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'Mad Men' wraps up a sterling season

Dale Roe
The fourth (and, some say, best) season of 'Mad Men' wraps up Sunday, Oct. 17, on AMC.

It's difficult to predict what's going to happen on the Season 4 finale of "Mad Men."

Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the upstart ad agency so suddenly and wonderfully formed in last season's screwball finale, is on the verge of collapse. The defection of major account Lucky Strike cigarettes has caused a chain reaction so fiscally devastating that the partners have had to kick in fairly massive sums of 1960s dollars to keep the firm payrolling along.

Creative director Don Draper has endured his own collapses: His newfound bachelorhood isn't all it was cracked up to be, and his drinking problem has led him to make a concerted effort toward, well, not sobriety, exactly, but he clearly wants to cut back.

The finale, capping a fairly dark season lauded by many as the series' best, seems unlikely to ape the caperish joy of the Season 3 ender, but who knows? It would have been impossible to foresee the direction creator Matt Weiner would take a year ago when he followed his bleak, penultimate JFK assassination episode with "Hey, kids, let's start an agency!"

What made this season so good was as much about what wasn't there as what was.

Where last season lingered often in the depressing Draper domicile, this year's storylines got back to business, and "Mad Men" is always better when it focuses on the office.

Betty (January Jones) was used economically this year, and to good effect. Her occasional appearances — reacting badly to finding her ex-husband on a date with a young woman so like her she could have been a baby sister; reacting badly to her daughter Sally's self-inflicted haircut; reacting badly to just about everything — made her performance less grating and more nuanced. And she had a few nice moments, too. Her scenes with Sally's psychiatrist were priceless as Betty realized what the rest of us already knew: A shrink who specialized in children really would best serve her. And her welcoming reaction to Don's appearance at Sally's birthday party was sweet and affecting.

This season also benefited by not being tethered to (and forced to address) historical events of the magnitude of the JFK assassination or Cuban Missile Crisis.

In place of those era-defining events were many great smaller, personal moments, and a number of them were packed into "The Suitcase," a midseason episode that ranks with the best hours of television from any era. While Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston duked it out in the boxing ring, Don and Peggy waged their own soul-baring bout. The pair aired grievances, shared secrets and explored their complex, adversarial admiration with the intimacy and literacy of a stage play.

Here are a few other Season 4 standout scenes:

Meet the Beatles

Don promises to take Sally to a Fab Four concert, and she screams with sheer joy and Beatlemania at the news. Even better? Betty shares and enjoys her daughter's happiness.

Bye bye, Blankenship

Don's ancient secretary, a source of much comic relief , expires at her desk, prompting this stirring eulogy from Roger Sterling: "She died like she lived — surrounded by the people she answered phones for."

Time to panic

When Don mistakes a couple of guys in the hallway of his seedy apartment building for federal agents who could expose his Army desertion, he has a panic attack so real it made my chest hurt. Gasping, fumbling with his door keys, sweating and soon vomiting, Jon Hamm's work in this scene was a brilliant rebuttal to criticism of his overacted, fur-salesman flashback scenes earlier in the season.

Don't smoke 'em if you can't get 'em

Faced with the defection of Lucky Strike and his firm's inability to land another tobacco account, Don, cigarette in hand, constructs a full page anti-tobacco ad for The New York Times. The result? Derisive prank phone calls and anger from the partners — but also a potentially lucrative call from the American Cancer Society. Like all of the declining Draper's best recent ideas, this one came from Peggy, who told him to "change the conversation."

Peggy rides and reveals

Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) had a lot of great moments growing into her new authority and responsibility. But she was also delightful riding a Honda scooter around an empty soundstage and spying through a transom into Don's office. And then there was the time she stripped in front of a co-worker who'd taunted her for being a prude and insisted he do the same. She spent the rest of the evening poking fun at his physique.

'Mad Men': 9 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 17, AMC