The agony and ecstasy of this penultimate episode — my vote, incidentally, for the season’s best — was almost too much for this tender heart to bear. And as this evening was all about rituals — how they can be clung to like life preservers in a turbulent world — I’ve realized that my Monday morning ritual of obsessing over this community’s response to Mad Men will soon be put on hold. But for now I will live in the present. Or the present of 1962 I should say. Because for the next 24 hours at least I shall think of little else.
In California, Don got off the bus in a working class beach town with military men chatting on the sidewalk. We were going to be kept in great suspense, heightened by the banging chords of the scariest tune of mounting dread ever, “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” When Don pressed that bell, it was the earthy blonde from the car dealership who opened the door with a welcoming smile before the scene cut to the first of two incredibly effective flashbacks. Anna, the dead soldier’s wife, had him cornered, pushing him with a warning that was nearly exactly the same as the one Betty delivered after discovering his affair with Bobbie. “Can’t you be a human being? Stop lying! You’ve been caught.” Turns out Dick Whitman had a conscience, or at least the self-awareness to know when the jig was up, and he confessed to everything, promising that he had meant no harm and would forever support Anna financially. Cut back to California, where a young boy pounded away at the piano in Anna’s living room in tune to my rising blood pressure. Please, no, don’t let it be, oh God, he’s had a family on the side all this time, that son of a…Psych! The dear boy was simply one of her students, and I slapped myself for wrongly suspecting Matthew Weiner of such soap operatics.
So it turns out our Don does have people, of a sort. And it was Anna, not Rachel or Peggy, to whom he sent the Frank O’Hara poems. Part mother, part therapist, she turned out to be the one person who would not judge Dick for his past or Don for his present, and the only woman besides Peggy we’ve never seen him sexualize. Out on the porch, in another man’s pants, he finally came unclenched. “I have been watching my life,” he said miserably. “I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can’t.” There followed another flashback to when a younger Don shook with glee, like an exuberant puppy, on her sofa. This was their holiday ritual, an orphan and a widow who had formed a makeshift family with each other. And, like a boy who couldn’t wait for his mother to open his homemade present, he announced that he had met the girl he wanted to marry. (I think had the usually restrained Jon Hamm dialed his impish, innocent glee down just a notch, the scene might have been more effective.) “She’s so beautiful and happy,” he gushed. “I just like the way she laughs, and the way she looks at me.” Don said his intentions meant he needed Anna to give him a divorce. Encouraging him to move on with his life and grant himself a real family, she murmured, “So there’ll be another Mrs. Draper.”
NEXT: Bert says goodbye