Carin Baer/AMC
Karen Valby
September 27, 2010 AT 01:42 PM EDT

Do you want to know a secret?

Oof, that was one of the darker Mad Men episodes that I can remember, full of acts of cowardice and cruelty. The heroes, loyal and discreet, were unlikely ones. Who would have ever thought that the characters who take the most grief from the audience would be the ones who really shined during that hard hour? Pete, whose eyes glittered in such beady fashion, looked for a second like he might go for Don’s jugular. But in the end, he fell on the older man’s sword, and lost a $4 million account so Don could go on being Don. And Betty kept her ex-husband’s secrets from the Defense Department suits, and from Henry too, who you know would spill them in a second. Though I’d say her best moment came after Sally started shrieking at news that she’d see the Beatles at Shea with her Dad. How gratifying to see this woman charmed by her daughter’s happiness for a change. And thank you to Trudy as well, for providing the night’s one flash of comic relief when she floated onto the scene in that ridiculous confection of maternity wear.

Onto the hard stuff. Last night we saw Don and Roger fully stripped of their likable armor. For all his jackassery, Don lives by an arbitrary moral code. He is the alpha male in every room, the strong man with a twisted but real definition of honor. That folded last night, retched out of him as he scrambled to save himself. And Roger! He’s always been a spoiled narcissist, but he is the sly fox you can’t help but love. Yet last night he was wrung out of one-liners, bruised by age and a pathetic self-absorption.

The episode opened where we knew it would. Joan was late. “Maybe I’m in love with you?” Roger wondered aloud. Dummy. “So you wanna keep it?” Joan wondered, her poker face displaying a magnificent blush of hope. Pfft. “No, of course not,” he said. Hats off to John Slattery for his great timing that is usually used on quips. Over and over, he exhaled lines of boorish relief. “I don’t want you to come,” said Joan. “You sure?!” he said, grateful to be off the hook. And later, after Joan returned from the New Jersey doc, she assured him that she was all right. But back to him. “I feel awful,” he said. “We avoided a tragedy,” said Joan. “What?” he asked, lost in his tunnel of self. “Oh yeah.” And so they fell back into their familiar pattern, Roger in need of being put back together and Joan the beautiful hourglass who sets him right. “Come on, life goes on,” she said by way of pep talk. Though I can’t help but wonder if that gutpunch conversation she had in the doc’s waiting room, with the mother who assumed that a woman of Joan’s age and poise could only be there shepherding her young daughter though such a tragic afternoon, made her rethink her choice. Does life go on?

NEXT: Shove in an elevator.

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