This season of Mad Men started with Don in paradise reading Dante’s Inferno, a clear sign Don would be traveling down through the circles of hell this season. In the finale, Don ends up at rock bottom, and yet finds hope in the freedom that comes from having nothing left to lose.
Trudy tells Pete now that his mother is dead and he’s leaving his family, he is finally free from all ties. Don also burns his ties, perhaps not deliberately, but the results are the same.
Don finally loses Megan, but most shocking of all, he loses the agency over his increasingly irrational behavior. He’s finally free from the ties that once bound him to his unhappiness, and he’s finally really looking at his own past instead of conjuring a bit of nostalgia that never existed.
Hope for the Future?
While I haven’t been the biggest fan of this season as a whole, especially as it has seemed to retread endlessly over old themes, I find the finale an amazing moment of fresh air. Finally, the characters all feel like they are changing in real ways instead of going around in circles.
The two big final moments of the episode — Peggy smiling in Don’s office and Don showing the kids his real past — feel like places we had been working towards with these characters yet had never seen before. And after a season of more affairs and hard drinking for Don, and another ill-conceived professional dalliance for Peggy, the idea of seeing these characters in new positions for the final season is an appealing thought indeed.
You know it’s been a dark season of Mad Men when the most hopeful moment of the finale (and possibly even the whole season) is Don taking his kids to the dilapidated remains of the whorehouse in which he grew up. This is no trip to Hershey’s Park, and I’m pretty sure the Draper clan is going to be forever weary of family vacations from now on.
But Sally, who hit the nail on the head earlier in the season when she admitted she didn’t know anything about her father or his past, appreciates the gesture. Don might have burned all his bridges in his adult relationships, but there’s still a chance he can start again with his children.
The Real Don Draper
This episode is like watching Pinocchio becoming a real boy. Don Draper has always been a false construct, more bravado than substance. This season, Don finally couldn’t outrun the weight of his own past, no longer the man who pitched Carousel on the strength of good old-fashioned nostalgia.
The ’60’s are changing everyday, as Don names off all the horrible things that happened in ’68 alone to the minister, and yet while everyone else is looking forward, Don is still forever looking back.
This season, the interludes to Don’s past in the saddest little whorehouse seemed weirdly jarring at worst and overly maudlin at best. Yet all those flashbacks were leading up to this moment in the finale when Don finally can’t stomach his own BS anymore.
His moment of brutal honesty, of being Dick Whitman instead of Don Draper, is a gorgeous piece of acting from Jon Hamm that should, if there is any justice, finally net him an Emmy. (Of course, we haven’t seen the final season of Breaking Bad yet.) It’s not the first we’ve seen of Don completely unraveling in a pitch (especially this season), but it is the breakdown that has the biggest resonance for his character.
The theme for the whole finale is family, which is hit over and over again throughout the various storylines. Pete loses his mother and says goodbye to his daughter, Joan finally agrees to let Roger into little Kevin’s life and Ted leaves for California in an attempt to hang onto his family in the wake of his overwhelming feelings for Peggy.
The finale also sees several long-simmering storylines finally come to a boil. The most obvious is Don’s downward spiral, which has been worsening all season but hits especially hard when Sally sees him with Sylvia. Sally’s loss of faith in him and loss of innocence hits Don in especially vulnerable places, and leads to his biggest bender of the episode.
After landing in jail for punching a minister, Don decides to steal Stan’s idea and uproot to California. Megan is excited, not just because of the professional opportunities which await, but for the chance of a fresh start with Don.
Meanwhile, the simmering sexual tension between Peggy and Ted finally explodes thanks to a truly spectacular dress. Work it, Peggy!
But Ted is no Don Draper when it comes to affairs, so he begs Don to let him take California instead. Don finally agrees, which causes a huge fight with Megan. Their marriage seems seriously on the rocks, if not over, as Megan storms out of the house.
Hershey’s Chocolate: Taste the Sadness
The Hershey’s pitch meeting is obviously the big set-piece of the episode, and it’s hard to even remember what else happens after Don begins unspooling his tale of whorehouse woes to a room of horrified partners and clients. (Ted’s face is especially priceless in this scene, although props to Harry Hamlin for all his face acting throughout the entire monologue.)
While the speech is a terrible move for the agency, it’s an amazingly cathartic move for Don. He’s spent so long running from his past and building up his defenses that it’s more shocking to see them come tumbling down than to see someone’s foot run over by a lawnmower or to see a new agency born.
As the clients run and the partners disperse, Hamm manages to convey the sense of a weight being lifted from Don’s shoulders. Again, it’s hard to stress enough just how good Hamm is in this scene. He sells the emotion from every angle and makes a scene that could have easily become ham-fisted and hokey into one that’s searingly dramatic, even though it is just one man sitting in a chair telling a sad story.
Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, and finally tired of Don shirking responsibilities and generally being terrible at his job, the agency gently fires him. Well, possibly it’s not a complete firing since they ask him to take a few months off. Of course, seeing Duck come up with his head-hunted talent isn’t a good sign.
Rock Bottom and New Beginnings
“Going down?” Duck asks in a line that is potentially a little too on-the-nose. Don has already hit his rock bottom, he’s already lost everything and there’s really not much further left to fall.
This season, the show has, like Don himself, been pulled down by its own dour nature. Which is why the end of the episode is such a welcome respite of hope, a few minutes scored by “Moon River” that give me renewed goodwill for a brighter final season.
Talking about how the finale pays off a lot of the long-simmering storylines put into motion this season, perhaps no storyline has been as interesting to Mad Men fans as the diametrically opposed fates of Don and Peggy.
As we’ve watched Don fall into a pit of his own unhappiness and misery, we’ve seen Peggy rise up professionally to become a force to be reckoned with. We saw it clearly in the Heinz meeting and it’s once again highlighted in the finale as Peggy finally surpasses Don and nets his office in the bargain.
In the finale’s final moments, Don tries to connect with his children in a way he’s never tried before: truthfully. He takes them to the rundown whorehouse of his childhood to show them the place where he grew up.
Perhaps in his children he can finally find the love and happiness he’s spent his life unsuccessfully looking for. At the very least, for better or worse, Sally will finally know her father.
Elsewhere in SC&P…
— “Ralph doesn’t drink and little Ralphie’s spastic.” The best excuse not to invite someone to Thanksgiving I have ever heard.
— For an episode about characters hitting rock bottom, it has a surprising amount of darkly funny moments. My favorite is Pete talking to his brother about his mother’s possible maritime murder by her nurse and how much it would cost to bring Manolo to justice. “She always did love the sea.”
— Another great moment? Bob Benson outsmarting Pete right out of Chevy by convincing him to drive the car. Obviously, Pete has little idea how to drive and especially can’t drive stick, instead toppling over the Chevy sign.
— There isn’t near enough Stan, Bob or Joan. However, Stan gets in a few good digs at Don, and Bob’s little Thanksgiving apron will live on forever in my cherished memories.
— Sally quickly ends up getting kicked out of boarding school and Betty blames their broken home for Sally’s behavior. After six seasons, the Draper parents finally wonder, “Hey, are we bad parents?”
What did you think of the Mad Men finale? Did you love it or hate it? Will Don return to SC&P or is he out for good? Are Megan and Don over? Will Don finally change? What adorable little outfits will Bob wear next season? Sound off in the comments!
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(Image courtesy of AMC)