that. It might have been Lane the last time, but the gorgeous shot of the firm’s partners silhouetted against the windows of their expansive new office space drives home the point that any of them could go at any time. Existence is fragile, everyone’s alone, etc. Dark stuff.
All this existential angst is mirrored (perhaps a bit heavy handedly) in the toothache a harried and haunted Don refuses to treat until it’s almost too late. Lane Pryce’s death by hanging reminds him of his brother Adam‘s, and what better time for this emotional malady to rear its head then when Don’s all doped up, getting treated for his physical malady? It seems like Don is finally starting to feel really crappy about all the people he’s hurt (Megan, Lane’s wife, his brother) and is trying his best to make it right. But just when you think Don is really sorry and really trying, we get that last sickening shot where it looks like he’s going to say “fuck it all” and cheat on Megan.
Is Nihilist Don Draper back because he’s realized it’s all futile, no matter how hard he tries to do the right thing? Or is he back because he just…feels like being back? Who is going to off themselves next? Will Trudy ever wise up and realize Pete sucks? It’s a good thing Peggy is still on the show kicking ass, or the majority of Mad Men fans might have joined Lane Pryce in giving up on life by now.