Well, friends, we have finally reached the end of the sixth season of Mad Men. We had quite a roller coaster ride through the whole reason, and especially with the major game changes that occurred last season, I guess I was approaching the end of this season with higher expectations – something crazy, heartbreakingly shocking. I mean, we’re in the heart of the 60s! What I walk away with after completing this season is some level of unfulfillment, and a firmer vision of Don and how the Mad Men world truly does revolve around him in some way, shape, or form. Everyone in the Mad Men universe is affected by Don in a certain way, and the meaning of their lives is shaped by their relationship to Don. Whether they are some mirror of him, or are trying to be him, we leave this season with Don having left his mark on everyone – for better or worse – only to find himself lost and backtracking himself. There was something rather incomplete about how we leave things, but I guess that’s what season 7 is for.
The pace moved in this unexpected, rapidfire way – placing many pieces of a puzzle still incomplete into motion right from the start. The big buzz question of the episode is asked immediately – who’s going to LA to tend to the new Sunkist account? This question sets off a series of actions and repercussions that bring us to the conclusion of Don’s comeuppance and placing everyone in the Don compass/moral compass of the Mad Men world. Stan asks first – surprise surprise after a few episodes’ absence! There’s something about how everyone looks at LA as starting anew that seems to mimic this mood that comes over everyone in the office: all of these people (with the exception of Bob Benson) are so jaded by what their lives have become as a result of advertising. We’ve watched everyone deteriorate all season in their own ways. The suggestion from Stan does come as a surprise, considering the worst we really see him suffer is losing Ketchup to Peggy. Don answers Stan’s request coolly, then starts to think that a “fresh beginning” will be a solution to his problems. Well, doesn’t history have a way of repeating itself! We’ve seen this happen before in Don’s past: he assumes the name Don Draper in the first place as an escape from an unhappy life, and he even suggests these “new starts” with the women he’s been with (remember Rachel Menken? That teacher? Technically even the marriage to Megan was an “escape” from prior unhappiness) How Don treats this is probably the most shocking thing in the episode, and it happens in a brilliantly quiet way. But more on that in a bit.
Peggy and Ted, Ted and Peggy. The saga finally comes to a head, and comes to an end, for now. Though a lot of the times this season their chemistry played a little cheesy, I have enjoyed the repercussions of this relationship. We have a catty and racy scene for Peggy – we see her glare as Ted parades around his wife in the office, and then we see Peggy doll herself up and tempt Ted as she leaves the office. While those moments felt out of place for Mad Men, what happens next actually is more interesting, beyond the impending sex scene, of course. We’ve seen Peggy deal with the men in her universe without such tight attachment: she doesn’t tell Pete about their child until way after the fact, and even her relationship to Abe didn’t seem like a relationship she was genuinely invested in. But Ted is different. She kind of worked backwards – instead of sleeping with her first boss to get ahead, she persevered and earned her keep. Now that she has the status and respect is when she falls for and sleeps with her boss. The relationship she and Don chose not to have is such a contrast to the relationship she wants to have with Ted, and I think the relationship that ultimately shapes Peggy is the one with Don. It’s probably what gave her the strength to just push Ted away, and confidently make herself at home in Don’s desk. Peggy is a sort of mirror of Don, and she struggled to figure out how to be who he used to be in the advertising world. That image of her sitting in his chair, mimicking the Mad Men logo, is most definitely the symbol of Peggy reaching that point in her career. She truly can be like Don, perhaps a better Don than Don is.
And speaking of being a better Don, what Ted goes through both solidifies and complicates my belief that Ted is the antithesis of Don. Ted has played the game like Don to get to where he is. He’s got the respect and the creative hook to capture clients. He also plays the cheating game. Ted is the antithesis because of his immediate sense of guilt, and his respect for at least maintaining family values. Though he sleeps with Peggy unapologetically, after proclaiming he wants no other man to have her (which I think actually echoes how Don felt about Peggy leaving the agency initially), he doubles back and pleads to Don to take his spot in running the LA office to save his life with his family. Ted, like Don, winds up seeking escape as an answer, wanting to put distance between him and his temptation. Don’s recognition of Ted’s guilt and misery is a trigger for a major turn of events for both men. As Don pitches for Hershey’s, he monitors Ted’s blankness. Perhaps it is in that moment Don sees how the two men are a warped mirror of one another. The first (sort of) selfless thing Don does in a while is to give up his spot in LA for Ted, while also revealing the sordid truth about his upbringing in front of the Hershey’s men. The painful irony of this is that Don tries to do right for himself and someone else, and it bites him in the ass. But again, more on that in a bit.
Pete Campbell receives unexpected news of his mother missing at sea, possibly dead, after wedding former man-nurse Manolo and taking off on a cruise. Pete confronts Bob about this, and tries to continue exacting his power over Bob while they deal with Chevy. The wonderful twist? Bob is one smart, manipulative fella. That or everyone at SC & P (anyone notice the new logo at the top of the show? Swanky!) really is dumb or oblivious enough to notice Bob’s cheap tricks. Bob must’ve known Pete is a terrible driver, and his persistence of Pete taking that test drive was a pretty nerve-wracking scene, leaving us to wonder how and if Pete will botch things up. Lo and behold, Pete disappoints the Chevy execs, making Bob the front account man in Detroit. If anyone needs a break and needs a new start, it’s definitely Pete. We’ve seen Pete from day 1 strive to become like Don, and we’ve seen his sticky moves to try to get there, and we’ve seen and sympathized with some of his pitfalls. Here again was another moment of Pete as the ultimate loser, failing to achieve the status and respect Don has. It’s kind of a nice relief in the end to find that he is moving to LA for the Sunkist account. Trudy put it well, regarding his move to LA: “You’re free.” Perhaps what Pete takes away is that he can’t be happy trying to be like Don? With both his parents gone – by air and by sea, and little to no attachments left in the city, Pete is off to hopefully some sunshine and some salvation for his ever-receding hairline.
Roger also has an interesting turn where he truly acknowledges that his life is unfulfilled and sadder than it seems. After graciously investing in his son-in-law’s business, his daughter continues to under-appreciate. Roger is not trusted with his own grandson, cannot maintain peaceful connection with his daughter, and Joan is (initially) keeping him out of Kevin’s life. We see his jealousy come into play in a fun scene with Bob as he confronts him about his closeness with Joan. Roger, like Don, gets so easily affected by these interactions with the important women in his life. Roger, also like Don, tends to make decisions a little recklessly, and selfishly. Unlike Don, Roger seems to have the wisdom of age and experience, which has led to a faster realization of regret, and faster recognition of loneliness. Roger’s secretary – I missed her the last few episodes – gave us new reason to sympathize with Roger as she tells Joan she’s stepping out of office for a few hours to tend to some personal matters for him. This prompts Joan to invite Roger to Thanksgiving… but mainly to spend time with their son, Kevin. Maybe it was the LSD trip and maybe it’s the therapy, but Roger handles his personal pains with a little more finesse than Don, and maintains the levelheadedness to keep his place in SC & P. Roger was once Don’s mentor, and Roger was once arguably a little more childish than even Don. But now Roger is back and looking for clarity in an apparently healthier way, without Don as his sidekick.
And now, the clincher. Don’s life has been filled with trying to fit into different roles, all roles that act as some escape from something that he used to be, or something he was ashamed of. As of late, managing his pretenses has become more difficult for him, leading to plenty of clumsiness on his part. Talk about identity crisis! His past continues to haunt him – we had another flashback to his past when a priest tries to get the members of the whorehouse to repent or whatever. Don goes off the rails drinking (once again prompted by hurtful conversations with a rightfully unforgiving Sally), punching a minister. How does he decide to make up for this bad karma? Don convinces Megan that starting over again in LA will help them both out, reminding her that it was in LA they fell in love. This played as such a reminder of all those other times Don would tell the women he’s with to run away with him and start over. After botching the meeting with Hershey’s, Don’s comeuppance continues with Megan when he tells her they are no longer moving to LA. We’ve seen Megan really tough it out this season, confiding in people that she no longer understands Don, and even confronting Don about their disconnectedness. Megan has lived at Don’s behest for better or worse, even though she is the best at keeping toe to toe with him and calling out his bullshit. Megan was the first to accept what Don’s past was, and for the first time (shortly after the Hershey’s pitch and their rejection of the true Don), she is rejecting Don, past and all. I sympathize with Megan – girlfriend’s sacrificed so much, even though she’s equally selfish and ironically specializes in fulfilling different roles all the time as an actress. Perhaps what makes their relationship not work is the fact that they are, too, mirrors of each other.
What else are the repercussions of Don’s shaky foundation? The fact that Don is no longer comfortable with himself and who he is leaves a lack of confidence in the agency in him. Don is no longer what the agency believed him to be, or want him to be. Don has effectively distributed and destroyed the foundation of his character he built. The partners make the decision to enforce an undetermined leave of absence for Don – again, Don is getting his comeuppance for otherwise taking advantage of his status, while dragging everyone through the runaway train ride of trying to follow in his footsteps.
As a final attempt to start clean, what does Don do? With the agency effectively rejecting the concept of Don’s past, he instead decides to reveal his true self to his family. He drives his sons and Sally to the now decrepit whorehouse in which he once lived. Now Sally is the last of the Mad Men characters who can be seen as the mirror of Don, someone who is truly in his likeness but also affected by what Don is and does. It turns out that, like Don, Sally has a destructive catharsis – she buys beer and gets drunk at boarding school, getting her suspended. This prompts Betty to beg Don to pick Sally up from school, no longer knowing what to do to help Sally. The look Don and Sally share as Don comes clean is one that I think shapes their relationship, and is potentially the start of the healing process for them. These two have a certain privacy and quietude about them. It’s the thing that bites them in the ass a lot of the time, but in this aspect of their personalities they seem to share this deeper understanding of one another. It’s a moment where it feels like for the first time, Don is being honest with his daughter, and Sally, once again, begins to accept what Don once was.
The concept of Don Draper has been the series-long question of Mad Men. Don’s veneer has been slowly breaking down through all of Season 6. With Don Draper deconstructed, his remnants left all over Sterling Cooper and Partners, what are we left with to discover about him? Will the man of reinvention double back and reconcile? Though most everyone else’s storylines still have many question marks (hence my feeling of unfulfilment), I’m glad that there is still validity in philosophizing about who and what Don Draper is, and what he ultimately means for his world.
And… Some final odds and ends:
-I guess what’s also fitting in the ultimate question of who is Don Draper is the timely introduction of Bob Benson, who, like Don, is a man of constant reinvention. I felt that we leave him in a place that doesn’t quite satiate me – even though Pete should know better, Bob gets the upper hand. Will he begin to crack? Is he looking to stay Bob Benson? What is his agenda? Is he really just another Don, finding a new self that will lead to a better life that Bob is actually getting now?
-Harry had such a huge impact before, making threats about using a headhunter and seeking to become a partner. I’m surprised we didn’t revisit this at all this episode, or lately.
-Ken Cosgrove! Why didn’t he get a chance to move to LA? Will he eventually make the move out there? He’s also a player I felt wasn’t touched on enough towards the end.
-What will it mean for Stan now that he’s begrudgingly stuck in NY? I do love that he dug at Don for selfishly suggesting himself for LA instead of suggesting Stan at all. Stan was someone who kinda fell off the radar toward the end of the season, which sucks because he is such a symbol of what the 60s are.
-Loved the callback to the burglar scene. This season has been pretty good about making callbacks to details and plotlines from episodes and seasons before – the Jaguar ultimatum, Pete and Peggy’s baby, Pete finding out the truth about Don. It’s these details that make following the show and knowing its past so intimately so rewarding.
Till next season!