The Season 6 finale of Mad Men, “In Care Of,” tied up a number of plot threads more neatly than this show’s finales tend to: Peggy and Ted consummate their love only to have Ted realize he wants to stay with his family; Joan accepts Roger into son Kevin’s life; Betty comes to the end of her manicured rope with Sally, thus opening the door for Don to reconnect with his daughter; Manolo marries and murders Pete’s mom thus removing an anchor holding Pete down; Pete blows it with Chevy which frees him to move to California – a location which some of these New Yorkers consider “Siberia” but which beckons to others as a place of re-invention; and Bob’s left smugly triumphant in Detroit, little knowing he’s won the rights to the legendary car that almost destroyed GM.
But, as always, it’s Don’s story that takes center stage, with one epic scene summing up the entire series as well as suggesting a way forward into its final season by showing the transformation of Don Draper back into Dick Whitman -- a reverse birth as messy and painful as real labor but also just as fruitful. This scene begins with Don making what seems a classic pitch of his to Hershey, but one in which every word is rife with deeper meaning about himself, the firm he works in and America itself.
“Everyone in this room has their own story to tell,” Don explains before telling both of his: First, the story of Don Draper, the false self that he’s molded to suit whatever occasion he finds himself in – in this case, not only the dapper and dazzling mad man, but the all-American boy supposedly inside him. Having explained that the Hershey bar “could be rationed in the heat of battle or in a movie theater on a first date” – in other words, serving in both love and war – he points out that most of our memories of it come from childhood, as does of course most of what we become as adults. As if admitting the deception of not only his tall tale about a father’s love, but also of his entire life as Don Draper, he sums up his initial pitch with, “That’s the story we’re going to tell: Hershey’s is the currency of affection.”
But that all-American treat is also a stand-in for another kind of currency – namely, wealth and success in post-World War II America, the very thing that made Dick Whitman want to become Don Draper. “My father told me I could have anything I wanted, anything at all and there was a lot,” Don confabulates, “but I picked a Hershey bar.” So too is America ending a period in which it could have whatever it wanted, and it took a lot, but perhaps most of all, the kind of material pleasure that Dick Whitman got from a bar labeled “sweet” in a life that was mostly bitter. (A bitterness not alleviated by the other kind of bar we’ve often seen him hitting, especially this season.) “The wrapper looked like what was inside,” he enthuses, but of course the entire series has been about a man who is different inside from the false self he’s wrapped in. Not only in name and history but in confidence and self-worth, Dick Whitman is no Hershey bar, but finding out what he truly is inside requires melting away the outer Don Draper.
And that’s precisely what Don does in the second version of his pitch, an inversion of the false self he’s hidden behind not just in the first part of the meeting, but throughout his life as Don, which has been one prolonged pitch for a product he’s been desperate to sell. Now, like a dying man, he seizes the moment to reveal his true self with the urgent words, “I’m sorry. I have to say this. I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.” Up until this point, Don’s told his real story to only three people that we know of – Anna, Betty and Megan – and while Anna accepted and loved him, she’s also now dead, Betty rejected him for it and Megan seemed to accept it only to (in his view) reject him to pursue her own desires. This has left Don understandably reluctant to reveal himself further. Yet to the stunned and silent horror of both partners and clients, he now comes out publicly as Dick, revealing the immense gap between that very image of the American dream, Don Draper, and the ugly reality of the Dick Whitmans stuck at the bottom rungs of American life.
His tale of eating his hard-won Hershey bar “alone in my room with great ceremony, feeling like a normal kid,” underlines what we’ve seen – that he can only be himself when alone, freed from not just social expectations and judgments but the demands of those who love him. And as much as we like to criticize Dick for Donning such a thorough disguise, his fears of what will happen if his true self were known are shown to be well-founded. “Do you want to advertise that?” the stunned client asks when his story has ended, implicitly criticizing him for advertising his own truth.
For six seasons, we’ve seen the art of deception that is advertising, not just in the ads themselves but in the client meetings stage-managed to perfection so that the clients feel nothing but pleasure. “It’s just this kind of theater that makes our work so…different,” a desperate Jim Cutler says in a frantic attempt to cover over Don’s psychic striptease. But in fact SC&P’s kind of theater is utterly common. It’s the falsity that drives not only their entire industry but all of business, and much of life. Americans live by a whole host of beliefs that feed this delusion: That acting “as if” you are the person you want to be will lead to becoming so, that thinking and talking positively will bring you what you want out of life, and that what matters is not who you are inside but what others see when they look at you. Just as Tony Soprano was merely an amped up version of middle-class American materialism, Dick Whitman’s conjuring of Don Draper is not just a reflection of the old American story of the immigrant who reinvents himself, or the nobody who becomes a somebody in a land where anyone can succeed, but something far more disturbing: the dark heart of American ambition, in which outward success and appearance consumes the soul within. And even that soul is not a pretty one, but instead a tormented little boy who steals money from a prostitute’s customers in order to have a little pleasure of his own.
Rosen’s speech a few episodes ago about how their generation understood the need for sacrifice ostensibly spoke of physical life, but it also suggested the sacrifice of a real self that material success often requires, and which social conventions have always demanded. The 1960s were about rejecting what Rosen is holding up as an ideal, as most of a generation refused to engage in such falsity or mindless conformity. In revealing his inner Dick, Don joins that younger group in baring it all, as surely as if he were onstage in Hair, or at a “happening” in that state of California he knows offers more freedom than the world he lives in. Desperate for another baptism in the ocean that has revived him before, he reverses the rich man’s bargain from the bible, deciding to give up the whole world in order to save his soul.
But he’s asked to make one more sacrifice before getting his wish, as Ted pleads to trade places with him. “I don’t understand,” Don says when Ted corrects his impression that he wants to go make a new life with Peggy and instead says he wants to save his marriage and family life. And Don wouldn’t understand that, since his reinventions have always been about shedding the past, not bringing it with you and making it better and whole again. Even in deciding to move to California, he seems to miss the obvious point that Megan would be happy to go there, too, giving her every excuse not to join him, as the myopic focus on his own needs makes him utterly unaware of hers. This impression is cemented when he spontaneously gives up his spot to Ted and blithely reassures Megan that they can be “bicoastal” – after all, no big thing for a man who’s been bi-identitied as well as polyamorous for decades. Having been left out of the decision-making just as his partners at work have been so many times, Megan doesn’t voice but surely must feel as Peggy does when Ted dumps her, “Well, aren’t you lucky -- to have decisions."
No good deed goes unpunished, and the one that Ted pulled out of Don in part by saying he knows he’s a good man inside (words that Don must hunger for even if he struggles to believe them) is no exception. After complaining that decisions at SC&P take ten people agreeing unless Don’s the one making them, Ted’s absent but presumably on board with the other partners’ long-awaited turning of the tables, when they unanimously decide behind Don’s back that he be put on indefinite leave of absence – the classic corporate kiss-off that means, “Go find another job and resign once you do.” Lest there can be any doubt, both we and Don witness his putative replacement arriving for a job interview with headhunter Duck, snarkily asking if Don’s “going down” in that elevator so fraught with meaning on the show. At SC&P, it’s live by the elevator and die by the elevator, and Don gets the shaft at last, as was foreshadowed in season 5 when he almost fell down into that dark abyss.
But this season has, as we know, been the real trip to hell, and having lost the one thing that’s always sustained him – his success at work – Don’s truly hit bottom. Yet as is often true in life, this fall and hard landing leads to the rebirth that he hoped California would bring – not by escaping there but by returning to the place where it all began and letting it be known for the first time. It’s Dick Whitman, not Don Draper, who is re-born, and by doing what we’ve never seen him do before -- going home again. That home, of course, has remained inside him, as the frequent flashbacks this season have shown, and only in reckoning with it can he finally lay it to rest.
But he does more than make a bittersweet journey to the house that held Ye Olde Family Brothel; in what is his bravest, most wrenching coming-out yet, he takes his children there. Tiny Gene is uncomprehending, and Bobby can only comment on how terrible the neighborhood is while looking wonderingly at his father, but it’s Sally who is the true target of this journey, and the look on her face says that this revelation has indeed hit home. With the truth finally out of who he is, they can once again meet each other’s eyes, which they haven’t been able to do since another truth – of what he does – was revealed. Having risked exposure of his real self in all its seedy pathos, first with his partners and now with his daughter, Don stands tall and confident, as relaxed as a man who’s finally in his own skin can be.
And when Don’s and Sally’s faces turn back to the crumbling house that helped give birth to Don Draper, we see a similarity in their profiles that was never apparent before. Sally may have inherited Don’s fondness for the numbing effects of booze, and his steely stubbornness, but she also shares his insight, being able to see what lies behind what stands before her. Don’s love for her and discomfort in her presence has always seemed in part a response to that laser-eye of hers, which enabled her to look at truths that others turned from, and call out their hypocrisy and cowardice. “Well, I wouldn’t want to do anything immoral,” Sally taunts Don on the phone, using his tack of changing the conversation and making the subtext do the talking for her. “Why don’t you just tell them what I saw?” In the end, that’s precisely what Don does, mutely showing her why he is the way he is, giving her something new to see that he hopes will open her eyes.
With Peggy freed to pursue her career just as Ted predicted, and wasting no time slithering into Don’s office to claim it as her territory before someone else does, the moral center of the show has shifted from her increasingly revealed shoulders to Sally’s still-girlish ones. “This is where everything is,” Peggy says to Stan about Don’s lair, and the focus on work that always pained her boyfriends is obviously about to be redoubled. After taking a stab at integrating love and work by falling in love with Ted, she’s now in the same place as Pete, who Trudy declares free to do whatever he wants. Quickly resuming the ambition that drove her to CGC in the first place, Peggy’s about to discover that without trying to balance love and work, she’ll be able to become the first female Don Draper if she wants to. But in doing so, she risks becoming all else that Don has been, too, including miserable in his personal life. The sweetness of Hershey may satisfy for a moment, but there’s always something else you have to swallow, too, such as that “tart” Ocean Spray that Roger reminds us can’t be sent back.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” might have been one way to sum up this season finale, but instead Matthew Weiner went with “Both Sides Now,” an anthem of the time that belied its cheerful tune with lyrics about seeing the ambiguity and complexity of even seemingly beautiful parts of life. The characters on Mad Men have now shared a privilege we’ve had for some time, which is to see both sides of the man known as Don Draper and Dick Whitman. But no one has just two sides; as Walt Whitman said, human beings contain multitudes. The 1960s allowed people to explore and reveal that inner complexity more than they ever had before, and while many feared as Ted does that they’d get “lost in the chaos” of “the world out there,” others were anxious to get on that train leaving the station that Megan mentions. Don Draper, of course, came to life when a train left the station and Dick Whitman was left behind in a coffin, but now he drives himself, and also his children, to the places he wants to go. Where that may be will form the story of the next and final season, as we find out if Dick Whitman can survive not just the 1960s but the gilded drunk tank that’s been Don Draper’s life.
“You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is. He already knows,” Don says, not only kissing off the clients he’s addressing but repudiating his entire profession. The man who’s made not only his living but an entire life by telling stories and changing the conversation now takes an astonishing stand for authentic experience and inner knowledge. Whether that brings him the same freedom that Manolo and a manual transmission brought Pete, or a terrified Ted gave an empowered Peggy, or Don himself yielded to Ted, remains to be seen. Those three were granted their freedom by others, and so was Don to a degree in being fired. But his firing is the consequence of career suicide, the death that many thought this season foreshadowed, and which turns out to be lifegiving rather than destructive.
Like Jesus, Don had a very bad year, but that “oceanic limbo where murder is smiled upon” turns out to be a symbolic sea in which he drowns his false self in order to let the true one emerge. Many viewers were stretched to their limit this season by Don’s behavior, perhaps feeling like Uncle Mac who says, “I’d tell you to go to hell, but I never want to see you again.” We’ve had enough of seeing Don in hell, and while a wildly happy Don would be unrealistic (just as it was early in his marriage to Megan), some movement to a more nuanced and thoughtful life would be welcome. And with this episode’s “move forward,” it finally seems within reach.
“It’s California, not the moon,” Jim Cutler says, alluding to the fact that the latter destination, always so distant to human beings, will be reached during Mad Men’s final season, set in 1969. The moon was what Conrad Hilton demanded of Don in Season 3, and Don’s failure to deliver it was the end of their relationship. But now perhaps Don finally has the means to get there, not in order to meet the ridiculous demands of some client, but in pursuit of some dreams of his own to replace the long nightmare of Don Draper.