|Photo: Jaimie Trueblood/AMC|
As always, spoilers lie ahead...
Mad Men sixth season finale was entitled "In Care Of," but it could have been "Wow. Didn't See That Comin'." Throughout the entire hour the writers upended expectations by having characters travel down familiar roads, making the same bad choices until they decide, or others decide for them, to try something different. And for the most part, it all played out in a way that was surprising, heart breaking and completely believable and true to the characters we've come to know.
No one exemplified this more than Don Draper. For a man who once said "people don't change" like it was gospel, he took some awfully big steps towards beginning to pull himself out of the hellish depths (Dante's Inferno reference!) he descended to this season. Don's been at the brink before. And as fascinating and complex as he is, his arc each year has always boiled down to the same thing: the relentless self-destruction of his life, followed by a brief moment of clarity and introspection (his California trek to Anna Draper's house in season two, not fighting Betty and letting her move on with Henry Francis in season three, season four's swimming and journal keeping) before throwing himself headlong into another surface reinvention that gives a temporary feeling of happiness, but inevitably ends with a return to same destructive cycle. However, what made season six's downward spiral stand out from the rest was its public nature. Don was not only out of control, but everyone could see (or no longer ignore, take your pick) that he was. What's more, he no longer had the luxury of his creative genius or mysterious aura to fall back on to make up for selfish, often inexplicable behavior.
At first it looked like Don again, took away nothing from his latest exploits in self-loathing. There he is at the bar, drinking up a storm in the middle of the day and blowing off a client meeting after a phone conversation with Sally, during which she alludes to catching he and Sylvia in the act. Next, he comes to in a holding tank after punching a priest (though I don't feel that much sympathy for his holiness being that he presumes to have intimate knowledge of whether MLK, JFK and RFK were true Christians. Though IMO they were good men in spite of, not because of, their religious beliefs. But I digress). The morning after he's let out of the slammer, he acknowledges to a concerned Megan he knows he's been out of control. But then he goes on a riff about moving to California for Sunkist and taking Megan along with him. The kids will see him maybe twice a year, during summer vacation tops.
"We were happy there," he tells her and she gets caught in the potential romance of it all and agrees. He's still running away, making rash decisions that will hurt people in his work and personal life (the kids, poor Stan, who came out of the haze only to have his ambition stamped out). Still only liking the beginnings of things. Faye you may have gotten dumped, but girl you live on spirit with that immortal line. He brushes off Betty's worries about Sally's suspension for drinking with a "kids will be kids" platitude.
While Ted practically pleads with him to stay in New York so he can move to California and save himself and his family from a doomed affair with Peggy. Don rebuffs him at first, saying he didn't make his decision lightly (yeah right), but Ted lays down the emotional gauntlet, saying he knows there's goodness in Don somewhere, and advises him to have a drink before the meeting with Hershey's, alluding to his own alcoholic father's attempts to cut back.
All this (along with a quick whorehouse flashback involving a minister, God and talk of forgiveness) help lay the groundwork for Don to break his cycle in a way that was totally unexpected and riveting to watch. After giving what's easily his best pitch in ages (it ain't The Carousel, but it'll do), the Hershey's execs are sold on his tale of having his father rub his head after buying candy for him. He appears to be in his element, selling another lie about the family he never had. But one look at Ted, flawed and vulnerable but trying to do what's right, then down at his own shaky hands,causes Don to clue everyone in on what his boyhood was really like: one spent in a whorehouse with a cruel stepmother and a prostitute who rewarded his theft of her johns by buying him a Hershey bar,which he ate alone "and with great ceremony." It's a heart-stopping scene, and game-changer for Don; despite his best attempts to obliterate his past, he's finally letting lonely, unloved Dick Whitman's story be told.
Unfortunately, he's letting it be told in the middle of an important business meeting, treating a client who can bring big money to SC&P and his co-workers like his own personal team of therapists. Don Draper has officially hit rock bottom. The partners can no longer deny it, and tell him he must take a leave of absence, with no return date in the near future. Adding insult to injury, he sees Duck Philips, who no doubt will savor this moment until the day he dies, ushering in what may be his permanent replacement, on his way out. Don's always buried himself in work when his personal life was imploding. Now that that's been taken away from him, will he start to repair all the havoc he's wreaked? The final shot of him taking Sally, Bobby and Gene to the now-abandoned house where his demons where born and saying, without hesitation, "this is where I grew up," suggests he will.
Make no mistake. Don's not looking for total absolution. We didn't see him tell Sally the truth or confess the affair with Sylvia to Megan and probably won't. However at this point the latter seems moot, as after he tells Megan plans have changed and they're staying in New York, she digs her heels in and plows ahead with her own plan to pursue leads in Hollywood. "I love you," Don tells her, and unlike his "I've been away" speech in "The Better Half," it comes from a place of truly wanting to work on their marriage. But to Megan, it's more of the same mercurial, controlling behavior from Don, putting his career and his priorities above her own. This may change now that Don's out of a job, but for now things aren't looking good for them.
No doubt it was a deliberate choice on Matt Weiner's part to have "In Care Of" take place on Thanksgiving, just as season one's finale "The Carousel" did. While the Don Draper of 1960 was moved by his own pitch of private family photos to fix what was broken in his home life, it was all surface; he wasn't ready to go there yet. He wanted the appearance of a perfect family without doing the hard, sometimes painful work it takes to have a real one. Now that all vestiges of his invented persona have been burnt to the ground, there is no surface, be it booze, philandering or work, to distract him What's exhilarating about this turn of events is that he actually wants to be there for his family. The possibilities of Don's story arc for next season are endless.
Woo, that was a lot to process. While we're talking about family, Roger Sterling's daughter is still a spoiled brat who's only interested in her daddy for what he can give her. Roger's immature, and the apple didn't fall from the tree; she pushes him to invest in her husband's business, then when she doesn't get her way right away, she withholds love as punishment. She might as well scream "You're mean!" and stomp up the stairs to her room, which she pretty much does, telling him to forget Thanksgiving dinner and leaving her husband to clean up her mess.
Feeling down, Roger sees Bob Benson and Joan laughing and tries to break up the good mood with a harsh (but funny) quip about Bob potentially getting shot in the face like Kenny by Chevy execs. He then orders Bob into his office and berates him for "taking advantage" of Joan. Not to say Bob's not working his opportunistic magic on the former Mrs. Harris, but it's not remotely in the way Roger thinks. Either, Roger's outburst is obviously coming from a place of loneliness and insecurity, and, after his secretary tells Joan how distraught he is over his daughter "bleeding him dry" she lifts her ban on his visits to Kevin, inviting him over to her apartment for Thanksgiving. He grimaces when he catches sight of Bob, but something tells me Joan will spill the tea on Bob in her own marvelously discreet way. I only wish we could have heard it.
Speaking of Bob, Draper 2.0's order last week to have his friend Manolo speak with Pete's mother Dorothy has lead to fatal consequences, as Pete receives a telegram that she went overboard while on a cruise. The other shock comes when he learns Manolo and Dorothy got married, right before she happened to take a dive. Pete rips Bob a new one in the elevator and swears he will not let go of this. Bob denies knowing about Manolo's plan, which is likely true (Bob's a corporate climber, not a mob boss), but Pete gives him the cold shoulder anyway. It's hard not to be on Pete's side in this, but he makes a mistake when he tries to cut Bob out of a lunch with Chevy execs. Bob retaliates by pushing Pete, who just learned to drive last year, to test out a car on the showroom floor. Long story short, he backs into a sign, earns the scorn of the execs by not knowing how to dry stick and is finished in Detroit. Memo to Pete: never mess with a stunt queen unless you're prepared to do battle.
In his office with Bud, Pete tries to see if they can find their mother's body and Manolo, who is likely on the run after discovering she was broke. Ironically, Pete expresses more love and concern for his mother in death than he ever did while she was alive. In the end, the brothers decide to let it all go, as Dorothy's "burial at sea" is, in its own strange way, appropriate, given her love of the ocean and that their father died at sea courtesy of a plane crash. I did have a tiny quibble with this story line. It felt a bit like an easy way to do away with two characters the show no longer had use for. But it did lead to a nice scene between Pete and Trudy, in which she tells him that while he can't see it now, his mother's passing has freed him from his family's baggage. She's right, and and for him California could be the new start that Don wanted it to be for himself.
Peggy's story arc was another great fake out by the writers. At first it looked as though they would go the cliche route and have Peggy and Ted engage in a torrid affair doomed to fail, and I groaned a little inside. It's not that it wasn't totally implausible--she and Ted are obviously attracted to one another--it just felt a little disappointing for a character like Peggy, who if anything has tried to make a habit out of not making the same mistakes. While she and Ted did sleep together (though you can't be too hard on the guy; Peggy turned it OUT in that baby doll dress), Ted's compartmentalizing skills nowhere near as good as Don's and he's breaks it off the next day.
Peggy's devastated of course; all season long she's been at the mercy of the men around her, their attitudes toward her shifting faster than she can read them. Don punished her for choosing a new mentor and Ted has played hot and cold with his feelings for her. Now his decision to move 3,000 miles away is only the latest gut punch. She tries to lay the blame on Don, but Ted tells he gave up his spot in Cali for him. I'm surprised she didn't try to choke him out with her scarf. "Well aren't you lucky, to have decisions," she snaps at him. But, as Ted tells her, ending things was better for her in the long run. She wasn't thinking clearly about the potential consequences an affair could have, not only personally, but professionally. No doubt Ted's wife Nan is a well-heeled socialite who has connections.
Now she's left to work on a holiday since she has no one and she and her family aren't close. However, she and Stan's quick conversation shows it's not the end of the world for her. "This is where everything is," she tells him and as she settles in at her former mentor's--now her--office, it's clear that while she is alone, she isn't lonely.
A stunning, superb finale to what at times was an uneven, but ultimately satisfying season. See you next year for the (gulp) seventh and final season of Mad Men.