After two episodes packed full with events that fundamentally changed Mad Men as we know it, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised that last night’s season finale was so comparatively low key. There were still some big moments — for one thing, the firm is finally getting its phantom second floor! But for long stretches, the final episode of the fifth season felt instead like it fell somewhere toward the middle, content to finish out this most momentous year without the sense of culminating momentum that has charged most every other Mad Men season finale. It marked a welcome return to the show’s languid subtlety, a palate cleanser after all those pungent plot twists. Yet there’s a part of me that can’t help feel a little bit let down. With all the stuff that’s happened over this season, I wanted to feel like we landed somewhere new. Instead, the show dangled the possibility that Don Draper had returned to the same point in his life that he was at by the end of season 3. That may be realistic; it may even be daring. But in the context of this season, it was not exactly satisfying.
There was at least one season-long storyline, however, that drew to a true climax last night, and did so in spectacular fashion. In the season’s first episode, which spanned the weekend of Memorial Day, 1966, we met Pete Campbell’s loutish commuter buddy Howard, whose unhappy wife, Beth (Alexis Bledel), subsequently beguiled Pete and startled fans of Gilmore Girls. Ten months later, over the week leading up to Easter, 1967, Beth joined Howard for the first time on the train to Manhattan. She pretended not to know Pete as Howard gave the clearly made-up excuse that Beth was en route to spend a few nights with her sister. A question from Pete about where she was headed was all Beth needed to make a quick exit for the smoking car. “Don’t take it personally; she’s in a mood,” said Howard as he huffed away with their luggage, but not before Pete indulged in an icky stroke of Beth’s dangling silk scarf, touching a fantasy he believed he could never have again.
But later that day, Beth called Pete’s office. The last time we saw Beth intrude into Pete’s job, it was as Pete’s wet daydream. But when she called for real — “I have to see you,” she cooed, using the words Pete had so longed to hear — Pete was anything but pleased. “Jesus, I’m at work!” he groused, sending his secretary away to get a pack of Life Savers so she wouldn’t listen in. (“I want them fresh!”: My favorite Pete-ism of the season.) Yet again, Pete could not be the master of his own fate — he was returning to the Hotel Pennsylvania on Beth’s terms, not his own. Pete was so agitated, he could barely be bothered to participate in the partners’ meeting about their fabulous first quarter and the possibility of renting more office space on the second floor.
When he arrived at Beth’s hotel room, Pete was still wary, and Beth’s explanation for why she was really in the city only made Pete more uneasy. She’d been checked into a hospital by Howard, and had stepped out on the pretense that she was attending a niece’s birthday party. “I’ve been very blue,” Beth said. “And the doctors seem to think the only thing to do is electro-shock.” What’s more, this wasn’t the first time Beth had had her brain zapped with electricity to reset her clinical depression. She explained that it left her in a “gray cloud” that could burn away whole months of memory. She wanted to have one last night with Pete before she forgot him entirely.
NEXT PAGE: ”I just get to this place, and I suddenly feel this door open. And I want to walk through it.”