Monday, June 24, 2013

Mad Men Season Six - A Moment of Clarity

In perhaps the understatement of the television year, the on-screen cable guide for last night's season finale of Mad Men simply said "Don has a problem." You don't say. For the better part of 1968, whatever humanity Don had has been kicked away, his darkest secret revealed to his daughter, Peggy's affection for Ted aroused Don's masochistic streak as he bullied and humiliated his new business partner, he became obsessed with death, utterly removed from his wife and, as always, was tortured by the memories of his impossibly cruel and unloving childhood. 

That Don would hit rock bottom was a given, but now, not only has his humanity been stripped away, but all of the elements of the life he manufactured by being "Don Draper" have too - his partners send him on an indefinite leave of absence, his wife leaves him and his former protégé now inhabits his office. As with many people who attempt to turn their lives around on their own, Don simply could not do so before others decided to intervene. Landing in the drunk tank may have finally convinced Don he needed to get his drinking under control, but ritually pouring all the alcohol in your house down the drain is no more a long-term solution than tossing out the pack of cigarettes you now swear you won't smoke. 

Moving to California to be a "homesteader" for SC&P was something out of Draper 101 - beat a tactical retreat and start anew, wash away the failure of whatever it is you are running from and pretend like it never happened - but Don's plan to walk away from the chaos he created in New York is complicated by Ted, an otherwise good and decent man who recognizes he is in over his head with Peggy, and does not have the wherewithal to stay where he is and blow up his own life in the midst of everything that is going on around him. While Don's immediate reaction is to reject Ted's request that they switch spots on Sunkist, ultimately, Don capitulates, perhaps because he no longer felt the need to assert his dominance over Ted, or maybe because Don knew his life would not actually change, but Ted's could. Maybe he just felt a spark of decency toward his fellow man. 

But in agreeing to stay in New York, Don finally lights the spark that sends Megan out the door. Having already put in notice at her job and with a list of interviews in Hollywood beckoning, she leaves to pursue her own dreams. And who can blame her? Her once loving husband fell down a bottomless well of whisky, rarely talked to her and seemed completely unconnected to the world around him. Of course, Don's fly by the seat of his pants decision making (or, as Pete referred to it, being Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine [1]) is largely to blame. Having tried to solve one problem (needing to leave NYC) he created another (Megan quitting her job) that creates another problem (Megan leaving him when he decides not to move) when he goes back on the original plan.

Don's erratic behavior also finally caught up to him at work. Unaccustomed to getting work over the transom from the likes of Hershey's, Don has not adjusted to being a partner at one of the largest advertising agencies in the world. He will still disappear with no notice to drink himself silly, but the trump card of his own brilliance in pitch meetings can no longer justify his otherwise selfish behavior. There are simply too many people relying on his work, too much money at stake and too much prestige to lose. 

This is spelled out in perhaps the finest of the mirroring effects utilized this season. Don's pitch to Hershey's harkened back to his iconic presentation to Kodak at the end of season 1. [2] There, Don manufactured a narrative of his life with Betty and their children as being as American as apple pie, a life filled with opened Christmas presents, kisses at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve and snowball fights. The conceit, of course, was that we knew this sepia-toned framing was a figment of Don's imagination, but hey, whatever it takes to sell some slide carousels. A similarly touching story unfolded for the Hershey's executives, one where young Don, fresh from mowing the family lawn, would go to the corner drugstore with his proud papa, hair tousled and stomach growling. There, Don got to pick any treat in the store and of course, picked a Hershey's bar. That connection, between pure childhood memories and their association with the eponymous candy bar, is what Don wants to sell. In other words, nostalgia in a foil candy wrapper. 

A pregnant pause and Don's now shaky hand later, we do not get what we might otherwise expect - dazzled executives happily agreeing to the well constructed pitch. No, instead we get a confessional, a raw, emotions-bleeding-out-on-the-floor monologue every bit as powerful as Don's Kodak presentation, but this time, the story is real, not fake. You see, young Don did have a connection to Hershey's, but it came from being rewarded by a prostitute who would get him the treat if he successfully pilfered money from the pockets of the men she serviced while they were otherwise indisposed. Don's connection to Mr. Hershey stemmed not simply from love of chocolate, but discovering there was a place where orphans like Don were raised in a good and decent environment, loved and cherished, instead of being looked upon as mistakes that could not be eradicated. 

It was a breathtaking moment, mesmerizing in its delivery and devastating in its impact. Laid bare was the ugly truth of Don's creation and rearing, a confessional that lifted a weight off of Don's shoulders even as it nuked the agency's chances of landing the iconic chocolate maker as a client. It also became the final straw for Don's partners, who call him in for an emergency meeting on Thanksgiving to tell him that he's out, at least for now, from the agency. His solo act, which worked to great effect when the firm was a small fish in a big pond, will no longer do. With Megan out of the picture, Don takes his first, hesitant step to whatever the future holds by driving his children to the whorehouse he grew up in. The structure is still standing, though it is now rundown, garbage strewn around it and a forlorn little boy sitting on the front porch. Don shares a a glance with his daughter Sally that can't wash away all the hurt he has caused her, but at least begins to open the door so she can understand who her father is. 

It appears Don's replacement at the agency will be Peggy. Don's body isn't even cold before she has started using his office to review client matters. This may be small consolation for her, but the hard lesson she learns is that the work is the thing - the men in her life are unreliable and withholding. The transference of father figure from Don to Ted may be overly simplistic, but their inaccessibility was the same. Don was no sooner going to give her the credit she so desperately craved than Ted was going to leave his wife and kids to be a "scandal" with his copy chief. For now, the corner office will have to be her consolation prize. 

The other threads of the finale also suggested second chances. Joining Ted in California will be Pete Campbell, who, it turns out, really cannot tangle with Bob Benson's "kind." The scam Bob and Manolo started because they thought Pete's mom was wealthy comes to a predictable end - a rush wedding between Manolo and the dementia-addled Mrs. Campbell followed quickly by a mysterious (and hard to investigate) death at sea. The manservant disappears soon thereafter (perhaps when he discovers Mrs. Campbell has no money), but Pete's desire to take his revenge on Bob blows up in his face. In Detroit, Bob sets a trap for Pete, suggesting Pete take a spin in a Camaro. Pete, a poor driver, accidentally drops the car into reverse instead of first gear, and like that, Bob is now the senior account man on Chevrolet and Pete is packing his bags for the left coast. Bob has gone from the farm team to the big leagues and is spending Thanksgiving with Joan and little Kevin. Meanwhile, Roger, snubbed by his actual family and looked upon solely as a breadwinner, is left to try and bond with a little boy who does not even know who "Uncle" Roger is, another penny to put in his pocket on the way to you know where. [3] 

Ultimately, I am leery of Don's conversion. A flashback to a minister preaching forgiveness and a drunken swing at a proselytizer in a bar does not a new man make. In this way, In Care Of reflected back Don's other attempts at conversion. At the end of Season 2, he came clean to his wife about his infidelity and was allowed back into their marriage. At the end of Season 3, he came to terms with losing that marriage (and his agency), choosing to start anew. At the end of Season 4, he started a new life with a new soon-to-be wife, but for all of the time fans spend rooting for Don to get his act together, it feels as though the writers of this show spend just as much time beating us over the head reminding us that whatever we are seeing is not real, it will not last. 

Don has had opportunities before to truly look into who he is and has demurred. His own worldview has been out there for all to see - "people don't change" - [4] and he was self-aware enough to tell Megan long ago that he would try, but likely fail, to be a good person. [5] In years past, Don's armor of cool distance, of being, as Lane described him, the boy everyone followed but was unaware of anyone else's presence, [6] made him hip, desirable and we excused his play-by-his-own-rules attitude, but now, creeping into middle age, the veneer that shielded him from the rest of the world largely stripped away, it is not envy we feel towards him, but pity. 

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1.  For Immediate Release, Season 6, Episode 6. 
3. The Doorway Part I, Season 6, Episode 1.
4. The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12.
5. Tomorrowland, Season 4, Episode 13. 
6. Commissions and Fees, Season 5, Episode 12. 


  1. It's all Greek tragedy:
    I'm waiting for Betty to off the kids,
    and Don to gouge out his eyes
    (just who is that young whore who kept
    following the boy Don around, and soothing him?
    could it be his real Mom?)
    The song that signals the end of the episode
    is the equivalent of the Greek chorus.
    But alas, there will be no Deus ex machina:
    Matthew Wiener (?) is truly existentialist.
    It is compelling drama, but often like that sense you can't NOT watch
    an accident as you drive by.
    And the ending is always followed by
    that languishing question..
    What just happened?

    Aunty Ida

  2. Sometimes change comes as a drawn-out process; not as a quick, overnight epiphany. This episode was indeed breathtaking, and I loved your eloquent review---but I have to say I believe in Don's capacity for change more than you do. Sometimes growth comes in steps instead of leaps. The question is, will a kinder, gentler Don make for good television? We'll have to wait and find out.

    1. I enjoyed watching Season 4 very much, when Don was introspective (journal-writing), swimming, and cutting back on the booze. I also enjoyed watching Season 5 where he was faithful to Megan (as far as we know). I was kind of hoping they would continue the Season 5 fidelity into Season 6, which was VERY uncomfortable to watch.

      In Season 5, Don lectures Pete in the cab after taking Lane's British friend to a "party". Don tells Pete, "You have everything" and that if he (Don) had known then what he knows now in his second marriage, his first marriage wouldn't have fallen apart. What happened to that guy? That's a Don I like to watch.

    2. My own view is that in S4, Don was presented with two paths: he could be with Dr. Faye and start digging deeper into his own issues or be with Megan, who didn't care about his past or problems, because she thought he was a good man. By the time we got to the middle of S5, Don was getting schooled by Ginsberg with pitch ideas and had no drive at work. Megan turned her back on advertising (even though she was good at it) to chase her dream of acting, which Don thought was shallow and hypocritical. Guy like that asks "are you alone" and we all know what the answer is going to be ....

    3. On change, I think we all root for the capacity of others to improve themselves even though we are often disappointed.

    4. SLG, my only point was that it can still be very entertaining to watch a Don who is on the straight and narrow and not all-over-the-place crash-and-burn...

    5. I agree, I would like to see Don get his shit together and be a better man, but I fear that is not how this tale will end ...

  3. Sadistic, not masochistic, I'd think.

  4. The amount of energy it takes to maintain a façade incapacitates other creative endeavors - hence, Don's diminishing creative juice at work. This very slow slide down Don's slippery slope has been building over many seasons.

    A great part of the 'mystique' of Don Draper was his remoteness to which we all ascribed our own meaning and were both attracted to and repulsed by. The only time that Don 'seemed' to show any emotion/allowed any feelings was through his 'sales pitches' to various clients/campaigns.

    But to maintain his duality, Don had to rely more heavily on distractions (alcohol,sex) from his memories and his REAL NEEDS which refused to remain silent.

    IMHO, last episode should have been called "The Reckoning". Where events and actions colluded and collided for Don to put even more energy out to silence his demons/duality. The Hersey's pitch was Don's moment of truth to and for himself.

    Will Don change next season? Yes.

    Will it be lasting change? Unknown.

    Don has not been a profile in courage for facing his angst, dealing with emotions from others or himself. Yet, he has a core of decency (trading w/Ted for Sunkist/CA, telling Joan not to meet Jaguar dealer + w/Peggy during hospitalization) that intermittently appears.

    I hope Don's change will last; perhaps w/momentary lapses. He cannot reseal what has started to seep out of his soul - his need to be liked and loved for who he really is; not for who he constructed himself to be.

    Enjoy your blog. Thanks for being able to post!


    1. Great observations! Perhaps the artwork for this season nodded to that final reckoning - of the two sides of Don finally collapsing. I need to re-watch the Hershey's pitch, it is the logical bookend to the "Wheel" pitch from S1, where Don finally realizes selling products based on false history is no longer his bag.

      And you are right, Don does have moments of goodness in him, I think he *wants* to do the right thing, but so much of his life is wrapped up in shame and embarrassment (it is not coincidental that his preferred kink is denial/withholding and punishment) that whenever he dips his toe in the water and is faced with doing hard work of improving himself, he slips. This was seen most prominently in the decision to marry Megan (easy, superficial) over staying with Dr. Faye (a woman who challenged Don to face his demons).

      I too hope for change, but Don's own mantra that people do not change suggests that is unlikely. Rather, he is in a tailspin that he does not recover from and ends up meeting an untimely (and lonely) death.

    2. Respectfully but fully disagree with your last paragraph.

      Don had to repeatedly tell himself that people do not change to keep his mask in place. That mask has slipped/shattered to the point that his real 'self' has been exposed to both Don and to others.

      Hitting bottom is a necessary evil to precipitate "change" for many people to alter their behaviors. Don has "hit bottom". He has nowhere else to go but up for the show to continue. Your 'scenario' only works IF the show ends at the finale of the next season.

      Change/'up' will not be a 'straight line' for Don, anymore than it is for any one of us. It happens incrementally. Don is releasing the shame/embarrassment of his early life (his own Hersey Kiss ;-);and even becoming more emotionally available and authentic w/his children.

      I believe next season Don will start to integrate his 2 selves (private/public) with his gift for advertising.

      Could be Funny People 2 with more truth in advertising?

      Enjoy discussing the possibilities!

      Continued Blessings

  5. I was looking for a cogent discussion of Mad Men. I found that and then read this entry. My thoughts...

    It is impossible to truly know anyone in the brief amount of time that you knew this woman. You were in the best behavior, wooing, facade stage of the relationship. Though you thought you knew her, the amount of sharing that you both apparently did only suggests poor personal boundaries.

    Apparently, her more true character emerged. This is not someone you want in your life ever. Someone who behaves in this way reveals serious character flaws that would appear again and again, perhaps in different guises or different conditions or different situations, but the flaws would reappear. She seems to share much in common with your ex-wife.

    Just as an earlier person noted that some women are drawn to asshole men, I fear you are drawn to asshole women. Recognize her for who she revealed herself to be not who you thought she was. While you are likely a good judge of character, that ability flies out the window when lust/love enters the picture. As you move forward, consider why you are drawn to abusive women.

    Understand that you did not deserve to be treated the way she treated you. Get stronger. Take time to let relationships slowly develop. Get justifiably angry and not wounded. Move on, leave her far, far behind. Do not give her any reason to believe that you pine for her or that you ache. But don't use this experience as a reason not to love again.