[Warning: Spoilers ahead. Don't read if you haven't seen the season six finale.]
In the run-up to Sunday night’s season finale of AMC’s “Mad Men,” the show’s website listed this summary of the episode: “Don has a problem.”
Of course, that’s the summary of every episode of “Mad Men,” but this time Don Draper actually confronts his problem instead of sidestepping it.
Episode 13 of the show’s sixth season is titled “In Care Of,” although it could have just as easily been called “Echoes,” because there are plenty of them throughout the program.
Two that hearken back to the first season of the show: First, when Don is drinking in the bar where the minister confronts him, the 1955 standard “Band of Gold” is playing in the background, just as it was in the first scene of Mad Men’s pilot [video below], which had Don Draper (in a bar, of course) doodling on a cocktail napkin and trying to figure out a new campaign for his Lucky Strikes client.
Second echo of the beginning: Don’s initial Hershey pitch in Sunday’s finale had the same look and feel as his pitch to the Lucky Strike folks in the pilot [video below]:
“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing . . . it’s okay. You are okay.”
What the viewer didn’t know — yet — is that no one on “Mad Men” is okay, least of all Don Draper.
• • • • • • •
Season 6 has alternated between the pedestrian (almost all of the agency/merger mishegas), the predictable (Don giving money to his downstairs neighbor Sylvia after a Worst Little Whorehouse flashback to his youth), and the pretentious (all the death metaphors). The events of the day — the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, the Harlem riots, the police car sirens in the background of multiple scenes — just feel like window dressing.
Executive producer Matthew Weiner (who created and writes the show) has consistently played to the cheap seats — too blatant, too superficial, too obvious (see: Bob Benson, who has the creepiest smile this side of Ronald McDonald and yet who still manages to outmaneuver both Pete Campbell and Roger Sterling).
Don, for his part, has been more pathetic than sympathetic this season. His domination shtick with downstairs paramour Sylvia backfired and he wound up begging her to stay. Later, his daughter Sally catches him in flagrante with Sylvia. And he committed advertising’s original sin — stealing someone’s creative work (even if he did attribute it to a dead guy) — to reassert his power over Peggy, who had fallen under the spell of new partner Ted Chaough.
He lost — no, he threw away — virtually every woman in his life.
And in the end, Don bottoms out. After he spends a night in jail (for punching the minister in the bar), he empties all the liquor bottles in the house and tells his wife Megan, “It’s gotten out of control. I’ve gotten out of control.” He says he needs to leave New York and move to Los Angeles.
Then again, everyone — Stan the copywriter, Don (who steals Stan’s pitch), Ted (the second rat to appear in Peggy’s apartment), and Pete — wants to go to California, which was for much of the 20th Century the land of personal reinvention (Paging Nathaneal West, paging Mr. Nathaneal West).
But Don lets Ted have the LA job. And after his Hershey’s meltdown, which has him first inventing a Norman Rockwell dad and childhood (“Hershey’s is the currency of affection”) then saying the first honest things in six seasons (“I grew up in a brothel”), Don officially hits bottom.
The partners send him off on indefinite leave; at the elevator, Don’s replacement looks at him and says snidely, “Going down?”
That’s one last echo, recalling the opening scene of this season’s first episode, which finds Don on a beach in Hawaii reading Dante’s “Inferno.”
In the final scene, Don brings his kids back to the Worst Little Whorehouse of his youth. And Sally Draper, who’s been as hard to like as her father this season, gazes up at Don Draper with something that looks like redemption.
But Don seems allergic to responsibility (as well as to happiness), so it’s hard to guess where Weiner goes from here. The Y-chromosome set in Mad Men has generally been borderline-to-outright reprehensible, and most of them didn’t improve this season, which was generally uneven but finished with flair. But Don would prove an interesting rehabilitation project.
In the average redemption story, you need to hit bottom before rising again. Don’s taken care of the first part. Let’s see how much bounce he’s got left in him.