The Mad Men Season 6 Finale. Not what I expected. You?
Who would have anticipated the ultimate act of caring from Don, even with its casualties – personal and professional? It appears our hero wants to tell the truth. It appears he wants to be the father he never had. It appears he is capable of returning to hero status, or at least pulling himself away from the sticky web of lies he created.
And he’s doing so in care of his daughter, and likewise, in care of some core decency tied to Dick Whitman, which may be the only way to stop the self destructive streak that Sally is on and he knows he’s responsible.
But he’s paying a hefty price for his resolute stance to do better. He pulls a dumb and costly move during a Hershey’s presentation. Bye bye to millions in billings, just as he had them eating out of his hand with a fictionalized account of his boyhood and how Hershey’s was a part of it.
Don Bites Off More Than He Can Handle
But he can’t continue with the lie. He stops everything in the Hershey’s presentation, and relates his real story: that he was an orphan, that he was raised in a whorehouse, that the one good moment he did have occasionally was a Hershey’s bar which said “sweet” on it.
If he thought he could somehow make this right, he bit off more than he could chew, and the result is anything but a treat. The room goes silent and they all stare. Cutler seems baffled, even Roger had no idea Don’s former life was so seedy, and Ted looks shocked but perhaps seeing Don for the first time as remarkable. He did, after all, fashion himself quite a life. The ultimate “Creative Director.”
None of this changes the fact that he trashed a potentially huge account, embarrassed the other partners and the Hershey executives, and he’s voted off the SC&P island for an indefinite period.
Bad news. Quite possibly, no re-entry.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, right? Don’s been throwing away his career and his marriage piece by piece all year. But the “good deeds” have been present from time to time, including helping Arnie’s son (though we know guilt was at work), and now, seemingly helping Ted.
Ironically, he seems to be sacrificing his marriage for his partner’s. Megan is delighted that Don has decided to move them to California where they can begin again, where they were in love, where she has more career opportunities and so she quits her job and is ready to give the marriage her all.
Ted wants the California “option” in order to put distance between himself and Peggy. He’s in love with Peggy but doesn’t want to throw away his family life after all.
Don may be seem to be trading his life rope for Ted’s, and his marriage for Ted’s – something we’d be hard-pressed to understand. But he’s actually taking that risk for his children, and the potential to rebuild a relationship with Sally or at least to stop her self-destructive path which he knows is his fault.
And she is, after all, “in care of” her father – as we’re reminded by the subpoena to appear in court following the burglary.
As for Megan, she’s had it! When her hubby informs her that California is off, she’s out the door. And who can blame her? She’s been low on his list for some time. We’ve come a long way from a little bisou-bisou that started us out in Season 5.
What’s the Definition of a Big Man?
Don’s integrity and willingness to deal with tough situations is clear. Equally clear, he doesn’t always accomplish his goals in the best way (his inappropriate disclosure in front of Hershey’s). It takes hitting bottom with his drinking (a night in the drunk tank), his sleeping around (disastrous), his impulsive and egotistical acts at the agency (losing them millions in billings), his carelessness with his children (Sally, Sally, Sally).
And yet Don Draper is returned to us as a “big” man, or at least – bigger, particularly in comparison to those around him. Megan won’t be there to see it. But she (like Trudy?) will find herself free to find a less complicated life.
Ted, next to Don, is a small man. Not for choosing his family, but for sleeping with Peggy first and then opting to keep his family intact – something we had little doubt of. Perhaps small is the wrong word – he’s a good man, essentially, but as Don once thought, a weak man. Human, but weak.
Roger, in trying to win Joan’s heart (or just her bed?) and his dealings with daughter and son-in-law, also comes across as an essentially weak and self-indulgent man.
Pete (and brother Bud) are despicable, though the circumstances of their mother’s demise are played for dark humor, as she has apparently been quickly wed on shipboard by con man Manolo, and somehow dumped into the sea.
In the end, both Campbell men are happy to be rid of her – especially when they realize the expense of bringing her “murderer” to justice. Can’t get much smaller than that! And great lines, as the brothers muse on how much she liked the ocean, and how now she’s with their father. Kudos to Kartheiser for some very fine scenes this season!
Don as Heroic… or at Least, Honest
If Mad Men is the story of one man’s search for identity, the merging of warring identities, our stories and how they shape our presentation of who and what we are, this season has seen our protagonist grapple with the worst of his demons again. He comes out in ruins, yet recognizing that his role as father is important.
As the agency has gone through its own identity crisis – part of it due to the ego and impulsiveness of its lead creative – Don’s only way up is through honesty. He may pick the wrong circumstances (the Hershey presentation), but he can’t do it anymore. The guilt and confessional responses had to spill over somewhere. Perhaps better in the conference room than with Megan. And better, in his own way, by revealing to his children, Sally in particular, a piece of who he really is.
Sally has already made it clear that she doesn’t know who that is, who he is, and that he’s “never given her anything.”
He’s giving her this, a view of the decaying whorehouse where he grew up, a piece of honesty as to who he is and where he came from. She looks at him with a glimmer of understanding and possibly the beginning of some measure of forgiveness. She has more maturity than Betty, certainly. And Don’s revelation, however risky, is heroic. And possibly the only way to save Sally from his worst self.
Leaving off at holiday season 1968, Don’s in limbo professionally and personally. Will Megan stick around? I wish she would (I love Jessica Paré), but her willingness to stay in a marriage to the Draper circus seems unlikely.
Peggy seems completely at ease taking over Don’s chair in his office. Her understandable anger at Ted for sleeping with her then dumping her is assuaged by her new found recognition. She won’t be overshadowed by Don any longer, nor distracted by Ted.
Pete is headed to California. He’s “free” as Trudy reminds him, whether that’s what he wanted or not. What will that freedom mean for him? He’s a rather complicated character, but it seems that slippery always outs with him.
Don is unlikely to go anywhere without being assured his children will be alright. Might he still make his way to the sunshine state? Will he return to the writing that once helped him a few years back? What will he salvage? Where will he rebuild?
There’s an expression in French, queue de poisson, which literally means fish tail. It’s used in reference to the ending of a story (in film, particularly) where we’re left hanging. Not a cliff hanger, but an ambiguous ending which more resembles real life than the neatly packaged fictions Americans are accustomed to.
I find this eventful, somewhat quiet, and symbolic demise of many aspects of Don’s life to be a sweetly satisfying end to this season. With the foreboding of death (and actual death) hanging over us like the executioner’s axe from the premiere onward, Matthew Weiner didn’t take the easy or obvious route by killing off a major character. Instead, he shows us the true nature of the characters, and the end of illusions when it comes to our hero who would now be about 42 years old.
1969 and 1970?
The women are solid. There’s no question of “having it all” – and no pretense that it might be possible. But they’re certainly taking what they can, when they can.
Benson is still in the picture. Roger is trying to play daddy to Joan’s baby. Sterling and Cooper are still at the head of SC & Partners, and Don is in limbo. Real life – his real life – is an evolving process of bringing more Dick Whitman to light so he can be a better Don Draper.
Where that leaves us? Queue de poisson.
Where that leaves the Drapers?
In care of a man who wants to be big again, who will have to start over again, but who recognizes the ties to family – his family – that he cannot sever.
Did I say “sweetly” satisfying? Bittersweet would be more apt.
In a typical touch from Weiner, as Don adopts a Clark Kent/Superman pose, we hear Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” –
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all…