“This is where I grew up.” With that, another year of Mad Men drew to a close tonight, the final image of the season being of Don and Sally staring at the dilapidated whorehouse Dick Whitman was raised in. “In Care Of” was chockablock with shots and framing that delivered on the grandiosity most finales try to achieve, including an empty chair at the head of the conference room, and Don standing trial in front of Sterling, Cooper and the partners. But the sendoff shot was my favorite, both for its simplicity, and for its unexpected sense of hope it stirred; an especially downbeat, and morbid season was sent of in appropriate fashion, but that last scene hints that maybe, good god just maybe, there might be clear skies ahead for Dick Whitman.
Has the Don Draper Merry-go-round of Misery finally come to a stop, or at the very least, blown a gasket from spending most of the season in overdrive? Punching a minister and winding up in the hoosegow barely even rates among Don’s more derisible indiscretions this year, but there’s something about prison bars that clues Don into knowing what rock bottom looks like, and that it’s time to start climbing out. Well, that, and a flashback to childhood memories of a preacher getting the heave-ho from the cathouse, not before imparting on young Dick some words of wisdom on the power of forgiveness.
And really, it’s about damn time Don tried a little forgiveness, at least for our sake. Season six has tried something really tricky, by making repetition the motif it wants to ad to the usual thematic brio of death and doubling. It’s a weighty, relatable idea that just so happens to be really hard to portray in drama realistically, because doing so can easily look like creative wheel spinning. It’s caused many viewers to grow increasingly frustrated with Don, and given the season a more inert flavor, with efforts to highlight Don going through the same self-destructive motions over, and over again sometimes looking like the show itself simply going through the motions. Instead of hell, as was foreshadowed by The Inferno back in premiere, it seemed at times like Mad Men was in purgatory.
But with so much wind kicked up after last week’s crackerjack episode, “In Care Of” unexpectedly decided not to ease up on the throttle, and in whirlwind fashion, managed to draw many of the season’s seemingly disconnected arcs and plots (save for one) into the mix. With images of Don drinking alone at a bar, Ted and Peggy pining for a Hawaiian getaway, and someone’s mother dying unexpectedly, the finale marked a clear bookend to a lot of the elements introduced in the premiere, but it didn’t stop there. Loose threads from all across the season returned with purpose, with Sally facing a possible subpoena for testifying against the mammy bandit, Joan and Bob’s relationship reentering the picture, Roger’s familial financial issues forcing him to change Thanksgiving plans, and Peggy getting what it was she wanted a year ago, but not the thing she wants right now.
Where other Mad Men finales work to hammer home the point of what the season was actually about, six’s thesis has been pretty clear from the get-go; instead, “In Care Of” delivered a hugely eventful hour of office politics and marital drama. Many of the characters have something that they want desperately dangling right in front of their noses tonight, and because of that, this turned out to be the most “action-packed” finale the show has had since “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”
Fittingly, the episode that introduces Hershey as a potential new client for the agency has Don and Ted competing for a golden ticket to the golden state, as the Sunkist deal has facilitated the need for a skeleton crew out in the wilds of L.A. Despite how much the idea delights Megan, who can see this will be a fresh start for Don (and a nice boost for her career), Don’s reasoning for breaking out West is selfish as ever (he even steals Stan’s frontier description of the move). The way he sees it, all the oranges and sunshine will practically make this retirement, just on the wrong coast, but he’s just running away from his problems, the biggest being how completely and utterly he’s torched his relationship with Sally (“Why don’t you just tell them what I saw.” Ouch).
Ted, on the other hand, is coming from a much nobler position, even if he too is trying to run away. Peggy forces the issue of their flirtation by going full Joan one night, flaunting in front of Ted (his look after she walks out of the office while dressed to the nines is priceless), and luring him back to her apartment. When the two do finally consummate, it’s all “I love you”s and talk of Ted leaving his wife to make a fresh start. But as soon as he’s back at home, next to his wife in bed, the nice guy Peggy was attracted to in the first place wakes up to his senses, and realizes that the only way to save his family is to get as far away from Peggy Olsen as possible.
“I’m the one who needs to start over,” Ted pleads with Don, and it’s then that it becomes pretty obvious what Don will do. Credit to the show, as soon as Don announced the plan to head to California, I started imagining costume designer Janie Bryant trying to figure out what kind of colourful shorts would look best on Jon Hamm. I’ve argued previously that New York is vital to Mad Men’s existence, but a shakeup this major seemed like something wild and crazy enough for the show to take a chance on in its final year, if maybe even only temporarily.
But moving across the country was never going to fix Don, and instead, “In Care Of” gives him one last chance to do the right thing, and bring out the good man in him that he’s been trying to drown in Canadian Club for years now. The meeting with Hershey is a throwback to Don pitches of old, as he’s soberer than he’s been in months, actually using images of the product in the campaign, and going back to the emotional “love” well that’s been the cornerstone of his best work. It’s a slam-dunk presentation, one centered around a manipulative tale of father-son bonding he presents as a personal memory, but also turns out to be the last straw for Don Draper: King of Bullshit Self-Deception Mountain.
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