I had been reading descriptions of Don Draper's irreparable descent throughout this season, as well as advance reviews and analyses of the final Sunday evening segment of this sixth season. Most that I read predicted disaster, and the crash of the guy we see symbolized in free fall as each segment begins. But I have a completely different take on the season, a promising one that I see clarified at its conclusion.
Obviously, Mad Men revolves around Don; and this is the season that has explained in fullest detail how and why Don Draper is the opposite of how he has presents himself. In other words, how he became the human symbol of the products he packages and often disguises.
Don Draper is the son of a prostitute who died giving birth to him, something his stepmother never let him forget. And he was raised in a whore house.
The only human being who was ever genuinely kind to our protagonist was a whore in the treacherous house where he grew up. After she fed him and nursed him back to health when no one else cared if he lived or died, she gave him his first sexual experience. When Don successfully found change in the pockets of those she serviced, his reward was a Hershey bar, which he ate alone in his dark, twisted, and rejecting world.
Put all of this together with the loss and guilt involved in knowing that your birth led to the death of your mother, who most of the world would see as a filthy woman, and it is easy to see why Don Draper is both terrified of commitment and feels unworthy of it: If he dares to love fully, he could once again be abandoned, and he sees himself as the most despicable of humans. His second wife, Betty, echoed this when they slept together this season during their son's camp visiting day, telling him, in effect, that the most dangerous thing his wife Megan, or any woman, can do is love him.
Don craves sex either without expectation on the woman's part (womanly expectation terrifies him, and he numbs this fear with liquor and casual sex) and where he can feel totally in control. Each conquest helps him momentarily forget how much he hates himself. But deep within, Don has a secret fantasy: finding a prostitute who is actually a worthy, honorable woman. Most people never meet their fantasy in real life; but for Don, Sylvia, the neighbor he is so enamored with, is this replica. A practicing Catholic, she wears her cross during their liaisons, but creates the illusion that she is giving Don complete sexual control, the same illusion he saw demonstrated with men by the whore so important to him. But also, Sylvia loves her son with the fierce intensity that Don never knew from a mother or saw in Betty, who is distant, flighty (Don's tender name for her is Birdie), and deeply hampered by her own unfinished emotional business.
This longing for a loving family, one Don does not have a clue how to achieve, and feels totally undeserving of, is expressed when Don offers his colleague, Ted, his own ticket away from chaos, in order that Ted's children are protected from an ugly aftermath of parental separation and divorce. Yes, Ted may be as fearful of happiness as is Don, but when Don is wringing his hands at the Hershey meeting, you can see that he wants Don's children to have the safety and security that he never had and could not give his own children. Of course this choice is a horrific one both for his wife, Megan, and Peggy, who will lose the love of her life (so far) because of it.
For those with enough inner strength and good fortune, children are a second chance to re-experience our own childhoods and heal from any inflicted emotional wounds. But Don's self loathing has been too great for him to begin to take this path. However, the kind of crashing losses that he is experiencing now on every front, ones he has brought on himself, can propel this change.
I do not see Don's shocking truths expressed during the Hershey presentation as disastrous; I see his expression as hopeful. It goes hand in hand with wanting to help Ted protect his children, something we have seen a glimmer of at other times, such as when he tried unsuccessfully to protect Joan from being manipulated into prostituting herself. The few moments Don was happy seeing his son happy during visiting day at camp also show this dream.
During his presentation with Hershey leadership, Don could no longer pretend to see value in lies and manipulation. The effective con he pulled off sickened him. He told his clients the truth: Hershey did not need to spend thousands for slick promotion. It was too worthy a product.
Regardless of how stony the road is, facing reality is the only path that offers opportunity for fulfillment. And this is the season that concludes with Don taking his children to see the whore house where he grew up. He is going to be truthful. He is going to face himself, and ask his children to know him.
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