‘Mad Men’ season finale review: Moments of clarity
Things often have to get worse before they can get better, and the adage couldn’t be truer for Mad Men’s brooding antihero as the series’ somber sixth season closes on an appropriately poignant and surprisingly hopeful note. It’s hard to ignore the wreckage left by Don Draper’s spectacular descent into self-loathing hell, but the relief both he and viewers felt upon finally reaching his rock bottom illustrates the opportunity created for the character and the show to explore a whole new realm of possibility in the face of a new decade. The pointed death imagery foreshadowed throughout the season led viewers to brace themselves for another gruesome and catastrophic loss, but instead of finding Pete the target of his own Chekhovian rifle or Megan following in Sharon Tate’s doomed footsteps, the inevitable demise punctuating our characters’ journeys forged a more figurative pathway. Don’s lifelong struggle to cultivate and manage a true identity has led him through staggering depression and neurotic bravado, but the apparent epiphany he experiences in the season’s final episode, “In Care Of,” allows for a potential rebirth of the man he spent years trying to bury.
Don isn’t the only one in need of a fresh start. The sunny hillsides of Southern California are beckoning to several characters hoping a geographical escape will alleviate the emotional discomfort at the root of their restlessness. The Sunkist execs are looking to transplant a junior SC&P copywriter to the West Coast to oversee the new business, and Stan is first to jump at the opportunity. He presents a beguiling “one desk, one man” startup scenario that paints an ideal portrait of the exact kind of beachy solitude Don himself has envisioned his entire career. He initially tries to derail Stan’s pitch by assuring him Los Angeles “isn’t what you see in the movies. It’s Detroit with palm trees,” but Stan insists he’s ready for a new “frontier.” His enthusiasm and desire for change lays the groundwork for the narrative upheaval the rest of the episode will ultimately surmise, finally revealing long-gestating truths that have kept Don at a tortured distance from the serenity he’s sought all these years.
The efficacy of Don’s usual coping mechanisms have been unraveling for quite some time, but now his drinking is beginning to wreak real life consequences his faltering personas can no longer mask. Earlier in the season, Don had spooked the Sheraton suits with an ominous ad that depicted a set of footprints disappearing into the sea. To Don, the dreamlike image looked like a perfect vacation, but the objective client viewed the pitch as a suicide fantasy. How apropos, then, for Don to accidentally ditch another meeting with Sheraton in favor of hiding in a local dive for the afternoon, leaving the rest of his agency partners searching for clues in the sand. When Don comes to in the drunk tank and is informed he’d sucker-punched a solicitous minister, he regards this surprise as his newest low. The preacher’s barstool proselytizing certainly struck a defensive chord, but little does Don realize it’s actually his absence at work and not the night in jail that’s going to push him further toward that elusive enlightenment.
He pours out all his liquor at home and confesses his struggles to Megan, using her stoic sympathy as a springboard upon which to bounce the idea of moving to California. She’s dubious, until he reminds her of their whirlwind Disneyland adventure that culminated with his proposal. “We were happy there,” Don pleads. “We can be happy again.” It’s the best slogan he’s come up with in ages. Megan is sold on the spot, but mistakes Don’s desperate cowardice as sweeping romance. So far, she’s the only one willing to shed her dual role for the sake of their marriage, but Don can’t follow suit until he’s ready to acknowledge his unfinished business in New York and his past.
A jilted Stan doesn’t take well to Don’s sneaky coup, but his annoyance is expected. Ted’s later confession he’d like to flee to Los Angeles himself in the hopes of evading a doomed affair with Peggy, however, throws Don for a serious loop. The idea of mirroring the perpetual rivals as virtual antitheses of each other has been a recurring theme throughout the season, especially after the merger presented the two as opposing forces with similar intentions. Both men are trying to fulfill their respective societal demands while wrestling unsavory and self-destructive impulses, but Don’s demons are of another level. He relates with Ted’s dilemma all too well, but not his ability to acknowledge and diagnose his problem with such swift accuracy and little collateral damage to boot. Well, isn’t Ted lucky? To have decisions.
Peggy could have thrown a lot more in Ted’s face than that blistering zinger, but it’s likely the person with whom she’s the angriest is herself. Allowing the men in her life to dictate her actions with such painful consistency directly contradicts the fact she’s one of the most successful women in her field. Peggy’s career trajectory is virtually unprecedented for 1968, but her own struggle to pursue personal goals outside of work only highlights the notion that things haven’t changed as much in the last 45 years as we might think. Of course parading herself in a slinky cocktail dress only worked as temporary bait, and Peggy was initially smart enough to balk at Ted’s later insistence he was ready to leave his wife. Unfortunately, their inevitable night together gave way to stark reality the next morning not unlike Don’s own post-mortem at the kitchen sink. Ted is probably right to assume Peggy will one day be glad he didn’t end his marriage for her, but it isn’t just their future she’s mourning, it’s her present. Ted is able to recall his experience with an alcoholic father when noticing Don’s shaking hands, but his advice that one “can’t just stop cold like that” doesn’t seem to permeate into other matters of the heart.
Ted’s pointed efforts to avoid becoming his father could easily explain why Don’s actions affect him so profoundly. Don himself is often an absentee parent, and his increasingly visible influence on Sally is a driving force in Don’s awakening. They haven’t spoken much since the burglary, but a letter from the district attorney’s office reminds both Don and Sally one of them is going to have to speak up eventually. Don phones Sally at school to remind her she’s legally required to give a statement to the police about the break-in, and is sheepishly dumbfounded when she snaps, “Well, I wouldn’t want to do anything immoral…why don’t you just tell them what I saw?” Touché. Don may be counting on his upcoming western migration as an avoidance tactic, but when Betty calls to say Sally’s been suspended from Miss Porter’s for drinking, Don finally makes the connection between the childhood he can’t escape and those he’s currently in care of. “She’s from a broken home,” Betty weeps about Sally. “The good isn’t beating the bad.” For Don, this translates as the revelation that his perpetual lies are no longer hiding the truth, and the drastic action he takes as a result creates a cleaner slate than any cross-country move ever could.
Don’s most effective and memorable pitch in Mad Men history dates back to the season one finale, when he discussed how the Kodak Carousel could be a tool of warm reminiscence to bring our best memories full circle. “The Wheel,” and the scene, is now a series classic that finally meets its match when Don is assigned the task of explaining how Hershey’s played a role in the fictitious past he’s been trying to sell himself for decades. His engaging anecdote about his “father” rewarding him with a Hershey bar after mowing the lawn gets the nodding heads and smiling faces the agency wants, but what no one expects is Don’s sudden outpour of startling honesty that marks the first time he’s ever dared acknowledge the existence of Dick Whitman with such brutal detail.
Telling the Hershey reps their chocolate was “the only sweet thing in my life” while growing up in an abusive whorehouse might be the saddest line of Don’s confession, but his description of the product itself offers incredibly shrewd insight into his psyche. “The wrapper looked like what was inside,” he marvels, a notable observation for a man who had devoted his entire adulthood making sure no one could catch a glimpse of the tortured soul cowering beneath a shield of impeccably tailored business suits. Most of his colleagues follow each other out of the meeting with similar expressions of agape incredulity, but Ted just looks puzzled. “You go to California,” Don insists, realizing the impromptu catharsis is just the first step in a long journey he has to continue from New York. After the partners ask to see Don at the office Thanksgiving morning to discuss an urgent matter, he seems less surprised than confused when he’s greeted with a solemn intervention. Firing an equity partner is harder than it sounds, despite Bert and Roger’s likely ability to buy Don’s shares with their pocket change. They ask him to take an indefinite leave of absence instead, unaware that the man they know as Don Draper is already on his way out. Duck Phillips and his potential recruit regard Don at the elevator with smug condescension. “Going down?” they ask, not realizing that for the first time in years, Don has actually started to look up.
Bob Benson’s hidden past is coming to roost much quicker than Don’s, but the speculation behind his secret is being surprisingly swept under the rug. Both Pete and Roger abandon their respective investigations of Bob in favor of their own peace of mind, despite their rightful doubt about the possibly sinister nature of his intentions. While a clueless Roger doesn’t understand how Bob could possibly not be determined to win Joan’s heart (Didn’t the apron tip him off? Those SHORTS??), Pete has every right to think Bob and Manolo conspired to exploit his mother’s assumed fortune and promptly murder her when the money didn’t pan out. Pete might have had it coming when Bob’s admittedly brilliant prank left him crashing a floor model Camaro and his future with Chevy, but it’s Trudy who exposes the real Pete when she points out how he’s now free from all the responsibilities he used to think were burdens. Now, Pete realizes, they were actually privileges, and yes, he should have thought of that before. Roger, meanwhile, doesn’t have to join Ted in California to try and carve himself a second chance. His spoiled daughter might be a lost cause, but the potential for a meaningful relationship with little Kevin has given Roger a new outlook on life that could finally give him the sense of purpose he’s always been missing.
“In Care Of” draws a tight focus on the importance of communication and connection between parents and their children that helps bring the selfish quality of the characters’ decisions into a significant perspective as they all face new beginnings. Don’s surrender to both his alcoholism and his identity sends him flailing into a previously unknown existence of honesty and acceptance of which he’s probably terrified but relieved to finally embrace. Sharing the truth of his upbringing piques Sally’s curiosity and respect in a way Don had never been able to command before, with just the simple gesture of showing her, Bobby and Gene the house where he grew up. He may have lost everything that made him Don Draper, but as the episode’s closing song attests, just making it out of the Inferno alive has let Dick Whitman finally allow himself to see “Both Sides, Now.” As Mad Men embarks on its seventh and final season, the unexpected optimism permeating the atmosphere leaves viewers wondering who, if anybody, is going to end up tumbling down the skyline after all. Regardless of the answer, it seems likely from this finale’s closing sequence Peggy will be watching the from the comfort of Don’s former office.
What are your thoughts on season six? Is Mad Men past its prime, or is the best still yet to come? Will we make it to the 70s? Will anybody make it to Los Angeles? Is Don really finished at SC&P? Is Megan finished with Don? Will Pete find answers? Is Bob a serious con artist? Did Joan land Avon? Will Pete learn to drive before moving to LA? How about Peggy’s pantsuit? Post your thoughts on all things Mad Men in the comments section below!
Season 6, Episode 13: “In Care Of” (originally aired June 23, 2013)
The seventh and final season of Mad Men will air next year on AMC.
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