If you’re a Mad Men fan, join us regularly for Mad Men Musings – a space to discuss selected highlights, low points, or just plain water-cooler worthy moments of each episode.
We’ve journeyed down a long, dark road, but the Mad Men season finale may have just given us – gasp – a tremulous ray of light. Remember how Don was reading “Dante’s Inferno” in the very beginning of the season? Well, after traveling through the nine circles of hell – including the way stations of greed, anger, treachery, and fraud – Dante was finally able to escape, wiser for all he had witnessed. Will Don do the same?
In an elegantly subdued episode, we saw some threads pull too tight and finally break, even as other connections began to be forged. We witnessed things beginning to come full circle in a very real and satisfying way. And even though some serious drama happened – death at sea, the confrontation of addiction, the changing of the guard at SCP – there was a kind of melancholic, bittersweet restraint in place. This was the kind of finale that whispered, not shouted. (Okay, there was some shouting).
The crux of this episode centers on Los Angeles – like a siren, the glittering city sings to Stan, Don, Megan and Ted of fresh starts and redemption, a place to start anew. Stan, looking the most presentable we’ve seen all season, makes a confident pitch to Don about why he should be the Sunkist account point person. Stan views it as a great opportunity for autonomy, to strike out on his own; his query seems to strike a chord with Don.
Our ruminative hero ditches the office (of course, stranding Ted to deal with a work meeting) and heads to a bar for a patented Don Draper “think and drink” session. While he’s there, he has a run-in with an overzealous bible-thumper, attempting to proselytize. Preacher-man picked the wrong quarry, though; all that sermonizing sparks a whorehouse flashback, where Dick Whitman watched Uncle Mac throw out a similar holy man. And when Dick turns back into Don, preacher-man is in trouble. Don spends the night in jail and does some internal-demon confronting; when he gets home in the morning, Megan finds him pouring their impressively large collection of hooch down the sink.
“It’s gotten out of control. I’ve gotten of control,” he tells her. Then, he literally STEALS the words right out of Stan’s mouth, parroting all the things Stan pitched to him about going to L.A. (Don, how are you enjoying your stay in the “fraud” circle of hell?) Megan cries tears of happiness – finally, she can really work on her career without worrying about sacrificing her marriage. Cleary, Don sees the move as a chance to regroup, get himself together, and work on his relationship with her. Later, Don informs the partners that he will be going to L.A., leaving an incredulous Stan to confront him. Don weakly says he can try to get Stan out there eventually. Yeah, ok Don, thanks for nothing.
Meanwhile, now that we know Bob Benson’s secret, it is such a pleasure to watch him around the office, flashing that obsequious grin. Roger sees Bob with Joan and calls him out on the carpet, in a gloriously misguided show of chivalry/jealousy. After the fall-out from deigning to fund his greedy daughter’s latest business investment, Roger seems adrift and alone; his secretary tells Joan she’s worried about him and where he will spend Thanksgiving. And to my joy, (Joan and Roger, in a perfect world, are totally together) Joan invites Roger to spend Turkey day at her house. With Bob Benson, which is just too awesome. And as Roger sits down with Kevin and starts to feed him, Joan gets the loveliest look on her face. Hope springs eternal, guys.
In other crazy news, Pete’s mother has been busy: she married Manolo and went on a cruise, where she was apparently lost at sea, aka possibly MURDERED by Bob Benson’s BFF. Joke’s on him, though, ‘cause her assets are not nearly what old Manny was counting on. Pete flips out and accuses Bob of essentially being an accessory to murder. This does not bode well for the already super-tenuous relationship between the two of them.
And at a Chevy meeting, Bob gets his revenge. Pete plus super-powerful-Chevy-car-driven-in-an-enclosed-setting equals total disaster. Bob is left grinning like a canary-swallowing cat and Pete is stripped of his Chevy account duties. Eventually, Pete becomes wearily calm about all of his—his mother’s death, Manolo, losing the account. When he visits his daughter, Trudy tells him he is free now, free of everything. What Pete does with his new “freedom” remains to be seen.
On the tortured romance front, Peggy is ramping up her efforts towards Ted. In the most un-Peggy ensemble we’ve ever seen, (Voluptuous cleavage! Super-short hemline! Bright lipstick!) she makes sure Ted gets a nice long look at what he’s missing. Her ruse works—Ted comes to her apartment, professes his undying love, and tells Peggy he is going to leave his wife. This is going to get messy, people—just like the lipstick smearing Peggy and Ted’s postcoital faces.
In the midst of all this, Don also gets a call from Betty: Sally has been suspended from Miss Porter’s for buying beer with a fake ID and getting her drank on with her friends. Betty is tender and vulnerable here; she worries that Sally’s actions are all her fault. She tells Don “The good is not beating the bad—she obviously needs more than I can give her.” Don tells Betty it’s not her fault and even calls her Birdie, which always makes my heart crack, just a little. On one hand, Sally is obviously enacting a combo of 1) being a normal teen away from her parents and 2) understandably acting out—but, beneath that, Don has to consider his own influence upon her. Will his legacy to Sally be one of drinking, duplicity, and darkness?
These things are clearly weighing heavily on his mind. Ted’s not doing so well either. He’s realized that he cannot lose his family, but the only way he can give up Peggy is to get far, far away from her, via going out to L.A. instead of Don. Don tells Ted everything’s already been decided and there’s nothing he can do. Before leaving, a crestfallen Ted notes Don’s not-drinking and tells him to at least have one, because going cold turkey is brutal.
At a pitch meeting with Hershey execs, a trembling-hand Don fabricates a heartwarming tale of loving fathers and the sweet magic of a chocolate bar, and it’s a great story. The problem is, it’s not real, and in a shockingly uncharacteristic move, Don lays himself bare to everyone assembled. He tells them the truth—the whorehouse, the prostitutes, the johns, all of it. He ends with, “It [a Hershey bar] was the only sweet thing in my life.” Capping off this moment of career suicide, he changes his mind about L.A. and tells Ted he can go after all. Honesty AND selflessness? This calls for a celebratory drink, but maybe I’ll make it a virgin in honor of sober Don.
Ted has to break the news that he’s leaving to Peggy. Like the poor man’s version of Don, he’s ripped her heart out and gets to walk away, leaving carnage in his wake. He tries to tell Peggy that she’ll thank him one day, blah blah blah, but Peggy is NOT having it and tells him to get out. She’s left standing in her office, cradling her arms to her chest. Alone.
In the Draper residence, Don has to break his own news to Megan – Cali is not happening. Megan is horrified and something in her just breaks—she finally calls Don out for all his bullshit and intimates that she is done with their marriage. On top of this marital rupture, Don is then divorced from SCP — in light of his general work issues plus the Hershey mess, the partners inform him that he needs to take a few months off to regroup. An incredulous Don runs into Duck and a new associate on the way down and takes that all-too-symbolic elevator down, down, down.
But due to what will now be the absence of both Don and Ted, guess who gets take over the NY office? Peggy Olson, that’s who. As she sits in Don’s office, her heart may still be breaking, but she is finally, finally, getting the biggest professional opportunity of her life. Godspeed, Pegs.
And although Don’s not going to L.A., it seems he’s embarking on a different kind of voyage. He goes to pick up the kids for Thanksgiving; Sally is sulking in the back and the boys are wondering why Dad is taking them through a seedy neighborhood. Don parks, makes the kids get out, and shows them a dilapidated wreck of a house – all crooked angles and peeling paint and rotting wood. A little boy lingers on the front stops, licking an ice cream and staring at them plaintively. “That’s where I grew up,” Don tells his children.
Sally stares at him, a mixture of shock and something else—pain, empathy, maybe even a little love—scrawled across her face. In that moment, Don has stripped away all of his masks and is just a father, telling the cold, hard truth. Not to beat the dead horse of metaphor, you guys, but that heartbreaking wreck of a house IS Don, and he’s giving his kids the grand tour.
In an entire season of Don flailing through lies and deceit and misery, this was the first time that I genuinely liked him again. Is it too much to hope that the death we’ve been waiting for all season is the true death of old Don? Is he struggling towards the realization that he won’t find home in L.A., or in the bottom of a bottle of Scotch, or in the arms of a thousand different women? I’m not sure, but next season cannot come soon enough.
Readers – You all have been such a pleasure, with your insightful comments! Spill it! Did the finale work for you guys? Anyone else feeling a little mushy towards Don?
And if you need a Mad Men palate cleanser -a gloriously bloody, over the top, deliciously gothic one – stay tuned for True Blood recaps starting soon!
all photos: via AMC
Amity writes and teaches in Central PA. Her obsessions include: Rodarte (she can’t afford any Rodarte, mind you, but a girl can dream), espresso, books, vintage/thrift fashion and fountain pens. She thinks you should dress like a weirdo once in a while, just to shake things up.