Mad Men Season 6 Finale Review: The Mask Slips

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Mad Men S06E13: "In Care Of"

The truth will set you free. In Don's case, the truth will also get you fired... as will jumping on every opportunity to screw over your partners and generally just sucking at your job for an entire season. But in a not-actually-all-that-weird way, Don's forced leave of absence will also set him free to focus on who he is and what he wants out of life. Motivations and goals change, and it's been clear for awhile now that somewhere along the line—for me, starting when Anna Draper died—that Don's careful grip on the life he built eventually slipped.

Don has never been a terribly heroic character. That's okay. He's not meant to be. However, before this season he was at the very least he was understandable, relatable, and above all else, unquestionably human. He did the occasional heroic deed. He also did the occasional utterly dickish deed. His actions themselves were rarely as important as the reasoning behind them—from taking Don Draper's identity to bluffing his way into an advertising job to casting Adam out of his life to his relationship with Anna and so many other decisions he's made throughout the course of the series so far. We've seen Don make the worst things ever look like something Jesus would do, and we've seen him make a kind gesture look like a slap in the face, but even at his most complicated, we could make sense out of Don Draper's decisions.

That isn't to say that we couldn't understand Don this season—we certainly could—but his delicious complexity was apparently missing, and his every action seemed to be tinged with awfulness. Somewhere along the line, Don Draper decided that he was unloveable, and seemingly subconsciously decided that everyone should follow his lead with regard to loathing him. The problem is that, deep down inside, everybody wants to be loved—even Don Draper. So he pushed and pushed and pushed, and the people who put up with him were the ones who, he decided, were worthy... except that he was unloveable, remember? So he looked at those allies who still stood by him and started another round of pushing. And another.

When Pete stopped at Trudy and Tammy's home to deliver some dead mom furniture and say goodbye to his estranged family before heading out to California, Trudy told Pete that with his mother dead and his immediate family no longer a direct burden, Pete was finally, truly free—but if freedom really is like that line from the Janis Joplin song, if it's having "nothing left to lose," then Pete is close, sure, but Don is closer. Don is there.

After such a long build-up to Don's final fall from grace, his inspiration-via-flashback to change seemed just a touch trite, but after two seasons of generally dark stories and a real downer of a finale for Season 5, the sudden transformation in tone is welcome. And compared to Pete's mother's strange death-at-sea storyline, flashing back to a Depression-era minister bonking us (and Don) over the head with "The only unpardonable sin is to believe God cannot forgive you," wasn't so bad. It's been a long, hard season in terms of understanding Don Draper; to finally have a clear picture of his motivation was cathartic—and a season finale should be somewhat cathartic.

It may be a case of too-little-too-late for Don to save his position at Sterling Cooper & Partners (love the new logo, BTW), and Duck Philips slithering his way into SC&P with, presumably, a replacement for Don, threw a question mark at the end of Joan, Roger, and the other partners' insistence that Don's leave was temporary. His name isn't on the door anymore and to be fair to the other partners, Don's work hasn't been great this season—even his brilliant idea to pioneer a West Coast branch of SC&P was a line-for-line rip-off of Stan's pitch. I know there are some Mad Men viewers who are delighted by Don's apparent firing because "Don deserves it," and sure, he does, but I was most relieved by the partners' decision because the alternative, to constantly turn a blind eye to Don's clear inability to perform in the office these days, just made them look dumb. The Hershey meeting was the final straw, with Don pitching a solid (though certainly not mind-blowingly awesome) campaign to Hershey about their candy being a childhood symbol of love, complete with a bullshit heartwarming tale from his childhood, then immediately following it up with a more honest account of what Hershey bars meant to him. The message was the same, but Hershey would rather not have involved hookers in their imagery. That's fair.

And yet, despite Don losing it all at the conclusion of "In Care Of," the episode was rife with bittersweet optimism, for Don and for everyone else—even the world as a whole. It could be the luxury of knowing how history turns out that colors my own perception of Mad Men as it enters the final year of the 1960s, but 1969, while not without its own turmoil, was far less traumatizing than the year that just drew to a close. Woodstock is on the horizon—and while in reality, it was a muddy, poop-y, druggy lesson in poor event planning, it's still an enduring symbol of unity and free love and the good parts of the counterculture movement. The Stonewall riots will prove to be a pivotal turning point in LGBT activism. The Eagle will land in July. 1968 was a brutal year in history, but there's some good stuff up ahead.

Concerning the immediate world of Mad Men, well, Peggy and Ted are finuto and it sucked for various reasons, but Ted ultimately made the not-a-dick call by appealing for the chance to man the West Coast offices with plans to take his family with him—jumping on the chance to really fix what's broken and removing himself from the temptation of Sexy Push-up Bra Action Peggy (I mean, damn girl). Peggy, despite being understandably irate about the whole thing—he did lead her on, after all—found herself finally receiving the power, respect, and swanky office she deserved with Don's departure. That was a really great final Peggy shot for the season.

Joan invited Roger to her apartment for Thanksgiving—giving Kevin a father figure without tying that figure up with her love life—and giving Roger a family, seeing as his bratty daughter rejected him after he refused to invest in her husband's ice truck business. Classy.

Betty and Don maintained a far more positive relationship this season than they did in the latter half of their marriage. All things considered, Betty has put a lot more effort into being a non-sucky mom than she ever has before, and she seems to have matured to the point of understanding how the Draper kids are affected by the actions of their parents. Honestly, I was expecting that phone call to Don about Sally's suspension to reek more of "NO NOES HENRY'S POLITICAL CAREER" than a genuine concern for Sally with a side order of "P.S. my in-laws suck." Don too has realized how his actions impact the kiddos, and his decision to drive them to his childhood whorehouse was just as much for them as for his own tentative effort to explain himself.

When Sally was front and center during that home invasion earlier in the season and her lack of knowledge about her father—beyond the bland basics he used to build his Don Draper mask—put she and the boys in very real danger, Sally's idolized image of Don as the "good parent" and Betty as the bad one began to deteriorate before finally crumbling altogether when she caught Don and Sylvia going at it. Don's past doesn't excuse his crappy behavior, but it at least offers us and his children a frame of reference, an entrance into his head, so that we can at least kind of understand why he made some of the terrible decisions he's made. While we the audience have had bits of reference for six seasons now, Sally has not, and her lack of understanding of the adult world due to her young age, paired with her lack of information about her father, made her frustration with Don something completely unmanageable—hence the acting out and the drinking.

Don had the opportunity to walk away from everything in "In Care Of." He lost his job, his family, his magical advertising touch, most of his friends, and many of his co-workers. He had, essentially, willed himself into the Janis Joplin definition of freedom... only to chose, freely, to give it up. By giving Ted—a man who was quickly losing a battle with his own Draper-esque demons—the opportunity to go to California, Don resigned himself to working with what he had in New York, harking back to the words of forgiveness spoken by the minister from his youth. After all, you can't be forgiven if you just run away from those who need to pardon you.

Mad Men has made me too cynical of a Draper fan to think that when we return to Mad Men next year, Don will be some pinnacle of ethics and family, complete with white picket fence and once-again-gainful employment. That would be terrible anyway. Don will slip, but what he does when he slips will determine the success or failure of his decision to repair everything that he destroyed. Dumping the booze down the sink was a grand gesture, and his resolve to stay sober, even when struck by the shakes, indicated a positive direction—but it's not like Don will never get terrible cravings ever again and like Ted said, ditching drinking cold turkey isn't really the best approach to take. Don spent the entire fifth season remaining faithful to Megan, only to slip in the season finale. We've seen Don try and fail at various points in the series, but slipping up isn't the end of the world—something that Don has struggled to accept in the past. His inability to see the occasional failure as something that can be forgiven and fixed is what led him to his darkest place to begin with, and more than the curtailed drinking, the acceptance of his past, and the numerous olive branches he's going to have to hand out in order to fix much of the damage he's inflicted on his relationships, it's Don's ability to forgive that will determine what state we find him in when Mad Men returns.

So... I thought this was a fitting end—and a refreshingly not-utterly-depressing one—to a generally angst-ridden (but still awesome) season. What did you think? How did Season 6 measure up to the others?



NOTES

– "Jesus had a bad year." Understatement.

– Wait... so are Joan and Bob dating? She told Roger he was being invited into Kevin's life, but not hers, and there was Bob and... I mean, I'm okay with that, I'm just confused. YOU BEST NOT BE USING HER, BOB BENSON. YOU HEAR ME?

– "How are you?" "NOT GREAT, BOB." My fave exchange all night. Incredulous, overwhelmed Pete is the most entertaining Pete—especially when he's contrasted with the eternally chill Bob.

– What do you think is the true story of what happened to Mrs. Campbell? Did Manolo really marry her for the money and then throw Momma from the boat? Did she just get confused and wander into shark-infested waters? Was Pete's outburst about murder being smiled upon in international waters not amazing?

– Pete's dad died in a plane crash. Now his mom maybe died by falling (or being pushed) off a boat. The Campbell family has bad luck with transportation! Knowing that Pete's a bad driver (lol @ that fiasco with the manual transmission in Detroit), should we be speculating/revisiting the theory that Pete will eventually meet an untimely end on the road?

– Megan Draper Death Watch: She lives! But her character was written off her soap opera in anticipation of her move to California, and it looks like she's going to California with or without Don. I think the second she lands a job that makes her truly self-sufficient, that marriage is going to be over.

– Excellent musical selections this week: Henry Mancini's "Moon River" and "Both Sides Now," written by Joni Mitchell and sung by Judy Collins.

– What are your Season 6 predictions? Will Don be back at the firm? Do you want him back?

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