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‘Mad Men’ Ends Its Season With Don Being Forced to Confront His Unhappy Past and His Uncertain Future

'Mad Men' Ends Its Season With Don Being Forced to Confront His Unhappy Past and His Uncertain Future

The article below contains spoilers for “In Care Of,” the June 23, 2013 episode of “Mad Men.”

It looks like everyone else has gotten sick of Don Draper too.

If there’s been an arc to this fitful sixth season of mergers, the Midwest and malaise on “Mad Men,” it’s one that laid clear that Don (Jon Hamm) is his own greatest impediment to happiness, that the ache for something more that makes him so restless can’t be blamed on a chilly marriage or a shortage of challenges at his job, that it’s a more permanent yearning to start anew that so often means he’s only half present.

This year, Don has continued to act in the same sort of capricious, opaque, intermittently brilliant and destructive ways he has in seasons past, but we’ve gotten more of a chance to see how this behavior looks on the outside, to the people who share his work or home life — and how it exhausts them. His wife Megan (Jessica Paré) has treated his growing distance and drinking problem with warmth and patience, only confessing her feelings of distress to others; his former protégé Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) has reacted to being reunited with him with open exasperation; his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) has pulled away from him after catching him in bed with the neighbor’s wife.

And in last night’s resonant season finale “In Care Of,” directed by show creator Matthew Weiner and co-written by him and Carly Wray, those months of boozing, of cheating, of walking away from accounts that don’t go his way and vanishing from the office with no warning caught up with Don as Megan walked out on him and he was booted from Sterling Cooper & Partners by his calm, unruffled and unapologetic colleagues. (And you know things must be bad if even Roger Sterling thinks you need a break.) Neither situation is necessarily permanent, but both are dependent on Don winning back trust by getting his shit together and proving he can get out of his own head, something he’s been fundamentally unable to do from the start. Fittingly, the presentation that began the end was one for Hershey, another iconic American brand that called up parallels to the amazing Kodak carousel pitch Don gave at the close of season one.

As in that episode, Don sold himself as part of the idea, his personal history and connection to a product, a giant, gooey serving of nostalgia and shared history, a tale of a loving father buying his kid a candy bar, the “currency of affection, the childhood symbol of love.” And just as the photos that he showed to Kodak presented a picture of a idealized family life he didn’t actually have, the story about his dad and the drugstore was a fabrication — though this time he couldn’t bring himself to sustain it.

Don genuinely did have an emotional connection to Hershey’s chocolate bars, just not the kind you use in an ad, which seemed, interestingly, to be the seed of his undoing. There in the conference room, he offered to a collection of strangers and of coworkers who’d never heard so much unvarnished honestly from him that he really grew up in a whorehouse, and that the person who used to buy him candy was one of the girls whose clients he’d help fleece. He’d eat the treat, trying to feel “like a normal kid” — a painfully sad image, but not the kind that wins over clients or that fits easily in a Madison Avenue office. Not the kind of childhood you’re supposed to have, the kind Don has so carefully left behind while building up a new image for himself as the perfect ad man.

The foundation of lies and evasions on which Don’s built his world is no longer holding up. Megan knows about his past as Dick Whitman, as do some of his coworkers, so it’s not a threat to his career or relationship anymore. It’s only for himself that he’s been keeping these secrets now, and they’ve become a problem — a symbol of how little he’s willing to let anyone in. The final image of last night’s episode offered a tiny sliver of hope in what was otherwise a dark session for Don, as he brought his kids to the rundown house in which he used to live, and told the troubled daughter who knew so little about him she believed a bare bones story about knowing him from a thief who broke into their apartment that “This is where I grew up.” If he’s going to be able to save his relationship with Sally, it’ll have to be through the kind of emotional openness he’s chosen to avoid.

Don won’t get to escape to California, his land of death and rebirth. He gave up that chance to start over, the promise of which he so loves, in a rare moment of selflessness after his breakdown during the meeting and after hearing Ted’s (Kevin Rahm) plea to be allowed to flee the woman he loves to preserve his family. Too bad for Peggy, who’d finally gotten Ted in her bed after his promises to leave his wife, and too bad for Megan, who’d already quit her job and made plans for Hollywood. The importance of keeping that family — the closest the show has to an idyllic one outside of those in its ads — whole was more essential to Don at that moment than their individual desires or any personal fallout. (“She’s from a broken home,” Betty observed sorrowfully to her ex-husband on the phone, talking about their daughter’s boarding school misdeeds.) No, Don will stay in New York, and will have to slog through the difficult process of living instead of flying off to that weightless place of windows, sunlight and the ocean. And maybe he’ll become a whole person after all. 

It’s Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) mother who ended up fulfilling that “jumping off place” mortality imagery from the season premiere, though she might have been pushed from the cruise with her beloved former nurse turned husband Manolo. Free of both his parents, from New York, “free of everything,” as Trudy (Alison Brie) perceptively observed, he seemed to yearn only for the heft of connection, getting a genuinely touching scene of saying goodbye to his sleeping daughter that hinted that perhaps his family was not entirely removed from him. The importance of familial ties in this episode got another boost when Roger (John Slattery), too, was allowed a moment of detente with Joan (Christina Hendricks), who decided to let him establish a relationship with the child they had together, if not with her.

As for Bob Benson (James Wolk), that smiley Don 2.0, things are looking up — he’s good enough friends with Joan to have been there carving the turkey at Thanksgiving and he neatly maneuvered Pete out of the Chevy job and off to California by embarrassing him in Detroit. Don headed out, only to be met with a possible replacement being shepherded in by Duck Phillips (Mark Moses), while spending the holiday in his perhaps now former office was Peggy, another potential Don successor whose inheriting of her former mentor’s crown seems even less a prize than ever before. Who’d want to be Don Draper, in the end? Not even Don Draper himself can stand it anymore.

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