Season finale review: ‘Mad Men’ – ‘In Care Of’

And so another season of “Mad Men” – the penultimate, in fact – has come to an end. I have a review of the season finale coming up just as soon as I drive a Camaro through your lobby…

“I was an orphan. I grew up in Pennsylvania… in a whorehouse.” -Don

Matthew Weiner placed this sixth season of “Mad Men” within the most tumultuous year of the ’60s, when the assassinations and riots and violence were so frequent that even our apolitical characters couldn’t ignore the revolution that was happening around them. As news of Dr. King, Bobby, the Tet Offensive, the Democratic National Convention and all the rest filtered through to Don and his co-workers, they often looked like they could see the world as they knew it coming to a violent, shocking end.

And so it feels right, and powerful, that season 6 should end with Weiner (who, as usual, directed the finale, and co-wrote the script with Carly Wray) bringing an end to so many character’s lives as they, and we, know them.

By the time “In Care Of” concludes, Ted and Pete are both packing for California, to run an office that was intended as a minor operation, but has instead become a life raft for Ted’s marriage and a place for Pete to start over after his recent losses. Peggy has lost both her old and new mentors (and, in the latter, a lover) and finds herself working as SC&P’s de facto creative director.

And Don? Don has seemingly lost almost everything he thought he cared about: his job, his wife, and – in the episode’s most powerful scene – the walls he has carefully built up between Don Draper’s career and Dick Whitman’s childhood.

This has been a dark, dark season for Don, and for Jon Hamm to play him. Don has been cold and distant and cruel, and he’s also been a needy emotional wreck, and most recently a complete lush. It hasn’t been pleasant to watch Don a lot of the time, but Hamm has gone for broke(*) with all of these terrible moments. Six seasons into the series, he finds a new level of vulnerability in that uncomfortable, devastating moment when Don can’t stop himself from confessing his secret shame to the Hershey executives – and to the SC&P partners in the room with them – even if it costs him the account and the level of privacy he’s fought so hard to maintain. Just listen to the self-loathing that catches in his voice as he says the word “alone,” or the pain as he says eating the Hershey bar made him feel “like a normal kid.” Stealing from the john’s pockets to be given a candy bar is far from the worst thing Dick Whitman ever did, but it’s among the most mortifying. This is the life Dick was so desperate to run away from that he would steal a dead man’s identity, and his desire to keep these details of his life a secret has as much to do with shame as it does with any legal jeopardy the truth could put him in. Even given how intolerable Don has been all season, Hamm made me feel nothing but sympathy (and pity) in that moment. One of his single best moments in a series full of jaw-droppers.

(*) In this week when we mourn the loss of James Gandolfini, I can’t help drawing a line between the lead of Matt Weiner’s last show and his current one. Gandolfini never tried to protect Tony Soprano’s image from tarnishing, nor does Hamm with Don Draper.

So given how deep those scars run, and how hard he’s tried to keep them hidden for his whole adult life, why does Don choose this, of all moments, to make this confession, in front of these people? Again, he’s been a human car crash all year. He threw himself too deeply into an affair with a woman who had the ability to say no to him. He failed at pitch after pitch, and his one major success (the merger that landed Chevy) instantly made him miserable, because he hadn’t thought through the consequences of working next to Ted and Peggy every day. His marriage is so joyless that he’s ready to pull the hobo trick and run away from his current life to try to fix things with Megan in the place where they fell in love. Sally wants nothing to do with him – her “Why don’t you just tell them what I saw?” is an epic burn – and he’s been living in a bottle just like he did after Betty kicked him out.

He is miserable, and bitter, and vulnerable, especially because he’s tried to quit drinking cold turkey, only to be so deep into the problem that he gets the shakes from doing it. Ted’s plea to go to California in order to save his family hits Don in the right place at the right time, especially when coupled with his physical symptoms and the arrival of a client with whom he has such a deep, special, difficult connection. In that moment – right after he’s so clearly done well with his patented nostalgia pitch, as his hand shakes and he sees the anguish on Ted’s face – Don Draper isn’t in that room anymore. Dick Whitman is. And he has to tell the men from Hershey just how much their chocolate has meant to him, no matter the cost.

And the cost, in this case, appears to be both his marriage and his job.

A lot can obviously happen between now and when the final season begins. We could return sometime in 1969 to find Megan came back, or that Don followed her out to California once he got pushed out by the other SC&P partners, and he’s competing with Ted all over again. And it’s entirely possible that the other partners really do intend just on a leave of absence, even if the entire sequence – the refusal to provide a return date, Duck showing up early with Don’s potential replacement – smacked of Freddie Rumsen being promised a six-month leave after he wet his pants. But Don being stripped of his identity, his wife and his position seems fitting for an episode in which so many of the characters find themselves losing everything.

Pete discovers that his mother has fallen – or been pushed? – off her cruise ship, and after Manolo married her, and is so consumed with rage and a need for vengeance that he forgets the very lesson he seemed to learn about Bob Benson just last week. Pete makes it clear to Bob that “I will never, ever let this go,” leaving Bob little choice but to ruin Pete before Pete can ruin him – in this case, taking advantage of city boy Pete Campbell’s relative inexperience at driving to humiliate him in front of the Chevy execs. (Remember, Pete only even got his license last season.) With his mother gone – and Pete and his brother Bud too cheap to fund a real investigation of Manolo – the Chevy account lost to him, and Trudy still living without him (even if our final glimpse of her this season suggests she still feels some affection for him, like Betty with Don), is it any wonder that he joins Ted in the California life raft?(**)

(**) That’s a hell of an idea Stan Rizzo had, given how many higher-ranking men at SC&P decided they wanted to steal it.

Peggy, meanwhile, has systematically had her ability to choose stripped away from her this season. Abe pushed her to buy the miserable place on the Upper West Side, then broke up with her after she speared him in the gut. Don and Ted arranged the merger without telling her, each assuming, wrongly, that she’d be thrilled with the news. And now Ted is so terrified of his feelings for Peggy, and what they might do to his wife and kids, that he chooses to end the relationship – and his in-person mentorship of her – without discussing it with her, leaving a bitter Peggy to observe, “Well, aren’t you lucky: to have decisions.”

In each case, it’s history repeating itself – as it has all season – only worse than before.

Don has pulled stunts at the office before that have left his partners scratching their heads, but the accumulation of them this year was finally too much for them to ignore it. It wasn’t just Hershey, but Jaguar, and going to war with Ted immediately after orchestrating a merger behind the other partners’ backs. Frankly, it would be remarkable if he didn’t get bounced after all the stunts he’s pulled this year. Don again tries to steal another man’s identity – or, at least, his getaway plan – but is brought down by his innate Dick Whitman-ness. Peggy has another affair with a married man, and it again blows up on her. Pete again decides to challenge the handsome chameleon, and isn’t up to the task.

But like the Judy Collins song that ends the season, you can look at what happened from both sides now. As Trudy tries to tell Pete when he shows up, defeated, to say goodbye to her and Tammy, he’s lost everything, but he’s also free of everything. Pete was not a happy person living in Greenwich, and has been fairly miserable at the office for a long time. I still remember his trip to California with Don back in season 2’s “The Jet Set,” and how at ease he seemed conducting business by poolside; maybe getting the New York boy out of New York will be good for him.

Similarly, the odds were long on Peggy and Ted living happily ever after together. She might have believed he could leave his wife and then jump to her after a reasonable period to avoid a scandal, but between their working relationship and his kids, this was going to be  a mess – assuming, of course, that Ted was ever going to leave them for Peggy, rather than trying to appease both of the women in his life at once. We’ll see exactly what role the other partners have envisioned for the man from Dancer Fitzgerald, but for now, Peggy’s running things for SC&P creative, sitting in Don’s office and even getting another back of the head shot as she reclines in his chair, pondering what she can do now that the angel and devil on her shoulders have left the building.

And Don very badly needed a wake-up call. His behavior at the office and at home was completely unacceptable, for a long time, and he only got away with it for as long as he did because he was Don Draper. With Megan presumably gone(***), his job at SC&P possibly over, he can focus on repairing things with his kids, which he starts to do by taking them to the whorehouse in Pennsylvania (whose exterior now reflects how Dick felt growing up there), just to give Sally an idea of where he came from and why he is the way he is. The first Don Draper pitch of the season involved a man getting off the plane in Hawaii, shedding his clothes and disappearing. As he told the puzzled Sheraton executives, “It’s not just a different place; you are different.” Maybe he needed to shed everything else to heal, because being the same Don Draper wasn’t working out too well for anyone involved, including the man himself.

(***) With all due respect to Jessica Paré, I don’t know that we ever need to see Megan again. Weiner gave us a lot of Megan over the last few seasons, but was never able to develop her into a character who functioned interestingly outside of her relationship with Don. Lord knows I’m not the biggest Betty fan, but there have been some strong Betty-centric stories from time to time over the years, where Megan was mainly there to reflect what Don’s been going through in the latter half of the decade.

“Both Sides, Now” has a lot of applications to where we end this strange but incredibly powerful season of “Mad Men.” SC&P now has significant assets on both sides of the country now. You can look at what’s happened to Don, Pete, Peggy and others from both sides. But you can also look at the lyrics of the song itself (written by Joni Mitchell), and how Collins ends each chorus by noting that even though she’s looked at clouds, love and life from both sides now, she really doesn’t know any of them at all.

At different points throughout this decade, the people around Don Draper have come to realize how little they really know him. With the collapse of both sides of his life at once, suddenly everyone knows a lot about him. As we head into the final season of the show – and, presumably, the final year of the decade (unless Weiner intends to take one or more big leaps ahead in time over season 7) – will this turn out to be a good thing for our man, or will we come to understand that he was better off when nobody had the first clue who and what he was?

Some other thoughts:

* I interviewed Weiner about the finale, and what its events might mean for the final season.

* Hershey actually signed with Ogilvy & Mather in 1968, and would stay with that agency – which, among other campaigns, came up with the immortal “Two great tastes that taste great together” spot – for decades. Don blew a big account.

* Where in the pantheon of Kartheiser Komedy Klassics do we place the “How are you?” “NOT GREAT, BOB!” exchange in the SC&P elevator? Kartheiser has said that he doesn’t play any of the things we laugh at for comedy, but he’s damn good at it, intentionally or not.

* When everything else is taken away, Don and Ted are both left with their families, and we also see Joan trying to provide Roger with the comfort of family by inviting him to Thanksgiving with her, Kevin, Gail and Bob. It’s an interesting move, given the complicated history between Roger and Joan – the idea that she’s letting Roger into Kevin’s life but not her own is one of those things that sounds easier said than done – but also a compassionate one.

* I eagerly await Tom & Lorenzo’s style analysis of Peggy’s new wardrobe choices. Even after she ditches the mini-dress and fishnets that no doubt melted the internet the moment they first appeared, she’s dressing much less conservatively in her later scenes, whether baring more cleavage when Ted comes to tell her about California, and then wearing pants (for the first time ever at work) when she’s going through the files in Don’s office.

* As discussed previously, James Wolk will be on CBS’ “The Crazy Ones” with Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Depending on how successful it is – and how flexible Wolk’s contract is (note that Alison Brie has continued to appear as frequently as she did before “Community” premiered, if not more) – Bob could spend most or all of the final season in Detroit.

* So much about Caroline’s family life is contained in this one sentence explaining why she can’t have Roger over for Thanksgiving: “Ralph stopped drinking and you know Little Ralphie’s spastic.” 

* We began around Christmas of 1967 and end around Thanksgiving of 1968, which fits the one month per episode timeline, and the doubling up of the premiere, but which means we don’t get to see one of the few genuinely happy and awe-inspiring moments of the year: the crew of Apollo 8 orbiting the moon at Christmas.

* In addition to “Both Sides, Now,” the soundtrack also features “Moon River” over a few of the Thanksgiving scenes near the end (Thanksgiving at Joan’s, Peggy in Don’s office). Like “Just A Gigolo,” which Weiner also had the restraint to save for this season, “Moon River” – and the way it invokes an era that Don belongs to but the rest of the show is sprinting away from – feels like a song I’d have expected to be included well before now. UPDATE: And as noted by several commenters, the song at the bar when Don punches the minister is “Band of Gold,” which was also playing in the very first scene of the pilot.

So that’s it. Come back around 2:05 a.m. Eastern (or, if you’re a sane person who enjoys sleep, in the morning) for the Weiner interview, and we can do all this again one more time next spring.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at