What happens if you have an artist's sensibility but can't act? If you work for the things you think you want and then find out everything you have is not right? Or if you end up with an updated version of the person you left behind and can't shed the demons that once defined you?
The season finale of Mad Men did not so much tie up loose ends (though it did do some of that) as feel like the first episode of the next season, a preamble of sorts where Don Draper realizes that his second wife Megan is really just Betty 2.0 (he was as thrilled at getting Megan a shoe commercial as he was with Betty shooting for Coca-Cola), an Old-Fashioned is his trusty sidekick, and he's diverting himself into movie houses to make sure he is up on the cultural zeitgeist. A "hot tooth" (and some lingering guilt over Lane's untimely demise) has him feeling remorseful and flashbacky about the death of half-brother Adam, but the hallucination he experiences under nitrous oxide about having something other than that tooth extracted was surprising. The rot at Don's core had not completely destroyed him, in fact, Megan, Zou Bisou-Bisou singing Megan, had done the yeoman's work of rehabilitating Don's tortured soul through the first 12 episodes of the season, but, as with many things about this show, things change, and how.
While Don's reawakening has been a couple of weeks in the making, it appears as though the light bulb finally (and fully) went off in the season finale because of Megan's sudden interest in having him help her land a commercial for a shoe company SCDP represented. Don is dismissive, questioning why advertising, which she left, suddenly appealed to her, after all, it was not "art." "It's work," she replies, and Don is sympathetic, but ambivalent, telling Megan she should hope to be discovered, not foisted on someone as her husband's wife. Don is also a realist, telling Megan the reason her friends want work is not for its own sake, but for the money it pays, something she does not need. But it is Megan's wretched mother who it is left to disabuse Megan of her dreams, that sometimes you do not get to do what you want, that the world is not big enough for every ballerina's (or little girl's) dream. When Marie advises Don to "nurse her through this defeat and you shall have the life you desire," one wondered whether she was prescient or delusional.
That the commercial is a spin off Beauty and the Beast has to be read as a cheeky nod by the writers to the dynamic between these two characters, only Don's "beast" is not his ugliness outside, but rather, inside. During their marriage, Megan has been the kind handmaiden helping Don see there is something inside him other than darkness, but the hard work that Don bought into with Megan crumbled, and quickly, during this episode. A season's worth of satisfaction at being home for dinner, of having his wife by his side at work, of frisky sex, seemed to dissolve when she asked him to get her that commercial. Don provides, and well, but it is not enough. Watching Megan's reel, his face was hard to read - partially pride, at being married to a beautiful woman, and maybe some sadness, knowing that he could snuff out her dream or make it happen, and that either choice would be fraught with significant peril. As Don walks away from the set of the shoe commercial and into the bar for that trusty Old-Fashioned, it is as if he had come to terms with everything he once believed, about the self-interest, venality and weakness we all have, and that no matter how hard people work to change, "they are who they tell us they are, but we ignore it, because we want them to be who we want them to be."
But the cruel irony of Megan's capitulation to the easy over the hard, of getting her husband to find her work instead of getting it herself, is that it shone a light on an aspect of her personality many may have missed. While she has been aggressive in her demands to see and be with the "real" Don Draper, by poo pooing his Dick Whitman past, standing up to him when he tried to control her, of charting her own course as an actress and not a copywriter, ultimately, she was the fraud. It was too hard for her to succeed on her own, but life as a boozy housewife did not appeal to her (or Don) and so, perhaps to satisfy her need to work and his need to make her happy, Don helps her get that elusive first break. In doing so, she may have unwittingly started the daisy chain of events that will lead to the demise of their relationship, but she cannot know that. All she knows is that she wants to work and cannot get it on her own. Once she asks Don to help her, their relationship becomes something different, he knows it, because he's lived it, she does not, because she has not.
While Megan may be thrilled at the turn of events and the direction of her life, the same cannot be said for Pete Campbell. His infatuation with Beth Dawes leads him down a blind alley - she's crazy, or at least her husband thinks so, and a one off at a hotel notwithstanding, electroshock therapy will erase any memory she had of Pete and his looking-out-from-planet-earth blue eyes. But Pete does have a moment of rare introspection when he visits Beth in the hospital. He voices, for the first time since the classic scene with Peggy at the end of Season 2, that he hates his life - that his hope that "all this aging was worth something" was not, that the escapism of infidelity he hoped for, of feeling handsome and desired, was no more the "tall drinks" he hoped for than the answer to the fact that "everything he had was not right either."
When Pete describes his emptiness as a "permanent wound," it's unclear whether he is speaking of his marriage or his entire life, but his bleakness and sense of desperation is really just another side of the deep longing and depression, of feeling stymied and emasculated, that led Lane to end his own life. Trudy's idea to build a pool feels like a mausoleum to him - he makes another morose observation about the permanency of life in Cos Cob, but because Trudy is a caring person and not a soulless one, her reaction that "things have to change" is not divorce (as may have been on Pete's mind), but rather, giving in to Pete's desire for an apartment in New York City.
Pete's unhappiness seems to increase the higher up the food chain he gets - "I'm going to have the same view as you" he says to Don when the partners are surveying the new office space they are renting in the Time-Warner building; but if panoramic views and fancy titles were enough to make Pete happy, he would not be picking fights on the train and casually lying to his wife about his black eye (or fucking other women, but that's another story). If anything, Pete is more isolated than ever - brooding deeply over the choices he has made, of roads not taken, and escaping the shackles of his life. Of course, he is also learning a painful truth about life, the more you accumulate, the more responsibility you incur, the harder it is to disentangle yourself from it. He may dream of going off with Beth to Los Angeles, but his plans are unrealistic. Instead, Pete is deeply immersed in the stereophonic emptiness of whatever music was pulsating in his ears when the camera leaves him at the end of the episode, deeply removed from his life, even as his wife Trudy is moving heaven and earth to connect to him.
As for those loose ends, we were given a satisfying denouement to Don and Peggy's separation, hopefully, temporary and not permanent. Instead of recriminations and finger pointing, they reconnect at the movie theater, serving to remind us that these two are kindred spirits in their own way - that Don was able to express pride and happiness for her and she was able to accept it with grace. We learned Lane was buried "abroad" and that his widow did not permit a memorial to be held in the States. She may have been bitter at the partners for filling Lane's head up with dreams of being an important man, but Don's humanity in that moment was what caught my attention. Perhaps he was just trying to make himself feel better, but in at least making the widow Pryce financially whole from Lane's contribution to the post-Lucky Strike funding of the firm, he attempted to do the right thing.
The other reason this episode felt far more like a Season 6 prologue than a Season 5 curtain call was the wonderful shot of the five partners in their new office space - it would have been an apt closing shot because it spoke to aspiration, of money that is pouring into the agency (according to Joan and her new glasses), of new clients like Jaguar and potentials like Dow Chemical. It said that the people who walked out of Sterling Cooper in the dead of night in December 1963 are that much closer to reaching that same level of success. That Peggy Olsen is still (sort of) in the picture (and even gets to take that elusive first airplane ride), that Roger may be looking up Paul Kinsey if he keeps ingesting LSD (or maybe he will just thumb it up to Woodstock a couple of summer's from now?), and that Dirty Don, the swinging dick who imploded his own life only to rebuild a new one, may be on the verge of laying the groundwork for his next demolition job.