06/26/2013 10:58 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

Mad Men 's Down Season 6 Ends Up in Triumph

Barroom preacher: What if I told you that Jesus could offer you not only eternal life but freedom from pain in this life?

Don Draper: I'm doin' just fine. Nixon's the president, everything's back where Jesus wants it.

Preacher: He doesn't work that way.

Don: Because he's mysterious. He offer the same deal to Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Vietnam, for chrissake? Studies show Jesus had a bad year.

Well, I'm afraid there's not one true believer in that list.

Don: What the hell did you just say?

It was the best of seasons, it was the worst of seasons? Rather more the latter for Mad Men's controversial Season 6.

But for all that the Dickens line related to this season, not to the mention the title of an episode a few weeks back in A Tale of Two Cities, it's most apt in its relation to Don Draper's surprisingly selfless act in standing aside to let his one-time rival Ted Chaough be the one to re-invent his life in Los Angeles, rather than the old master of reinvention himself.

It was a far, far better thing that Don did, not that it necessarily turned out well for Draper.

After suffering slumping viewership through most of this season, Mad Men's season finale, In Care Of, rebounded to the second biggest season finale in the show's history. It was a very strong and satisfying episode. While I doubt the last minute surge is enough to reverse the once dominant show's slide in the awards sweepstakes this year, the season finale did an excellent job of setting up Mad Men season seven, the last for the landmark series, in 2014.

As always, there be spoilers ahead in this discussion of the season finale and the season just past. Here's an archive of my pieces on the show, in The Mad Men File.

A date on a telegram placed this episode in time, several days in and around November 22, 1968, the fifth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The season finale did several things that much of the rest of the season did not.

* It stopped the long tease of the ever imminent doom of Don Draper. A character can only be on the supposed verge of collapse so often before it becomes a rather bad joke. Or tedious soap opera.

* It dispensed with the moralizing tone which has come to mark the series, which ironically began with a stylistic flair that was decidedly non-PC. Remember the literally incessant drinking, smoking, and carousing, much of the latter of the sort that would bring a slam dunk sexual harassment lawsuit today? Draper actually drinks less now than he did in the early years, which were marked by an endless string of mid-day "naps." Yes, Draper at last suffers a serious consequence for his actions. But it's only after he lapses into an unpredictable bit of truth-telling after delivering one of his killer ad pitches that he falls through the trap door he's created for himself with a string of highly objectionable moves at the agency.

* It dropped the teasing feints that led so many fans to develop preposterous Lost-like theories about the show. Such as Megan Draper's impending murder, because she wore the same t-shirt as Sharon Tate, the actress wife of director Roman Polanski, murdered in 1969 in L.A. by the Manson Family. And last season's supposed suicide in the making of Pete Campbell.

* It focused on core characters that we care about. Last season we had several intriguing new characters thrown at us, only to have all but one, Don's wife Megan, shunted to the sidelines while new and less interesting characters crowded into the picture, often at the expense of even more well-established and liked characters. This episode brought the core cast back into the frame.

* It focused on advertising. Too often the show has drifted along in classy soap opera mode. Or not so classy, depending upon your taste. While this is a show about characters, especially Don Draper, it is a show grounded in advertising, a fabulous prism through which to examine America during one of its most pivotal decades. But too often this prism, a word which has taken on a different cast with the NSA revelations, is shunted aside, and the faster paced rhythms of the work environment avoided in favor of what has increasingly become rather tedious melodrama. Not in this episode.

* It moved the story forward, opening the show up and providing a number of potential paths forward. Too often the show seems insular, stuck in a sort of quick sand as it plumbs characterological depths which have become all too familiar.

* It provided a real breakpoint for Don Draper. Notice I said breakpoint, not breakthrough. It might be the latter. Or it might not. This is Don Draper, after all, the master of faux sentiment, who revealed himself as something of a nihilist in the very first episode of the show.

For all the talk about Don Draper falling behind the times, in terms of advertising, he has not. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner made it clear in a recent interview that in conceptual and creative terms, Don is functioning at a high level. In fact, he is probably somewhat ahead of the curve.

"I don't think there should be any doubt that he is at the height of his abilities," Weiner told HitFix's Alan Sepinwall.

Indeed, the pitch meeting that leads to his downfall is actually another Draper success, spinning up a magical tale of bogus nostalgia as he conjures up a boyhood he never had to sell Hershey's chocolate. Until he decides, somewhat inexplicably, perhaps triggered by a look at the disconsolate Ted Chaough, who so desperately wants the California move that Don has arrogated to himself, to reveal his true past to the shocked Hershey executives and his own dumbfounded colleagues.

Rather than the tousle-haired boy with the loving dad who bought him a Hershey bar on a crisp fall day with the sun shining down, or whatever jabber he invented for the rube would-be clients, Don lived a far grimmer childhood as an orphan in a whorehouse, rifling the pockets of the johns for a friendly house girl who in turn bought him a Hershey bar as a reward. Which he would eat alone in his room, "feeling like a normal kid... it was the only sweet thing in my life."

Not incidentally, I hope that this performance by Jon Hamm isn't too late for the Emmy folks, who are still turning in their ballots. The five-time nominee for best dramatic actor is overdue.

Sabotaging his own strong performance by blurting out the truth about himself proves to be the final straw for Don's exasperated partners. After unilaterally firing Jaguar early in the year, sabotaging a bid to take the agency public, impulsively agreeing to merge SCDP with CGC, internally quitting the prized Chevy account after winning it, blowing off important meetings, feuding pointlessly with Ted Chaough, it's all too much, so his partners give him a big time-out in an enforced leave of absence.

Permanent or not -- they tell him that the holidays will take up most of it, but don't give him a specific return date, the act frees Don to move in any of several directions. He's a partner, and a big name attractive to clients, so if he wants to return and mends his ways my guess is he can.

He certainly created loyalty in Ted, by giving up his place in heading the agency's new L.A. branch office. Which was an idea he'd stolen nearly word for word from Stan after waking up in the drunk tank following his encounter with the barroom preacher cited at the top of this article. Drinking away his woes following a conversation with his daughter, still angry from walking in on him with the neighbor lady, Don clocked the preacher after he let loose his line to the effect that only the right are righteous, dismissing the deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

It all got very jangly after that. Don and Megan rekindled their relationship with the plan to move to California, where they'd sparked into marriage in the first place, with her quitting her TV role, only to have it all unilaterally reversed by Don out of sympathy for Ted's very messy relationship with Peggy Olson. It's Ted who must flee to L.A., with his wife and kids, to be away from the temptation of Peggy. Which he naturally decides to do after an impromptu night of passion leads to him telling Peggy they will be together. Men.

Also joining the Sterling Cooper and Partners crew in the agency in exile -- Don amusingly tells Stan, before grabbing for the glittering lure himself, that L.A. is "Detroit with palm trees" -- is Pete Campbell.

Overreacting to the news of his mother's apparent death at sea after falling, or being pushed, off a cruise ship by accusing Bob Benson of having some involvement in what nefarious thing that his friend Manolo, Pete's sudden step-father, has done, Pete violates his very own rule about not tangling with ever inventive self-inventors. After foolishly trying to leave Bob, clearly very much in favor with the Chevy execs in Detroit (not to mention Joan, with whom he spends Thanksgiving), out of a luncheon bacchanal, the younger man maneuvers Pete into trying to drive the new Camaro on display in the lobby. Pete fails, to spectacular effect.

And so the dyed-in-the-wool Manhattanite who can barely drive, who hated the open space of the Connecticut countryside, decides to head West to the then wide open spaces of Southern California. He actually showed a knack for working in the California sunshine during the great season two episode The Jet Set, in which Don went AWOL and Pete, more relaxed than we see him in New York, lined up big new business for the agency. But he has to leave his estranged wife Trudy, who has warmed to him a bit, and daughter behind.

Roger Sterling and Joan Holloway both reluctantly agree with the other partners that Don needs that leave of absence from which he just might never return. Joan did succeed in landing the big Avon account, providing her a big feather in her partnership cap and step beyond the operations director/office manager rut she's still relegated to at times. She's accepted Roger into their son's life, but not her own, as Roger, besieged by his ungrateful daughter and not so ungrateful son-in-law, is bereft of family. But that means that Roger spends Thanksgiving with Joan and the little boy. And, er, Bob Benson, who Roger fails to scare off Joan in their budding friendship.

Don strikes a grace note with ex-wife Betty Draper Francis in a late night call from Betty worried sick over daughter Sally getting herself and other girls drunk at the fancy Miss Porter's boarding school. (Alma mater of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, the latter name being a major source of irritation or derision for many, including Don and Betty, as we saw earlier, when she married the Greek shipping magnate in 1968.)

Betty is doing the best she can at the mothering thing, she's dropped what looked like a disastrous feud with her daughter, but bad things still happen from time to time. Meanwhile, she has to get to Albany to join Henry Francis, the advisor to big-time moderate Republicans Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay who has gone on to win that safe seat in the New York State Senate.

Don agrees to collect his suspended daughter from the school as he takes the kids for Thanksgiving. Following the not unexpected blow-up with Megan when she learns that Don canceled his plan to move to L.A. -- she's had herself written out of her show and her agent has many meetings lined up in Hollywood -- he finds himself at the end of the episode with the kids, taking them to what Bobby Draper aptly describes as "a bad neighborhood" up in Pennsylvania. It's the old bordello where he grew up, now an abandoned house.

"This is where I grew up," Don tells his surprised children. As they gaze at the old husk of a place, its only sign of life a little black kid eying them back from the porch as he eats a popsicle, Sally looks at her father with fresh eyes. This is not what she expected. Truth. A very different truth, which places him in a new light. Father and daughter exchange a meaningful look as Judy Collins sings Joni Mitchell's wonderful ballad Both Sides Now. (Mitchell herself didn't record the song till 1969.)

And we are out, into a future filled with fresh uncertainty and new possibility.

Is Don's marriage over? Perhaps. Though given his affinity for California and his new freedom to range far from New York, he can easily end up in L.A. just as he had intended. But have the frayed bonds between them become too frayed by Don's high-handedness? And was Megan more an idea than a person to Don, an idea which has faded with time even as the person has matured into a more vivid figure?

Is Don's time with Sterling Coop over? Perhaps. Though I think if he really wants to return, and can show that he won't throw everything into chaos on his whims, he can. He's too valuable a performer. As Weiner himself notes, he is at or near the top of his game in advertising. But that old Don Draper life may be over, as the real Dick Whitman underneath is beginning to reveal himself.

While Don, and, more importantly, Weiner and the other creative players, contemplate his moves in Mad Men's final season, Peggy Olson, who began with the show's beginning as Don's brand new secretary, is settling behind the desk in Don's office. She is in effect the new creative director of Sterling Cooper New York.

She has become the highly capable professional person she wanted to be. Her personal life has suffered along the way, of course. Or has it? Maybe Peggy just has bad taste in men.

That will certainly be something explored in the final season. In the meantime, before closing on the shot of Don with his kids contemplating that miserable house in which the young Dick Whitman grew up, we get a brief hint of Peggy, sitting behind Don's desk, shot from behind looking out the window in a partial recreation of the show's iconic Don Draper pose.

Mad Men's season six was a bit of a slog. But we have arrived at the place where we want to be, the very edge of the show's final season.

If season seven has half the verve and decisiveness of this season finale, we're in for a great ending to this epic novel for television. And a likely return for Mad Men to its glory days of Emmys and other awards as television's best drama.

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