Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen the Season 6 finale of AMC's "Mad Men," titled "In Care Of."
"It's not just a different place. You are different."
-A Don Draper pitch in "Mad Men's" season premiere
Ladies and gentlemen, Don Draper has gotten a time out.
For six seasons, we've seen Don blow deadlines, alienate or fire clients, hobo out to California on a whim and spend entire days in movie theaters and bars. He chews out underlings -- the ones he actually notices -- in a cavalier fashion and he often treats his partners as annoying encumbrances.
Sure, he's often brilliant enough to make his pain-in-the-ass qualities bearable, but he's erratic as hell. He's been known to intimidate colleagues and even family members into putting up with his worst antics. He has a memorable glare.
None of Don's usual strategies and tactics worked in the fantastic season finale of "Mad Men." In a short but effective scene, the partners of SC&P finally sent him to bed without supper. No cookie for you, Don Draper!
Don's exile was a surprising moment -- one of at least three "Holy shit!" moments in the finale -- but it didn't come completely out of the blue. [For creator Matthew Weiner's take on Season 6 and the journeys of Don, Megan, Joan, Peggy and much more, read this post-finale interview with him.]
Ever since the merger, Don hasn't made much of an effort to be a team player, and all he really did when he put the two firms together was add to the number of people who were growing tired of his high-handed, enigmatic and even lazy ways.
The Hershey pitch was just the final straw, but what an amazing final straw that was. As it so often has in the past, "Mad Men" took my expectations and subverted them as it expanded my idea of what the show could do or be. It zigged when I expected it to zag, and that's my favorite "Mad Men" mode. Hell, after that Hershey pitch, it took me a while to pick my jaw up off the floor.
Drying-out Don, with his hair slicked back in in a style I think of as Classic Draper, gave the Hershey executives a practiced grin (but did they notice that he looked like pale, clammy, warmed-over oatmeal as he began his pitch?). He launched into a sincere appreciation of the brand and the purity of its reputation (and he no doubt hoped that nobody noticed his shaking hands as he attempts to go cold turkey off a pure-booze diet).
He unleashed a typical Don Draper pitch involving a nostalgic memory, in a moment that, for me, recalled Season 1's incredible Carousel pitch. That was a classic Draper moment that sent Harry Crane out of the room, sobbing. Remember when Harry Crane was a sweet, moderately clueless putz who was capable of sentimental emotion? Good times!
Anyway ... father, son, candy, a freshly mowed lawn. In Don's concise, evocative pitch, you could picture the scene as if Norman Rockwell had illustrated it. You could smell the grass clippings and hear the Hershey bar label being ripped. You could feel the warm sun on the backs of the father and his boy as they headed back from the drugstore.
It was all a lie, of course. As he has so many times before, Don had plumbed the fantasies of the youthful Dick Whitman, who no doubt spent much of his life imagining a much better life than the one he had. The life of a "normal kid." A safe, happy life, one that featured a supportive father, a wide, green lawn and a sweet reward on a Saturday afternoon. Don has spent his entire career conjuring ad campaigns out of all the things that Dick desperately wanted but never got.
And then, Don looked around at all those faces and realized he just couldn't do it any more: He couldn't pretend the fantasy was real. He couldn't use the raw materials of his pain without acknowledging that pain's existence. "The wrapper looked like what it was inside," he'd said of the Hershey bar. The Don Draper wrapper doesn't look anything like what's inside him, and hiding the gulf between them was just too hard. He gave up trying to be two people at once.
He told the mild-mannered Hershey executives about the times he stole money out of the pockets of the customers of the prostitutes he lived with. Well, at least the executives weren't expecting that! They'll sure have a story to tell the folks back in Pennsylvania. What's impressive about that moment is that it was followed a short time later by an even more shocking admission: Don showed his kids that very whorehouse and admitted that he grew up there.
We're a long way from an inscrutable Don seeming like Batman to his staff.
It's easy to argue that Don had nothing to lose in either situation, and that both revelations cost him nothing. He went into the meeting convinced that Hershey wasn't serious about advertising, and his relationship with Sally was already essentially over. So what was the worst that could happen? Well, he could more or less lose his job, which he did, and he could poison the well with his kids forever. We'll have to wait and see on the latter, but I have a sense that Sally will at least keep a line of sassy communication open with her father, given that he's no longer trying to be a lying weasel about absolutely everything.
And if nothing else, Don spared Ted's family the kind of chaos that Don himself has gone through. Much as we can rag on Don for not growing or changing enough to suit our modern-day obsession with spiritual and personal evolution, he did make some big moves recently. You could say they were too little, too late, but aren't these attempts at honesty better than nothing? He's arrived at an almost grown-up truce with Betty. He was truthful in the Hershey meeting. He tried to solve a problem by moving to California, then he realized that would be a huge mistake. He was honest with Megan about that mistake, as soon as he realized it was a mistake. He showed his kids where he grew up.
Yes, he's still a lying, cheating, broken man, but, er, points for effort?
For me, one tiny moment symbolized the appearance New Don (a New Don I fully expect to be temporary): On his way out of the office after the Hershey debacle, Don actually looked at Dawn and wished her a Happy Thanksgiving, and it was if he was seeing her for the first time. He regarded her as a real human being, because maybe he's becoming one.
Don's actions were masterful, in a way. He's the king of the head games and, as he's so often done the past (usually in a moment of desperation), he changed the conversation. But the things he did in this hour weren't entirely a game, which is why the hour was so electric. Sometimes the only way to stop an infection is to dry it up. As Don's drying out, he's also desperate to reveal his demons, in the hope that they'll disintegrate when exposed to the light.
Who believes him? When he said, apropos of blowing off the Sheraton meeting, "That won't happen again," the chilly looks on the faces of his partners said it all. They don't believe this guy any more. Why should they? This is Draper we're talking about, so he's still going to be an arrogant asshole a lot of the time. He'll fail a lot more on his way to becoming halfway human. And no matter what, thanks to Jon Hamm's ability to convey aching vulnerability, vast reservoirs of pain and a desire to somehow be a better man despite Don's selfish jackass tendencies, we'll never be able to look away.
In any event, I am the worst, because I've written all this and I've said absolutely nothing yet about Hot Stuff Peggy and her Saucy Dress! And her black fishnets, oh my! Homina homina! "Vixen by night!" That is the name of my hardcore band, and also my signature fragrance, available at Dennis Feinstein boutiques this fall.
And oh, by the way, the agency was broken in half, with Pete, Ted and no doubt some players to be named later heading out soon to establish a West Coast branch of SC&P (followed shortly, I'm fairly certain, by Harry Crane). After watching this finale, can our brains even handle speculating about 1969 fashions the SC&P West staff will adopt? THE SIDEBURNS.
On top of all of the above, I haven't even gotten to the insane murder-mystery involving Pete's mother and the inevitable Manolo, and there has been no mention yet, amid this existential drama, of the way that wily Bob Benson ended up with the Chevy account all to himself. Things Happened this week, my friends, Things Happened!
If you'll indulge me for a moment before I get to a longer-than-usual bullet point list, let me call your attention back to Don's obsession with doorways in the season premiere. Don was obsessed with what it was like to be dead (remember Jonesy's heart attack?), and what it felt like on "the other side." Then, as he so often was, he was looking for an escape, a way out, an exit strategy. And in a way, he did escape. He left behind the lies he's hidden behind for decades. By showing his kids the doorway to his past, he finally is, as his season premiere pitch had it, "different." Old Don -- lying Don -- had to die for Don/Dick to get to that new place.
Don has emerged from various Circles of Hell this season to a place where he can be truthful about who he is, at least some of the time. Don's Hershey pitch reminded me a little of his great Season 1 Carousel pitch, where he talked about a child riding a carousel "round and a round, and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved." Don wasn't loved in that squalid house, but at least now he can figuratively walk through the doorway of his past into a realm of self-knowledge. Perhaps he'll stay there for a little while, and grow a little more.
Does Peggy have the kind of deep, personal self-knowledge that Don has finally begun to acquire? We know that she's smart, and we know in many situations, she's more responsible and thoughtful than Don. There's no doubt that she is more mature than him in dozens of ways (especially when it comes to business). But she's still not quite as together in her personal life, possibly because the culture is giving her so many mixed signals on what's possible and what's not.
A woman as a well-to-do executive isn't so exotic anymore, nor is it necessarily odd that she owns her own place or has a lot of responsibility at work. She's grown into those roles, and it's nice to see that she's also fully aware of the effect she has on men -- when she chooses to take the train to Sexy Town, that is.
But let's face it, what did she hope to accomplish by parading her assets in front of Ted? Did she want to make him want her? Check. Make him show up at her apartment? Check. Make him fall so hard that he'd offer to leave his wife for her? Check. She had the power to do all those things, but did she actually want what she got? Even she doesn't know. She's "not that girl," not a home-wrecker girl, but she also has feelings for Ted, with whom she knows she can't have a long-term relationship.
So what is Ms. Fishnets after? Whatever it was, Ted dumped her to go to LA, which wasn't surprising but still must have hurt like hell. Peggy ended up wearing the pants in Don's office, but now she's had yet another disastrous affair with work colleague. This will probably make her avoid getting involved with Stan, which is a huge mistake -- they are soulmates, clearly -- but poor Peggy seems to make nothing but mistakes in that department.
How does Bob Benson roll? Like a boss, that's how. That guy with two cups of coffee, the square dude who listens to corny self-help records and is always innocuously helpful and always freakin' everywhere -- well, he ended up with the Chevy account all to himself. That's how it's done, son.
What I kind of love about Bob Benson is that he recalls Don Draper without being nearly that arrogant and damaged. He's Draper 2.0, if you will. He's better at reading people than Don usually is. He's got that helpful, bland, unthreatening persona. He knows when to fight back (and having Pete try to drive the stick-shift car was an absolutely brilliant move). He has handled everyone perfectly, including the incredibly difficult Pete, and he even has a life outside of work. He may have a secret side to himself, but he doesn't hide it from his friends.
With next season being "Mad Men's" last, it's hard not to think that Bob will somehow emerge smelling like a rose from whatever 1969 brings (which, by the way, brings the Stonewall uprising not far from Joan's building).
Bob is both a gay man and an account executive; Peggy is both an independent woman and a human being who wants to be loved. Don is both Don Draper, womanizing ad man, and Dick Whitman, confused, love-starved adolescent.
To bring us out of this rollercoaster season, to acknowledge these personal and professional divides as well as the new bicoastal nature of the firm, we had Judy Collins' gorgeous cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides, Now" over the credit sequence. Get yourself a beverage, sit back down and watch the whole finale again, and then put "Both Sides Now" on a permanent audio loop. I did, and I have no regrets.
A final round of bullet points:
- This episode contained one of the greatest Vincent Kartheiser line deliveries of all time. Bob: "How are you?" Pete: "Not great, Bob!" I also loved, "I know you're exaggerating and you're being hostile!" You don't say, Bob. What do your self-help records say about being confronted by an angry, petulant prepster whose mother has gone overboard on a ship voyage with your friend, who is her male nurse and/or husband? What does Dale Carnegie have to say about that?
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