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Mad Men's "Dancing In the Dark": The Importance of Choice and a New Definition of Family

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For those of you refusing to believe that the stick figure free fall we have watched through the seasons is Don, I continue to be with you! I believe that the last segment supports our hope. Did you find the story line toward the segment conclusion fascinating, as well as moving? I hope you are saying "Yes," for I did also. And did you find the conclusion authentic and touching, with positive foreshadowing of the future of some of the principals, as well as yours and mine, and the times we are living in? Again, I hope you are saying "Yes," for I did also.

Spoiler Alert: To make my points and develop them, it is necessary to talk about much of the plot, focusing on relationships and the hope all have for joy and fulfillment, unless life events and circumstance rob us of this anticipation. All yearn for true, authentic connection and the growth this allows. But even when hope seems long gone, it can return; and this is the message of the last episode.

Why am I painting such a positive picture? Please read on; Evidence follows: The plot of the last segment revolves around a McDonald competitor. Though the competitor is given another name (Burger Chef), the rival is surely Burger King, whose ad slogan, which lasted forty years (altered only recently), was "Have It Your Way." This message that each of us should be free to have a voice and a choice in our lives caused a sensation. But as it unfolds, we see that this segment is not about burger options. It is about life and family options...

Lou, though not a partner, is ensconced in Don's old office, where he is determined to stay and disgrace Don in every conceivable way. True to this resolve, he gives the responsibility of creating the proposed Burger Chef ad, not to Don, but to Peggy, placing Don on her team. Peggy works hard, asserting herself and her leadership. Her pre-client presentation is one that Don supports, though he knows it is lacking. The focus of Peggy's proposal is that women are so overworked and overwhelmed with responsibilities that they are ever guilty of not doing enough, and that Burger Chef can make their lives easier. To simplify what unfolds, Don wonders if the perspective of children, rather than moms, would be a better focus; and Pete convinces Lou that Don, not Peggy, should make the client pitch, leaving Peggy feeling betrayed by all.

Highlighting personal lives of our principals in this episode gives depth and meaning to this message. Joan is proposed to by Bob Benson (who has a promising future!), enjoys her son, and knows how to flirt effectively with Joan's frustrated mom, who is both proud of and envious of her daughter's opportunities, but in a rut about her own life. Joan turns Bob down because he is gay. When Bob says that they could have a good and caring life together, she tells him that she wants love. What is special here is both Joan's honesty (she is determined not to make another marital mistake!) and a future predicted for gay expression, choice and respect.

Meanwhile, we see Megan in LA (Don's trip to see her is delayed due to Lou's manipulation) experimenting with an LA lifestyle, where she is quite comfortable in free, open sexual expression and flirtation, as has been her mother. Monogamy is not for this mother-daughter combo, and it has not been for Don either -- so far, but I think this may be changing. The ability to connect sexually will not be able to keep Megan and Don together.

In a progressing turnabout, Betty, who most see as the first Ms. Draper, but is actually the second, is finding her voice: Blond and svelte once again, but discontented with motherhood and no longer comfortable being the beautiful woman on the arm of an ambitious man, Betty has spoken her mind at an event intended to promote her husband's reputation, and in doing so, has made has made the Rockefeller Republican, Henry Francis, furious.

At the same time, Pete faces dramatic personal fall. His affair with the hot West Coast real estate agent, Bonnie Whiteside, has fizzled, for Bonnie is as self-centered and demanding as is Pete. Not only has Pete's wife, Trudy, lost all interest in him, but also, he has become a frightening stranger to their daughter. Earlier, of course, his affair with the unhappily married Greenwich neighbor ended deplorably: Her shock treatment for depression causes her not to even know who Pete is.

In a moving finale, which paralleled Don's heart rendering sharing with his daughter Sally, when he showed her his childhood home and drove her back to boarding school, Peggy shared her torment that she is now 30, with a very unfulfilling life. She knows her ad proposal is not what it should be and does not know how to better it. Don, in brilliant, non-sexual intimate contact with her, helps her see that their work (and all of life) is without guarantee. In doing so, he gave Peggy, as he had given Sally, the nurturance that he never received as a child. (And we have seen so often that when mature women -- after the first Mrs. Draper -- offered him the quality of kindness that was foreign to him, in time he always withdrew.)

With this support, Peggy realizes that the ad must be about family welcomed at the restaurant. Frank Sinatra's "My Way" is then heard in the background, and Don asks Peggy to dance, saying the timing of the song cannot be mere coincidence. Their dance is not one where Don, in his usual mode, takes advantage of a woman, mistaking sexual conquest and control for love. It should not be forgotten that the first woman who was good to Don, saving his life when he was a young boy, was a prostitute, and this quality in a woman had always felt like safety to him. Yet, in this episode Don is kind and nurtures a colleague he deeply respects. In offering this, we see that Don Draper is changing; that he now realizes he can give to to another; and, in time, may begin to feel more deserving of quality relationships for himself.

The final scene is one where "chosen family members," Don, Peggy, and Pete, yes professional, but still family, share a meal at Burger Chef, amidst all of the other families there. Don is the one who brought Peggy from the secretarial pool to write. And Peggy had become pregnant with Pete's baby when she lost her virginity to him, hoping they could be together. In November 1960, Peggy gave their son up for adoption. Since that time, her lovers have continued to disappoint and hurt her greatly.

Pain brings insight and an awareness of positive, fulfilling choice in direction to those determined to learn from it. Chances are good that Don and some in his Mad Men family are allowing this growth to happen.