Season Six of “Mad Men” began on Waikiki Beach in Christmas 1967 and ended in a Pennsylvania slum on Thanksgiving 1968. But although the neighborhood is deteriorating, Don Draper is definitely in a better place.
At the beginning of the season, Don’s body might have been in an earth paradise, but his soul was as tormented as the rest of the condemned in Dante’s “Inferno.” He spends the rest of the season in the modern equivalent of Hell, consumed with self-loathing, duplicity, falseness and cheating. He’s drinking again and causing pain to the people he loves. He tells his mistress he wants to stop, but he can’t.
Much of this season has been about how human behavior repeats itself and how people keep making the same mistakes again and again. But it’s not only mistakes that keep repeating; sometimes it can be heroic actions. In Season 4, Don hit rock bottom in the famous “Suitcase” episode, when he ended up drunk and vomiting in the men’s room floor; He pulled out of that tailspin and temporarily got his act together. He cut way back on his drinking and was faithful to his new wife.
Don spiraled out of control again this year and just about the last thing anyone expected in the season finale was that he would find redemption. And yet there he was – sacrificial, truthful, kind and generous. And what was really unexpected was that this turnaround would be precipitated by a fight with Christian evangelist.
Don’s once again at a nadir, having ruined himself with his daughter. When he phones Sally to tell her she needs to talk to the police about the “Grandma Ida” burglar, she retorts, “I wouldn’t want to do anything immoral. You know what? Why don’t YOU tell them what I saw?” Ouch, given that what she saw was Don “comforting” Sylvia in a very unorthodox way. This conversation results in a self-pitying visit to a bar, where he confronts an itinerant minister who’s trying to “save” him (“Jesus can offer … you freedom from pain in this life.”) The crackpot ends up with a well-deserved sock in the face when he says of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr, and the Vietnam casualties that “there’s not one true believer in the group,” yet he actually does save Don, directly or indirectly.
The bar fight reminds Don of a related incident in his childhood when a similarly abused street preacher, having been thrown out of the whorehouse where he was being brought up, told him “the only unpardonable sin is to believe that God won’t forgive you.” This memory, plus a night in the drunk tank, convinces him to turn his life around. He will not only give up drinking, but he and Megan will move to California so he can take over the Sunkist account and embrace a life of sunshine and beaches.
But here’s the thing. The California option, while a step forward, is not the real answer. Throughout the series, California has functioned as a metaphor for escape. In season one when he thought he might be exposed as Dick Whitman, Don tried to get his then-mistress Rachel Menken, to run off with him to California. In Season Two, he temporarily joins a band of European jetsetters after ditching Pete at an L.A. convention for defense contractors. And of course California was where he went for emotional support from Anna, the widow of the real Don Draper.
The California option was conceived in sin anyway, after Don stole the idea from Stan. It might put a Band-Aid on the wound, but it’s not a true solution to Don’s true problem, which is that he is living a lie. His identity is a lie and his very job is to tell lies.
Don is finally pushed to the breaking point in a pitch to Hershey’s, when he makes up a story about how his father used to reward him with a Hershey bar after he mowed the lawn. This elicits probably the worst possible response from the client: “Well, weren’t you a lucky little boy.” You could call what happens next a mental breakdown, except that Don is completely in control of his faculties. He does what he threatened to do to Peggy and Ted in last week’s St. Joseph’s Aspirin pitch: he tells the truth.
He doesn’t just tell the truth, he spills his guts, telling the client and the partners that he was an orphan who grew up in a whorehouse and that the girl to whom he felt closest used to reward him with a Hershey’s candy bar if he was able to steal more than a dollar from a john’s pockets. In one of the most emotionally harrowing scenes of the entire series he tells them, “I’d eat it alone in my room with great ceremony, felling like a normal kid. It said ‘sweet’ on the back. It was the only sweet thing in my life.”
The whipped cream on top of the Hershey’s kiss was that the young Don knew that Milton Hershey had founded an orphanage where vulnerable boys like him could be protected and raised in a decent environment. He had dreamed of going to the Hershey Industrial School for Orphan Boys. This was a real place, by the way, and it lives today as the Milton Hersey School, which serves disadvantaged youth.
Here’s a photo of the school when it was still an orphanage. Orphanages sometimes get a bad rap, but I’m sure this place was paradise compared to where the young Don was living.
Having finally told the truth about himself and even truthfully advised the clients that he hoped they wouldn’t advertise at all, Don goes one step further and gives up his spot in California to Ted, who had begged him to let take the California job in the hopes of salvaging his marriage. Ted inadvertently played the one card that would change Don’s mind. He raised the specter of his marriage breaking up if he stayed in New York and continued his affair with Peggy. Having seen how messed up his own kids are by their broken home, Don sacrifices his California dreams so someone else’s kids can grow up in an intact family.
Don quickly learns, as many have learned before him, that excessive truth telling and self-sacrifice cannot be tolerated. Megan is furious that they are no longer moving to California because she already quit her job, and the other Sterling Cooper partners suspend him from the firm indefinitely, possibly permanently.
By the final scene Don is apparently jobless and wifeless on Thanksgiving morning. But he’s free. In the Gospel of John, Jesus advised “the truth will set you free,” and Don is as free as he’s ever been. Sally had observed earlier in the season that she didn’t know anything about her father, and in this final scene, Don takes the kids to see the now-decrepit whorehouse. “This is where I grew up,” he says in the final line of the season, as Sally looks at him from a different, more understanding, perspective and the Judy Collins’ version of “Both Sides Now” swells in the background. It’s hard not to burst into tears.
- At the beginning of the season Matt Weiner told interviewers that he had initially considered holding back some ideas for next season but decided to use up every last idea this year. It’s hard to imagine what will happen next season and apparently not even Weiner knows. Will Megan and Don remain married? Will Don return to SC&P? And if he doesn’t, will the show abandon all the SC&P characters to focus on his new endeavors? Will we ever see Pete and Ted again, once they get to California? I’m guessing that the feverish speculation will start today and won’t end until the season premiere in 2014.
- Don is not the only one set free by the truth. Pete too is freed in a different way when the Chevy clients learn that he can’t drive a stick shift. They want an ad guy with “gasoline in his veins” and Pete who only learned to drive last season, was apparently taught on an automatic transmission. Yet even Pete may learn that it’s better not to live a lie. (The scene in which Bob Benson brings down Pete by forcing him to drive in front of the Chevvy executives is genius. I hope for his sake, if not the show’s, that Pete has also learned not to screw around with a colleague that is even more desperate than he is.)
- Pete’s freedom is of a different nature than Don’s, though. Don is free from his lies and deceptions, but Pete is gaining the freedom that comes with no social ties. As Trudy says to him, “You’re free. You’re free of [your mother]. You’re free of [your SC&P colleagues]. You’re free of everything.” That’s a peculiarly American vision of freedom, one that was overindulged in the 1970s. And California was the place the symbolized that freedom. Pete can start over from scratch, be a new person and feel no obligations to the past or his family. Good luck with that!
- There’s definitely a sense that society is beginning to go under. “The good is not beating the bad,” Betty tells Don, who has himself just said that “Jesus had a bad 1968.” And Ted says that with “the world out there, I have to hold onto [my family] or I’ll get lost.” For many people this was a scary time.
- The Big Apple-centric perspective of Los Angeles (that it’s “Siberia” or “Detroit with palm trees”) will turn out to be spectacularly wrong, and Pete and Ted may become the unintentional beneficiaries of the biggest economic story of the seventies and eighties. The explosive growth of California’s population, the innovation of the state’s local companies, the gateway to Asia – all these conditions helped California become a powerhouse that eventually surpassed New York. In 1968 New York was beginning a long decline and anyone who transferred to L.A. at this particular moment in time was pretty lucky.
- The title of this episode – “In Care Of” – seems to refer to the way people care for their children. Virtually every child in the cast made an appearance this week, including the Draper kids, Joan’s son, Pete’s daughter, and Ted’s sons (who are there in spirit.) We get an early example of what happens when you’re not a loving parent: Roger’s daughter, who his secretary says is “bleeding him dry,” instantly turns on him when he declines to invest further in her husband’s business venture. She pretends to love him only as long as he’s an ATM; no cash, no Thanksgiving dinner. All this is meant to be a counterpoint to how Don was cared for as a child.
- The title of this season’s episode 10 – “A Tale of Two Cities” – could also have been the name for last night’s show. Consider the second most famous line from the novel: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Don could easily have uttered it to Ted when he gave up his claim to the California job.
- The title of last week’s episode, “The Quality of Mercy,” also could have been applied to last night, given how much mercy and forgiveness is demonstrated throughout the show. Indeed there were more sweet and gentle scenes last night than in a dozen other episodes put together. Don showing mercy to Ted; Don being gentle and understanding with a distraught Betty (who he even calls by his old pet name “Birdie”) when Sally is caught buying beer at school; Joan allowing Roger to come to Thanksgiving and get to know little Kevin; Trudy’s gentleness with Pete when he comes to say deliver some of his Mother’s furniture. All these scenes contributed to a warm glow unlike any episode this year.
- “Bob, you like to get into trouble, don’t you?” This line by the Chevy executive is almost a word-for-word repeat of what Sally’s roommate told her last week. They probably don’t have much else in common, though, except for an infatuation with Donny Osmond.
- The one plotline I wasn’t onboard with was the idea of Manolo the gay nurse marrying Pete’s mother and then potentially killing her. This gigolo theme is like something out of Megan’s soap opera. Yet it does lead to one very dark bit of humor, when the two Campbell brothers, who couldn’t stand the old bat anyway, convince themselves that there’s no point in spending a lot of money on private detectives to bring the alleged killer to justice. Bud: “It won’t bring her back. She’s in the water. With Father.” Pete: “She loved the sea.” I’m surprised the don’t pull out the old excuse “Mother would have wanted us to spend our money on ourselves instead of wasting it finding her killer.”
- I don’t have much to say about Peggy, given that I warned her last week not to sleep with married men. She doesn’t react well when Ted tells her “I can’t ruin all those lives,” although that’s exactly what she was aiming to do. She has not made the best choices in her personal life, has she? Sleeping with Pete on the eve of his wedding. Duck Philips, which still makes my skin crawl. And of course Abe turned out to be no prince. Maybe it’s time she listened to her mother and got a cat.
- I’m not sure why, but the Judy Collins version of Both Sides Now provided an unexpectedly deep emotional impact to the last scene. Maybe it’s because it’s a fundamentally sad song that is given an optimistic interpretation. Maybe it’s because it evokes a period of innocence for Boomers like me. It certainly fits with the theme of duality that has pervaded the season. “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now” Judy Collins sings, adding “I really don’t know love at all.” But to get a real sense of duality and the ruefulness of age, listen to this version by Joni Mitchell. It’s the same song with the same lyrics, but it has an entirely different meaning when song by a 60-year-old women.
- Funniest line: Roger’s secretary on why she won’t invite her “forlorn” boss to her place for Thanksgiving dinner: “Ralph stopped drinking and you know little Ralphie’s spastic. I think both are too much for him.” So true.
On to 1969!!