This contains spoilers for the season finale of Mad Men.
There’s no getting around it – great series answer the bell when called upon. In this sixth season, Mad Men has been scrutinized perhaps more negatively than ever before despite producing more good than bad episodes. But in the season finale, Mad Men stepped up with arguably its best episode of the season, a game-changer not only for the direction of the series but for its main focus, Don Draper.
The show had been seriously ramping up Don’s spiral and then gave us a tantalizing about face in the finale. Sally can still crush Don like no other person in the series because even through the bad times Don has sought to be a good father. He doesn't always succeed, but for a man who cares so little about anything, he consistently shows care for his own children. But when Sally references the world “immoral” on the phone and then, with the subtlety of an anvil says she’s not interested in telling the police about the break-in at Don’s apartment: “You know what? Why don’t you just tell them what I saw.”
What she saw, of course, was Don and Sylvia doing the deed -- a different kind of break in -- and her reaction has made Don look at himself (with some loathing) in a new light. Gutted by the phone call, Don goes to get a drink in the middle of the day, doing what he does best – running away and drinking, making the firm pick up whatever pieces he’s left behind. Only this time, we get more flashbacks to the Dick Whitman days as a minister in the bar tries to sell barflies like Don on religion. It sparks quite a memory. And it ends badly – with Don punching him in the face, ending up in jail and deciding to turn his life around.
This is the great tease, of course. We’ve been here before. Creator Matt Weiner has been a master at letting the rope out with Don (clearly a little too much this season), but in this episode he reeled it all in tautly and then wonderfully brought it all to a kind of closure (and with some humor attached, as first Stan, then Don, then Ted and, finally in a surprise – Pete – all want to be pioneers and head west to start again).
Ultimately only Ted and Pete go, the latter more shocking than the former because it could be the last we see of Pete (and he’ll probably be more limited next year, unless Don ends up following everybody out there as a free agent).
Ah, yes, that. Just when Don seemed to be getting himself together, trying to cut down his drinking, trying to be more open and honest about his past, trying to think of someone other than himself (Ted, this time, though it adversely affected Megan in the process – Don is still yet to master is impulsive decision-making), it all comes unraveled in the end when the partners at Sterling Cooper & Price tell Don they want him to take some time off. But Don’s a smart guy about closing doors and goodbyes. He knows that the partners making this decision and refusing to give him a return date effectively means he’s been fired. Seeing that Duck Phillips has already found his replacement (and maybe a job for himself) was the last unnecessary reminder to Don that his long run with what was Sterling Cooper, then Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and finally Sterling Cooper & Partners was over. He’d outlived his usefulness. He never worked with a contract. You can try to sober up and make things right after you’ve burnt all the bridges in town, but if you do it a day late, you’ll find yourself swimming in the river when you’re forced to cross back over one of those bridges on the way out of town.
So, a major Mad Men change of direction has occurred yet again. But instead of this being shocking or even bittersweet, it felt right for Don and thus perfect for a storyline decision. You can trace Don's recovery in small steps right from the first episode of this new season (“I don’t want to do this anymore”), on through to his humiliating night in jail, decision to start again with Megan in California and his amazingly raw Hershey’s confession (lovely to behold, but also an account killer – which is also kind of the perfect that’s-life way to make progress); all the signs were there that Don had to take that last leap of faith to find himself and find some happiness in life. That he simultaneously took the leap and was pushed out at the same time by the partners is the kind of writing and storytelling that sets Mad Men apart. It couldn’t be simple or pat. It couldn’t be easy.
Hell, if anything, Pete’s departure was more shocking than Don's push. So many great bits it's hard to figure out where to start or what to cover beyond the obvious. Pete’s mother was probably murdered for the money, but ultimately she doesn’t have much and Pete and Bud decide together, through some hilarious rationalization, to let the investigation of her death end before it starts (so as not to deplete the reserves). “She’s in the water, with father” Bud says, less than graciously (Pete’s father died in a plane crash). “She loved the sea” Pete says, in what has to be one of the best, most darkly funny lines in Mad Men history.
By going to California, Pete also gets away from Detroit (a city maligned endlessly in this episode, to great amusement for everyone except people in Detroit, probably). And he gets away from Bob Benson, a kind of animal Pete never wanted to tangle with again. (Also, let this be a lesson for everyone – learn to drive a stick shift.).
But Pete going to California to start over wasn’t his grand plan, a stark contrast to Don. “It’s not the way I wanted it,” he tells Trudy. “And now you know that,” she says, tellingly. Pete didn’t want to draw up his life this way – it clearly never went the way he wanted it to. He was forever unhappy and making others miserable along the way. He was never as likable as he was in that brief scene where he's looking down at his sleeping daughter, taking in what it had all come down to.
The genius in this episode wasn’t just that it reset the trajectory of the series – which was necessary – but that it finally exhaled on getting through what will likely be considered a drawn-out set-up season. Now, with only one final season to go, Weiner and his writers can wrap up as they see fit. What worked especially well here was how so many storylines came down, in the hour and five minutes of the episode, to a multitude of characters reaching decisions in their lives that were difficult.
There was the minor revelation – that Roger can be a part of his son’s life, but he can’t be in Joan’s life as he wished (or as Bob Benson is). But it was closure.
Next up there’s a brief moment with Betty, perhaps for the first time, letting go of one of her demons – trying to be “perfect” like her mother (who was clearly far from perfect, but this is what people do in life…). Betty realizes that the illusion is over, that she’s somehow failed with Sally. “The good is not beating the bad. She obviously needs more than I can give her.” Now, this is a tricky – in a good way. We all know that Betty has been a lousy mother. But much of her actions were learned behavior from her mother. And the slight loosening up of Betty this season has been welcome. It was getting tiring to just have her be the ice queen all the time. In that scene, like a lot of characters, she’s coming to a realization – she’s not going to be whatever ideal she had in her head. We all knew that, but we all know Don is a cheating drunk who runs from truth and responsibility, too. It only means we’re seeing what he can’t see – his true self. That’s what this show tries to do – tell small truths about the big issues of existence. It may be a tiny thing, but I liked Betty letting go of the illusion, of admitting defeat. She’s more human because of it.
There was, a step up in importance from that, Ted realizing he can’t be Don. He can be in love with Peggy but he can’t do the selfish thing which is to leave his wife and fracture his family (echoes of Betty telling Don that Sally is “from a broken family”). So Ted gets to go to California and be away from temptation (Peggy) and irritation (Don) and maybe find something he’s missing by starting over. He got a taste of two different lives and realized there was only one that he could live, no matter what he promised Peggy.
Another step above that is Peggy herself, who loses in love yet again while moving up the ladder in her professional life (standing in Don’s office, about to take it over, which is a Sterling Cooper tradition). “Some day you’ll be glad I made this decision,” Ted tells Peggy. “Well, aren’t you lucky – to have decisions,” she says. All of her decisions in her love life have been made by others. But there’s a beautiful moment as Peggy’s story wraps. She sits in Don’s chair, swivels it so that we see her from behind, then briefly tilts her head to the right – take a snapshot and that’s the exact same picture on the Mad Men logo of Don sitting in his office from season one. (Weiner tells the story that the director Alan Taylor, who shot the Mad Men pilot, called him aside on the set and made him look at Jon Hamm sitting in the chair, from behind. What exactly am I looking at, Weiner asked. His head, Taylor said. He has an iconic head. Indeed he did – so much so that it became the logo and has been referenced slyly many times since season one, but none more effectively – and subtly – than having Peggy strike that pose Sunday night. Well played, everyone.)
The Pete departure came swiftly and mostly out of nowhere. Trudy’s sincere goodbye to him, which wasn’t meant to be vindictive, was a fine bit of writing: “It’s going to take a moment to realize where you are,” she tells Pete, summing up the massive change in his life’s direction. “You’re free. You’re free of her (his mother), you’re free of them (the people at SC&P, particularly Don and Bob). You’re free of everything.”
It’s a lovely moment. And that’s when Pete says, equally sincerely, “It’s not the way I wanted it.” And isn’t that the truth about so much of our lives? We think we want one thing, then we mess it up. Or something messes it up for us. Change is the constant. There are rarely any straight lines from A to B. “And now you know that,” Trudy says, which gives her a sense of closure as well. In an episode packed with revelations and precious bits, that ranks right up there.
But of course it’s Don’s sacking that will dominate the storyline. He’s out. He’s done. And when I wrote at the top that great series answer the bell, the argument exists that season six was the most creatively erratic of the Mad Men run -- and realistically, that creative run has been nearly unprecedented, so let’s not forget it too quickly. I would argue that only Breaking Bad, should its final eight episodes not go horrendously off track, is the only series that went at least five seasons without a significant misstep. Right there with it is Mad Men, which finished up its own season five – after four nearly flawless ones – with a small sample of mediocre episodes but a larger number of truly astounding episodes, which tipped the scales of history in its favor.
Honestly, not even The Wire – my vote for the greatest drama ever – managed to end its fifth season on a higher note. So let’s not be too down on Mad Men getting into uncharted waters here in season six. Bigger missteps than season five? Yes. But there just hasn’t been another drama that went six seasons and can claim a better track record, in my opinion.
And now there’s this fantastic climax to season six. A run of truly strong episodes culminating in a excellent finale that changes the direction of the series but more important cuts the shackles off of Don Draper.
The moment that he came clean to the Hershey executives – who he had just masterfully demonstrated the art of advertising to as one big lie (tousled hair and a loving father – wow) – was the moment he was able to come clean about his past. Hell, the lie he pitched was nearly as moving as the gold standard – “the carousel” from season one. “Hershey’s is the currency of affection…it’s the childhood symbol of love.” It was a magnificent truth about a lie.
“Well, weren’t you a lucky little boy,” one of the execs says, as another can be heard saying, “Sweet tales of childhood.”
And right there, Don, thinking he’s going to California – decided to tell the truth. He was an orphan, raised in a whorehouse. I’m more jaded than most, but I absolutely bought into the idea (and the execution) that something small in a person’s life can affect them forever, haunt their subconscious for years, rattling around inside. That little Dick Whitman read about the Milton Hershey School for orphans – “I dreamed of it; being wanted” – while suffering his miserable little life in the whorehouse was a great twist, the kind of license that a writer has to be granted in the art of telling a complicated story.
“And I would eat it, alone in my room, with great ceremony…And it said sweet on the package. It was the only sweet thing in my life.” Is it too late for Hamm to submit that for Emmy consideration? Has the deadline passed? Because any line that fearlessly sentimental can really be a disaster in the wrong hands. Hamm took a line meant to reveal actual, documented sincerity from the king of blocked feelings and delivered it in the way it absolutely had to be delivered – with misty-eyed, unsheltered honesty.
He made it work.
But of course, having Don unfurl that after previously delivering a pretty stellar pitch, just absolutely sabotages the account and is the last straw in his tenure at SC&P.
This is partly what I really liked about the episode. Every time Don makes a stride to be more honest – to evolve even an inch – it works against him with others while freeing himself. Think of Megan. Sure, sleeping off a bender in a jail cell may lead a grown man to pour the liquor down the sink. But at least he told Megan that, “I realized it’s gotten out of control. I’ve gotten out of control.” And then he dropped the bomb about California. And starting over. “We were happy there. We could be happy again.”
Ah, the pursuit of happiness. At least he’s owning up to it. Running away? Maybe, but so was Ted and in some ways, Stan. Did he rip off Stan, practically verbatim? Yes. So it’s hard to give Don a merit badge for that. But he wanted to try again with Megan. That hug they shared felt viscerally real. But after the Hershey meeting, or rather during it, Don realizes Ted is a disaster. And Ted wants to save his family from his own selfishness – something Don couldn’t do. So Don tries a good deed – telling Ted to go to California instead.
But the move is made without thinking about Megan. Or thinking, perhaps, that her job could be fixed easily somehow. Or maybe just not thinking. Just reacting, which is what Don is used to. That bi-coastal nonsense was probably too telling that Don was living in a dream. Megan, to her credit, has had it. But the effectiveness here is that Don was trying on one end -- he was making strides as a person -- and it hurt him on the other end, closer to home. I loved that Megan got in some petty jabs after wondering aloud why the hell she should even bother with Don and his troubles.
“You want to be alone with your liquor and your ex-wife and your screwed up kids!” she yells at him. A feeble, “Megan, I love you” doesn’t do the trick. She leaves. It’s probably time to say goodbye to Megan anyway. If Don is going to complete this existential turnaround then it would be hard for him to do it with Megan (but not impossible; after all, the happiest Don has ever been is with Megan, though he cheated on her this season and then basically ignored her feelings and needs the entire time – so, yeah, a fresh start might be better for all involved, viewers included).
The vision we were left with, however, was a good one, because it reunited Don with his kids at Thanksgiving and he’s taken them to someplace Bobby realizes is not good. “Why are we stopping? This is a bad neighborhood.”
Don has just told his kids about the Milton Hershey School and he walks them across the street to stare at a derelict house. “This is where I grew up,” he says, matter-of-factly. Don and Sally exchange glances.
We are to believe, of course, that Don is now trying to honestly fix the damage he’s caused, particularly with Sally. The beauty of that scene, as they stand there staring at another wayward, popsicle-eating kid on the wrong end of nowhere, is that Don is not running from his past anymore. He’s not piling lies on top of lies.
“This is where I grew up.” It's like he's beginning the story of his own history, from the beginning.
It’s his first step at explaining, to a rapidly maturing Sally – who just might be able to get it – that people screw up. They aren’t perfect. We want our mothers and fathers to be perfect, but they’re not. They will let us down. They will shatter illusions. We’ll learn stuff about them we wish we hadn’t. But every kid tries to be better than his or her parents. The best thing that Don can do know is precisely what it looks like he’s attempting – to be more honest and humble and less of a ghost. To date, that’s the biggest step forward Don Draper has made as he examines, with winces, his own life.
Artistically, it felt like Mad Men exhaled in this episode. All of these major changes will lead it in a new direction for season seven – the final season. Who knows which characters we’ll see again or how often. But we have forward movement. We have a future. The same can now be said for Don.