The Cuban Missile Crisis looms, but it's Peggy who drops the real bomb in the season finale

By Karen Valby
Updated October 28, 2008 at 01:46 AM EDT

Mad Men

S2 E13
  • TV Show
  • AMC

So, it wasn’t President Kennedy’s assassination that hammered this brilliant season to an end. It was the man’s stoic handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, those blisteringly tense couple of days when it seemed like the world might poof into the air like a carelessly blown dandelion. And so, as our characters wrestled with the fragility of their existence, the hour of TV ticked by with a similarly sick and sweaty feeling of anticipation and dread. How would this all end, and who would be left standing?

The episode opened with a cross-stitched Bambi on the wall, pleading with Betty for mercy in a doctor’s home office. When Doc told Betty she was indeed pregnant, he mistook her dour expression for worry about her weight. “Are you concerned about your appearance?” he asked dopily. “You’ve been blessed with a very resilient figure.” (Ack attack!) It was time for her to eat sensibly, rest well, and let her riding boots gather dust in the closet. So naturally the next scene showed Betty sliding off her horse after what she hoped was a womb-rattling ride. And there waiting for her was Don, fedora firmly in hand. “I was not respectful to you,” he finally, finally admitted, though his hot blast of earnestness wasn’t enough to thaw her iciness.

At the office — and I’m with Kinsey, I like the office the way it is! — Duck dug into his Tanqueray stash and leered like a creepy uncle over the merger. With booze running through his veins, he was callous and smug, eager for the chance to take down those who had been so hard on him when he was hanging on so tremulously to his much-maligned sobriety. He announced to Pete that he would soon be named the president of the new Sterling Cooper and that, as a reward for Pete’s grief-shilling to American Airlines, he wanted to make the young man head of accounts. It was the promotion that Pete had tried blackmailing Don into giving him back in season 1. This was his chance to see his onetime nemesis taken down, but the news that Duck would soon have Don under his thumb gave Pete a Mr. Yuck face.

I wanted to stand up and cheer when Don strode through the front doors in an oddly rain-splotched raincoat. As Joan zingily welcomed him back to the land of the living, Peggy, in a chic, figure-flattering dress (all grown up!), peeked out of her new office to say hello. “Do I work for you now?” asked Don, who looked pleased to see her name on the door. “I landed the Popsicle account,” she said happily, with just an endearing note of pride. “So other than her office and haircut, is there anything new I need to know about?” Don asked Joan. Ha!

After marching unapologetically into Roger’s office — “I’ll stack my absences against yours any day,” he said breezily — Don learned about the merger and the half a million dollars that would soon be landing in his bank account. “Best vacation you ever took!” crowed Roger. As Don struggled to catch up — to the idea of new owners, to Roger’s engagement, to Duck doing business at a bar — Roger bemoaned his rotten timing with supposed true love. “Kennedy’s daring them to bomb us, right when I get a second chance,” he groused. Don, chiding him for his naïveté, spoke as one former soldier to another. “We don’t know what’s really going on — you know that.”

NEXT: Betty’s backroom revengeLater that night, Betty dropped off the kids, wearing cutesy city outfits that seemed straight out of a Babar book, at the hotel for a sleepover with their long-absent dad. After staring longingly at a couple of blowsy and grinning mannequins in a store window (how simple life used to be for Betty when all she felt was delight over her narrow waist and darling little nose!), she planted herself at a bar. A stud in a suit bought her a gimlet and she slurped it down on an empty stomach. (“Mommy doesn’t like to eat!”) She teetered to the bathroom, daring the dreamboat to follow her. They started necking in the hallway and then, after first announcing “I’m mare-weed,” she followed him into the back office and took control. Here was her chance to play Don, to do unto him as he’d done unto her. It was almost unfair the way the scene kept cutting to merry moments of mischief at the hotel, where the kids shared burgers and watched Leave It to Beaver with their fun part-time parent. Betty toiled alone for years, driven to shrill and nasty barking as her husband romped through Manhattan. So it seemed cruel, yet just, that she spent an anonymous evening in selfish pursuit of her own urges. Afterwards, she wobbled into her dark kitchen and drunkenly chomped on a chicken leg with a vacant look on her face. She had the same empty expression that Don always seemed to wear after taking another woman besides his wife to bed.

The next day Don was reading about Kennedy’s planned retaliation when Pete bounded into his office. The younger man had something to share with his boss, sacred information that only he was privy to. How far these two have come. Last season Pete threatened to use a secret to take down Don but now he was bringing him invaluable scoop. Armed with the advance warning that Duck would soon be named president, Don played it super-agent cool in the conference room in front of the Brits. When Duck, spiraling toward the end of his rope, announced the end of creative’s rule, preaching that the future was advertising as opposed to clients, Don pounced. “I don’t have a contract,” he said, after Duck shouted about non-compete clauses. Bested, Duck banged on the desk, furious that Don once again shamed him with his unflappable cool. It was an amped-up version of the showdown between Don and Pete last season, but this time he was saved by Pete tipping his hand. After ditching the meeting, where Duck sealed his dastardly fate, Don finally heard the news he’d been waiting for. “Mr. Draper, your wife called,” said Joan. “She wants you to come home.”

NEXT: Peggy unburdens herselfWhile Don was rushing to the cozy familiarity of his family room in the suburbs, not everybody was so eager to abscond from Sterling Cooper. “Just tell the truth,” Peggy had earnestly advised Pete in the beginning of the episode, when he fretted about coming clean to Duck that his father-in-law had grounded him from the Clearasil account. “Don’t worry about the outcome. People respect that.” If only her priest — who pleaded ad nauseam, from the pulpit and face to face, for Peggy to confess her sins — had spoken to her in a similarly nonjudgmental tone. Fear of the unknown was his cruel and cheap argument. “Don’t you understand that this could be the end of the world and you could go to Hell!” the priest said with creepy passion. Peggy looked so sad, but so certain, when she replied that “I can’t believe that’s the way God is.”

In the end, Peggy needed to unburden herself to the father, not the Father. Pete, after having refused to flee with Trudy to her family’s beach house, lingered late at the office, smiling at Peggy with drunken googly eyes. He invited her to have a drink on his office sofa (where they tangled like pretzels that fateful time) and started unloading. “You never let me talk about what I want to talk about,” he play pouted. (And ladies, if a fella ever tries to seduce you with a self-absorbed line like that, run for the hills!) With the world on the brink of destruction, he finally told her that she was perfect, and that he loved her and wished he’d chosen her all those years ago over Trudy.

And then Elisabeth Moss made the final case that it was the women who ruled this season and should be commended appropriately come Emmy season. With sublime restraint, and such honest, desperate sorrow, she told Pete that she’d had his baby and that she’d given it away. As he stuttered out bleats of disbelief, she explained herself (“I wanted other things”) and gave powerful voice to her private grief. “One day you’re there and then all of the sudden there’s less of you. And you wonder where that part went — if it’s living somewhere outside of you — and you keep thinking maybe you’ll get it back and then you realize it’s just gone.” My mouth was hanging open by the end of the scene, and I felt as dumbstruck as Pete. I hope that when the director called cut, Moss and Vincent Kartheiser shook the scene off of them like wet dogs and then slapped each other five, breathlessly insisting that “You’re the best actor ever!” “No you’re the best!” “You are!” “Oh my God, when that one tear fell down your cheek!” “And then when your hand lingered on my shoulder!” “We are so awesome!” “Beers on me!”

NEXT: Best lines of the nightThe evening ended with moving shots of Pete, holed up alone in the Sterling Cooper office, holding a shotgun to ward off whatever evils lurked outside. (At first I thought that was Duck, and that inevitably, after failing at both sobriety and power plays, we would hear a shot as he ended his self-inflicted misery.) Peggy, in her girlish nightgown, crossed herself and went to bed on petal pink pillowcases with a clean conscience and beatific smile. And Don, his mouth blurping open in surprise like a hungry guppy, took Betty’s hand after she told him she was pregnant. The world may crumble around them tomorrow, their marriage may be hanging on by a thread, but for now they are in it together.

Now, let’s all follow Don’s lead in the months to come before we’re graced with the start of season 3. When the world seems in the crapper, go home to your loved ones. Leave your work at the office where it belongs. Find solace in Frank O’Hara poetry and moody Italian films (or Tina Fey impersonations and Mad Men reruns). Hold your partner’s hand. And for heaven’s sake, above all else, VOTE for the person you feel will provide you with the most comfort and lead with the steadiest hand in a time of national crisis!

Best lines of the night:

“Call Roger in half an hour and tell him I’ll met him in half an hour. And Mr. Phillips? Maybe I’ll run into him in the men’s room,” Don told Joan upon his return to the office.

“If I’m going to die, I want to die in Manhattan,” said Pete.

“I hope the Soviets got a guy like you to build those missiles,” Sal told Harry after he busted the TV.

And, finally, from Don’s letter to Betty: “I understand why you feel it’s better to go on without me and I know that you won’t be alone for very long. But without you, I’ll be alone forever.” Sob!

How are the rest of you feeling after the much-anticipated finale? Am I completely nuts thinking that Pete was holding a rifle there at the end? (Where’d he get a gun??? D’oh! That’s right — the chip-n-dip exchange from season 1. Thanks, gang!) Did you also find him oddly adorable this episode? So Pete and Peggy’s son was not taken in by her sister, but rather put up for adoption? Which means that theoretically Pete and Trudy could have adopted him if he’d been willing to go through with it, right? Anybody mad at Betty for grabbing a revenge quickie at the bar? Is Duck going to commit suicide off screen before season 3? And how far ahead do you think season 3 will skip?

Episode Recaps

Mad Men

Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama
  • TV Show
  • 7
  • In Season
  • AMC
stream service