Monday, June 24, 2013

Mad Men season 6 finale: "In Care Of"

For the first time in a long time, I have hope for Don Draper. Or, more accurately, for Dick Whitman.

Hope tempered with skepticism, mind you. We've seen Don attempt fresh starts before; we've even seen him reveal the truth about himself before, leading to changes no less dramatic than those that concluded this season. And he's always ended up reverting to his previous, self-destructive patterns, never more wearyingly so than this season.

But this time, the reset really does feel different, in large part because it took place in the office. Up till now, Sterling Cooper was the one place where Don, with the tacit support of Bert Cooper, had been able to preserve the fiction of Don Draper. The office was his last bulwark against the reemergence of Dick Whitman, that scared, confused, abused little boy, born dirt-poor and raised in a whorehouse, who grew up to steal another man's name, another man's life.

Well, no more. Don's astounding kamikaze act during the Hershey pitch marked the first time he deliberately set about destroying his self-constructed identity, his life's work, at work, leading to the equally astounding sight of Don being canned. All right, technically he was placed on temporary leave and he theoretically could return next season - but then why was Duck Phillips, headhunter, coming in with a stranger (and a shit-eating grin) as Don was leaving? More significantly, Don would have to want to return, to reengage, and all signs indicate that he has no interest in doing so. He's had enough; he wouldn't have burned his bridges otherwise, which at some subconscious level he had to have realized he was doing.

And stunning as it was, we can't really say we didn't see this turn coming. If anything's been hammered home this season, it's been the rapidly accelerated erosion of the Don Draper persona, at work as much as outside of it. Brief spurts of inspiration did little to mask his long stretches of general indifference to the business. Worst of all, he began to see Sterling Cooper as just another whorehouse, one that merited no more than minimal attention to its day-to-day demands. The Don Draper that made Sterling Cooper, and that Sterling Cooper made, was in free fall, just like the man in the show's opening credits, and everyone could see it happening. In a way, the Hershey debacle was merely the last straw, although a pretty heavy straw. From our perspective, it was like seeing Don strip naked in the office (shades, again, of that haunting Sheraton Royal Hawaiian ad - clothes, accessories strewn across the sand, conveying "suicide" to Sheraton, "freedom" to Don), which of course was exactly what it was. From SC&P's perspective, it was a sign that Don was quite literally no longer Don, and for that very reason had to go. It may have been a unanimous decision among the partners, but I sense the hand of Bert Cooper - Bert who sees all and knows all. Pragmatic to the bone, Bert can tolerate a liar; what he can't accept is a liar who's become unable to maintain his lies, even (or especially) to himself. Bad for business, see, especially a business that thrives on making people believe its fictions.

(Side note: someone on another site smartly noted the prominence of the new Sterling Cooper logo in this episode emphasized the shift from SCDP to SC&P - the first visual hint of Don's fate?)

But maybe not bad for Don, if he can just figure out who he is, now that he's no longer Don. I asked a few episodes ago whether the often heavy-handed birth/death, heaven/hell imagery that's haunted him this season signified the rebirth he so desperately craved, or death. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be both. To paraphrase something he said to Sheraton, to find paradise ya gotta die first. Don Draper died tonight; who the man is that's being reborn, and whether he finds the peace his last lover wished for him, we've yet to see.

Peace isn't assured, of course, and knowing Weiner, it's likely to elude Don still. And to the extent rebirth implies starting over with nothing, no attachments, no obligations, no past, that prospect doesn't exist for him. Interestingly, it was this realization, I think, that triggered his self-immolation in the Hershey pitch room, rather than the other way around. Almost as shocking as that moment, after all, was what came immediately before it - Don's decision to move to L.A. I stupidly let myself get excited at that prospect, even though it was clear that he was yet again simply acting on a fruitless impulse to run away, to leave all the painful parts of his past behind him. His conversation with Ted, fascinating on so many levels, woke him up to the fact that all this California dreamin' was only a mirage.

In one sense, Don saw his own predicament mirrored in Ted's: the shared fantasy of escape, the illusion that by traveling a great distance to a new place, you can leave the worst parts of yourself and your life behind you. (Haven't we all shared that fantasy at one point or another in our lives?) In another sense, though, Don also saw Ted seeking escape for his family, not from it. Don may have let Ted have California because he realized California wouldn't fix anything, but he also may have been responding to Ted's fairly eloquent plea on the importance of one's family to one's identity. Don knows he's let Sally down in a huge way, and that she's probably doomed if he abandons her now. He may not be able to save her by staying, but he at least has to try. And staying isn't enough; he has to kick off the last vestiges of the walking lie he's become to her and to himself.

Of course, in making their decision on California, both Don and Ted end up hurting other people they claim to love: Megan in Don's case, Peggy in Ted's. "Well, aren't you lucky to have decisions," Peggy seethes, and she's right to be angry. But she isn't totally without agency or blame, and that last shot of her in Don's office underscores her power to set her future course, free of both her mentor-figures. ("Everything's here," she tells Stan, in one of those characteristically pregnant-with-meaning remarks "Mad Men" loves so much.) Megan may have less responsibility than Peggy for her situation, but she still has agency, and it looks like she's going to exercise it, too. More power to her. It's not her fault she can't give Don (Dick) what he needs, and she might as well be free to pursue what she really wants.

Finally, with even less agency, but strangely quiet acceptance, Pete joins Ted on the California train, though in his case it feels less like an attempt at escape and more like a surrender. Laid low in typically ludicrous Pete-fashion by Bob Benson, he goes west because he has nothing left for him in New York. That's a sad thought, even for Pete, underscored by his last few moments with his baby daughter. Yet as Trudy points out in a poignant scene, possibly their last together, it also means he's truly free in a way that the others are not. As a not-so-secret Pete sympathizer, I hope to see more of his quest for peace next season - though this being Pete we're talking about, he'll probably find some way to fuck it up. Some things on "Mad Men" never change. But it looks like some important things may be about to, and for that I'm thankful - and looking forward to the final season.

Random observations:

-Everyone wants to go to L.A.! Of course they do, says this former L.A. resident and permanent L.A. lover. Poor Stan - it does suck that the one person who actually had good reasons for wanting to go there doesn't get to go. I hope the silver lining is that we get to see more of him next season. Loved the appreciative grin he gave Peggy surveying her new domain.

-Maybe this makes me a terrible person, but I found the bizarre demise of Pete's mother simply hilarious, down to her sons being too tightfisted to see justice done. To be honest, I can't blame Pete, at least, too much; it's not like he ever got any love from that old bag, or anything other than a huge headache. I would say whatever gratitude he owed her for his existence he's paid back.

-Also hilarious: Pete's ill-considered attempt at revenge on Bob, and how spectacularly it backfired on him. Again, I can't blame Pete for being angry about his mother's death, but he should have known better than to take it out on Bob. That Bob Benson, he does not fuck around. I don't know which scene was more entertaining - the two of them side by side in the elevator, Pete stewing and sputtering, Bob barely suppressing a smile; or Pete sweating in the car while Bob smilingly asks him if he knows how to get into first gear (another super Mad Men-y line). All I know is that smiling Bob Benson may well be figuring in my future nightmares.

-Speaking of which, the only thing more terrifying than smiling Bob Benson is smiling Bob Benson wielding a Thanksgiving carving knife. Is he going to take on Roger next in his quest to take over Sterling Cooper? Roger's savvier than Pete, but strangely blind to the real threat Bob poses. Plus if Bob's got Joan in his corner, Roger better watch out. I've heard that James Wolk (the actor who plays Bob) has a pilot lined up for a TV show next season, so we'll have to wait to see just how much of a role he plays in "Mad Men"'s last season.

-Nice to see another glimpse of human Betty, admitting her failures as a parent...while remaining beautifully oblivious to the fact that trying to be "everything my mother was to me" might be just the problem.

-Line of the week: oh, so many contenders, but I'm gonna have to give it to Pete in the elevator.

Bob (cheery): How are you?
Pete (beside himself): NOT GREAT, BOB!

It's not the words; it's the delivery. Vincent Kartheiser is a treasure.


Stan to Don, after losing California: "I'm going to have that sandwich on my desk. I want to get to it before you do."

Bob (recurring, every time he gets called on the carpet): "I don't understand." (when he clearly does)

Roger, on Chevy: "It's all fun and games till they shoot you in the face."


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