Last night’s season finale of “Mad Men” was one of my top ten favorite hours of television, ever. Why? Because it surprised the beejesus out of me—and not in a kill-a-main-character-for-shock-value kind of way. Not to get all film professor on you, but the way I see it, the central tension that makes “Mad Men” so intoxicating is that the characters are miserable with their lives and act out in outrageous ways behind the scenes. But because they so desperately need all the glittering trophies of their lives (the fancy title, the corner office, the seemingly perfect family) they’re completely paralyzed when it comes to actually changing anything. They’re trapped—mostly by themselves but also by a culture not nearly as tolerant of varying life paths as we are today. I, of course, expected the season finale to continue along this trajectory. (Uh, now would probably be a good time to say SPOILER ALERT to anyone who has the episode waiting for them on their DVR.) But nope. Last night was the episode where everyone finally broke out.Time wise, the majority of the episode was dedicated to the office. In scene one, Conrad Hilton drops the bomb on Don that (in addition to pulling his account) Sterling Cooper is up for sale. Panicked, Don goes to Bert and Roger and the three hatch a plan to buy the company themselves. When that doesn’t work, they go rogue and decide to form a brand new agency, hiring only the essential staff—Peggy, Pete, Joan, and a few select others. As I watched them raid the Sterling Cooper offices for all the files and equipment of value, and set up shop in a hotel room, I got actual goosebumps.
But that wasn’t the part of the episode that stuck with me, and probably you, the most. That would be Betty telling Don that she’s meeting with a divorce lawyer and then actually doing it, with Henry Francis—the lover she’s only shared two kisses, four conversations, and two letters with—at her side. The lawyer explains that divorce in New York state is nearly impossible, and that her best bet is to set up residency in Reno for six weeks. Even after that meeting, I was SO SURE that Betty would back out—that she’d have a daydream of her suburban home being gone and being labeled a divorcee, and break things off with Henry. Didn’t happen. Instead, Don finds out about Henry when Roger accidentally spills the beans over a drink. Don runs home and finds Betty in the nursery. Even here, I was SO SURE that Don would beg for forgiveness and pledge his love to her. Nope again. Instead, he calls her a whore and yells, “All along you’ve been building a life raft.” The Rubicon was crossed. Soon after, Betty sat down the kids to explain to them that Don is moving out. (Yes, I got teary as the son clung to Don’s leg.) The last shot of the episode showed Betty on a train with Henry, heading to Reno.
I really am still stunned by this. Sure, Don is a far, far cry from the perfect husband. He lied about not-so-little things—like, oh, his whole identity and being married before—and had affair after affair. But to actually leave him? I just didn’t think Betty had it in her. Not to mention that, just a few episodes ago, the couple was in Rome flirting and showing each other actual tenderness. That episode made it clear that there is actual love between the Drapers. To give that up for someone she barely knows—is Betty crazy and suffering from a serious case of the-grass-is-always-greener, or is she finally a free woman? I don’t know. I’ll need to hear your opinions on this.
Geez, I can’t believe we have to wait until next summer for season four.