by: L.P. Hanners and Michael Shields
A glimmer of hope crowns an extremely stressful season…..
I can’t say it was exactly fun. It wasn’t smooth sailing nor was it clear blue skies as far as the eyes could see. No, it was quite the opposite. Season 6 of Mad Men was akin to being dragged through the mud, face down, while everyone you cared about watched laughing with delight. When the season commenced with Don Draper pouring over the pages of Dante’s Inferno we knew we were in for it. The Inferno punishes according to the degree of a person’s sin – and Don is by no means a boy scout.
There was a feeling of impending doom reigning over the entire season. This compelled many to believe that at some point this season someone was going to end up six feet under. Well, in the season finale, directed by Matt Weiner himself and entitled “In Care Of”, we possibly did bear witness to the demise of a crucial character – we just may have been front row for the death ((Metaphorical of course….)) of Don Draper. Let’s explore this idea…..
In the two-hour season premiere ((“The Doorway”)), Don presents a cryptic pitch to Royal Hawaiian Hotel. The idea behind the advertisement, one which hopes to persuade travelers to escape to Hawaii, is that Hawaii is the “Jumping Off Point”, an escape from all your problems. His sketch for the idea displays a man’s jacket, tie and footprints on the beach leading towards the water. From Don’s point of view this was a man freeing himself. To others it clearly displayed a man committing suicide. Don’s perfect vacation, one could say, is an escape from everything. But what if this was a hint for what is to come – the beginning of the end of Don Draper as he sheds all that shackles him, his suit, all the lies, and the mask of the man he was pretending to be?
We are speculating of course – but Don’s downward spiral this season was disheartening, and tough to watch at points. To our eventual relief we received something that we all desperately needed – some resolution and hope. You may be asking yourself: What hope we are speaking of, following one of the most depressing hours of this distressful season? Fair question. Walk with us a bit further…..
This past Sunday Don finally got called out for his incompetent and self-destructive behavior ((Firing Jaguar, forcing a merger then remaining competitive with his new partners, squashing the public offering, general absenteeism, etc. etc., etc.)) and was placed on a leave of absence from his job at SC&P by Roger, Cooper, Joan, and Jim Cutler, during a climatic intervention scene. It was a jaw-dropping moment, but one that has been brewing for the entire season. Up until this point Don has been talented enough to make up for his behavior, but his demons came home to roost in one of the most intense, and poignant scenes to date – when Don came clean during his pitch to Hershey’s. ((Jon Hamm is absolutely stunning in this scene, turning on a dime from faux pitch to absolving his sole, conveying years of pain and sadness detailing his lack of love and happiness as a child. Breathtaking.))
At the core of this episode was this pitch to Hershey’s, which seemingly goes off without a hitch. Another Don Draper special served up with a side of confidence and charm. And then, Don looked around at all those faces and realized he just couldn’t do it any more; he couldn’t play the part any longer. Without warning, he interrupts the end of a successful meeting to announce that he is essentially a liar. In the form of a tribute to Hershey, Don willingly and gracefully initiates a breakdown. A completely selfless moment that proves he, in fact, doesn’t care about his job anymore. With blunt honesty he recounts the horribly inappropriate tale of just what Hershey’s means to him.
Draper went on to tell the mild-mannered Hershey executives about the times he stole money out of the pockets of the customers of the prostitutes he lived with. And explained in vivid detail just what it meant to obtain enough money to be able to purchase a Hershey’s bar. It was stunning, a coming out party to both the folks at Hersheys, and to his partners who know even less about Don than we do.
What is so spectacular about this moment is that is was followed up a short time later by another jaw-dropper. A second act to Don’s coming out soiree where he showed his kids that very whorehouse he grew up in as Dick Whitman ((It’s funny, at this point, to recall Betty telling Don through an estuary of tears that Sally is growing up in a broken home.)), and admitted to them that this was his childhood home.
He showed them the home where he became a man, gave them a ‘doorway’ into why he is the way he is. The look he gives Sally isn’t one that is asking for forgiveness for the infidelity she witnessed, but rather asking for her understanding for why he became the man who would commit such an act. In the last shot, Sally – who realized after her encounter with the burglar how little she knows about her father ((In “The Crash”)) – gives him a knowing look, as if she gets it now.
“His central problem, as you learn more about him, is this childhood and that anxiety of who he is and how he feels about himself and sex, and why he can’t get into that life that he wants, and he’d be forced to – not necessarily change, but at least the admission of who he is. Looking in the mirror and saying, “Oh, yes, this is who I am.” What a gigantic step for anybody. Most of us never get there.” – Matt Weiner
Don finds his escape, not in running away to L.A. – a tired storyline that weaved its way in and around the entire episode – but in the truth. Don, at rock bottom, takes a hint from Ted and focuses on his family, and at this point there is only one way to accomplish that. He comes clean and shows his kids his childhood home. The more open he can be about his past, the more it seems possible he can find redemption, that he can actually find peace.
As the first hour of “The Doorway” came to a finish, a photographer tells Don during a photo-shoot ”I just want you to be yourself”. Maybe Don is finally heeding that advice? With this newfound candidness, what seemed so unlikely now feels almost probable – that Don can actually find happiness at the end of Season 7. If he truly sheds the mask of Don Draper, one that didn’t fit him and was dangerous to all in his proximity – I like his chances. “In Care Of” was, at times, bleaker than rainy day – and yet I have never felt more optimistic about Don’s prospects.
Alas Don Draper is not the only character in Mad Men, but he is the chief protagonist and the revelations, and proceedings, this week were so grand in scale that we had to dig deep. But before we put a bow on this season, the second to last, let’s take a brief look at where the rest of the outfit stands…..
Megan ((“I used to feel pity for [your kids], but now I realize we’re all in the same boat.” – Megan)) and Don’s marriage appears to be over. She wonders aloud “why we’re fighting this anymore” and Don alludes to accepting a bi-coastal relationship – thus, that ship has sunk. Bob Benson, this season has taught us, is a liar, and cunning, and not going away anytime soon. Joan has shed her previous insecurities and is running with the big boys, and Roger, it is now clear, is still in the game. Pete is finally free, after being played for the fool by everyone in his life, and is off to Cali ((The over/under on his return to New York is 3 episodes. I am taking the under as he could he bolted from the suburbs after a mere metaphorical cup of coffee.)) with Ted who is an endearing but weak man who requires 3,000 miles between him and his problems. Betty is thin and stronger than ever ((Do not doubt that Megan heard Don call Betty his pet name for her – “Birdie” – when they spoke on the phone)), Stan is frustrated, Ginsberg is erratic and underutilized ((The lack of Ginsberg this season is a crying shame.)) and Jim Cutler has found a way to get almost everything he has wanted all season – making him a true wildcard moving forward.
And Peggy, who is scorned by a lover once again, is seen at the end of the episode taking a seat in Don’s throne ((The King is Dead, Long live the Queen!)). It was truly a Michael Corleone moment, as she inherited what is rightfully hers. Peggy has exhaustively worked for all she has gotten, and has been put through the wringer time and again by a syndicate of selfish men. And now she settles into Don’s chair as the heir-apparent. What a moment for her – for all of us.
Season 6, like any season of any great television show, had its ups and downs. We saw Don make an authentic friend (Of course he was screwing his wife), sing Father Abraham with his wife and son, and even reunite for an evening with Betty. We all fell in love with Stan Rizzo, fell under Jim Cutler’s spell, and squirmed with Ted as he battled with Don and struggled with his feelings for Peggy. And we bore witness to not one, but two all time classic episodes in “For Immediate Release” and “The Crash”. But we did have to deal with the unsatisfying Bob Benson revelation, and a whole slew of repetitive storylines ((Getting high with hippies in LA, infidelity, spying through keyholes, happiness just out of reach, etc)). Yet, the season as a whole was a wild ride, one that was essential to embark upon in order to learn more about all of Sterling Cooper & Partners enigmatic staff, which is the point of this journey after all.
“This whole season is about an attempt to deal with returning to your basic problem, which is that you are you.” – Matt Weiner
In the end this season wasn’t about Don and Sylvia ((I am still in shock neither Arnold nor Sylvia made an appearance in the final episode. Shock!)), but Don and Sally – and Don coming to grips with whom he really is. Rock bottom shouldn’t feel so hopeful, and journeying with Don on his downward spiral this season was certainly demanding. Fortunately, the season finale did come equipped with a glimmer of optimism moving forward, as it is possible that Don is owning his inglorious past, thus vanquishing his crippling demons. We truly may have seen the death of the man known as Don Draper – and the rebirth of Dick Whitman.