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Mad Men Season Finale Recap: The Only Unpardonable Sin

Quiet as it was, “In Care Of” was a pretty eventful wrap-up to Mad Men’s sixth season.

Peggy got dolled up and started dating again to punish Ted for courting her and then re-embracing his domestic life; a shaken Ted showed up at her apartment for a post-date Hail Mary pitch, stayed the night, and briefly talked about leaving his wife, then thought better of it by the light of day and kicked Peggy to the curb with such politeness and sensitivity that it only made his male entitlement more obvious. “Someday you’ll be glad I made this decision,” he told her. “Well aren’t you lucky to have decisions,” she replied, perhaps a bit too 2013-gender-studies of a comeback, but so on-point that it still deserves applause. Peggy endured so much romantic whiplash in this episode that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see her walk out of it in a neck brace.

Bob went to Detroit with Pete, who’d rejected his pass two episodes back. Pete was despondent and furious over his mother’s mysterious disappearance while enjoying an ocean cruise with Bob’s old friend, the manservant Manolo. Bob avenged himself on Pete in the Motor City by tricking him into trying to drive a car that he couldn’t actually drive and causing a showroom accident. By the end of the episode Pete had returned to New York, humiliated and humbled, freed of his mother’s awful grip, perhaps, and in a state of mind that could lead to a truce with Trudy.

There was also much ado about Los Angeles, where Stan hoped to open a solo office. Don took this opportunity from Stan without even a how-do-you-do – stole it like a sandwich off Stan’s plate, in the younger man’s amusing comparison – and then handed it over to Ted, who’d decided that he had to put as much distance between him and Peggy as possible.

Roger had a poignantly amusing subplot dealing with child support – fretting whether to put his adult daughter “on the list of girls you give money to” (her words), and then re-entering the life of the child he had with Joan, at Joan’s invitation. She stressed that Roger’s newfound access applied only to the child, not her, but we’ll see about that; Roger’s a charming mofo. (“Moon River” on the soundtrack? Damn you, Mad Men, stop cutting onions.)

And Don Draper? He’s still a boozing bastard that uses people without thinking, but at least now he seems to know this and accept it, and he might even try to correct it.

The season opener’s evocation of Dante’s Inferno unsubtly pointed to where Don’s story would end up: in the ninth circle of personal hell, with Don screwing up at work and at home and even driving away his daughter Sally, who caught him in flagrante with his neighbor and mistress, Sylvia. (“Well, I wouldn’t want to do anything immoral,” Sally tells him on the phone, after her father calls her at boarding school to press her about giving a statement to the cops about the burglar.)

Is it too little, too late for Don as a man? Is it too little, too late for Don as the protagonist of TV’s most obsessively scrutinized drama? Is anyone still invested? I wonder. It seems as if everyone is tired of this guy: Megan, Sally, Betty, all the partners and colleagues at Sterling Cooper & Partners, Don himself, and maybe the show’s writers as well.

Don’s moment of clarity — if indeed he had one, as opposed to a false epiphany, which is so often the case with substance abusers – seemed to happen offscreen, either in the bar where he punched the preacher doing the Jesus hard-sell (the ad man rejecting a pitch with his fist) or in the jail Don landed in afterward.

What struck me most about Don’s epiphany, or pseudo-epiphany, is that it happened before the meeting with the Hershey executives, when he went into a bizarre confessional monologue about his childhood that dispelled any goodwill his pitch generated. He wasn’t drunk during the meeting, just lightly buzzed, but his despair was so deep that he reminded me of George Bailey’s pre-suicide breakdown in It’s a Wonderful Life.

I laughed out loud throughout Don’s speech, inappropriately and a tad guiltily, because for a horrible second I thought the show was going to set it up as a darker cousin of Don’s Carousel pitch from season one, and have the Hershey’s people say how glad they were that their humble little candy bar could have smuggled some light into a child’s Dickensian darkness. One of the show’s problematic aspects has been its occasional special pleading on behalf of Don, who had a dreadful past, no doubt, but perhaps no more so than other characters whose closet-skeletons have yet to be revealed by the writers.  

Luckily, in this episode, written by Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner, and directed by Weiner, Mad Men came correct. As Roger put it, Don “shit the bed.” He did it after pouring out all his liquor, telling Megan he was done drinking, and going without alcohol for a brief while, to the point where got the shakes. He’d had just one drink before the Hershey’s meeting – at the behest of Ted, who said he’d learned from his own father that “you can’t just stop cold” – but given the massive amounts of liquor Don has consumed in the past without evident impact on his social skills, I don’t think that one drink alone accounts for his pathetic display. More likely he’s already shifting into amends-making mode, oversharing toward redemption.

Whatever the explanation for Don’s inappropriate speech (not that Mad Men will, or should, give us an explanation) it was mortifyingly believable. When substance abusers stop abusing substances, it’s not like in bad and simplistic films and TV shows, where they become nice and honest overnight and suddenly exercise judgment they haven’t seemed capable of before. (Plus, Don’s body isn’t “dry” yet; he’s probably as pickled as W.C. Fields shooting The Bank Dick.) The career boozer’s brain gets rewired. Some alcoholics who haven’t had a drink in years still exhibit “dry drunk” behavior, and I wouldn’t surprised if Don turned out to be one of those guys even after committing to AA — lurching into and out of hugely dramatic situations, disappearing without warning, making big decisions on a whim without consulting anyone that his choices might affect. (Hello, Megan; hello, Stan; hello, agency.)

Showing an alcoholic character realizing he’s an alcoholic and resolving to get clean is one of the more predictable arcs a drama can indulge, but it’s powerful anyway if it’s played realistically, and it was played realistically here. I cringed in a good way when Don returned to the office to find the partners in, basically, an intervention. (Don: “Should I sit down?” Bert: “Yes.”) This intervention wasn’t just about alcoholism alone, but assholism, a chronic condition that has a chicken-egg relationship to drinking. Don has to take some time off and get a handle on his asshole tendencies, dry out emotionally as well as chemically, and figure out how to be decent, or at least not a totally self-centered pig 24/7. It won’t be easy. Don’s been so arrogant for so long that I wonder if he can unlearn? His half-assed apology to Megan at the end indicates that he’s in for a steep learning curve. Will she leave him for good now? Will Don have to sink even lower before he can rise up? (That stray comment from Lou Avery of Dancer-Fitzgerald sure made me think so: “Going down,” he said at the elevator bank, hammering season six’s going up/going down visual metaphor one last time.)   

The news that Sally was screwing up at boarding school and getting drunk surely hastened Don’s seriousness about changing things. The impact of getting caught cheating by his own daughter shook him, but the intimations of alcoholism being passed down to the next generation might have hurt worse. Maybe his phone call with Betty was the true moment of clarity?

“She was drunk,” Betty said. “She got the other girls drunk.” She noted that Sally came from “a broken home” – a phrase we don’t hear that much in 2013, now that marriage isn’t universally accepted as a condition of a full and satisfying adult life – and Don, moved and in deep pain, called her “Birdie.” “The good is not beating the bad,” Betty said of Sally, a phrase that applies to Don as well. Interesting that Sally’s fake ID said “Beth Francis,” and that she’s doing her own low-level version of identity theft, or identity creation, as early as middle school. It’s also interesting that the names are a reference to her mother, but rhythmically it’s a twin of “Don Draper” and “Dick Whitman,” as it has the same number of syllables.)

The final sequence – Don taking the kids to see his childhood whorehouse-home, now located in an African-American ghetto – was touching, particularly the shot of Sally forgoing her understandable resentment and looking up at her dad with new appreciation for the totality of his life, including the pain he’d evidently suffered but couldn’t yet reveal to her. The closing song, “Both Sides Now,” was on-the-nose yet perfect, given the script’s emphasis on seeing issues from, well, both sides. Trudy seems to have reached a state of equilibrium with Pete, and can see and appreciate his frailties. Perhaps the same was true of Pete, for now. The wide shot of him staring down at a sleeping child (to say “goodbye”) is devastating. Even that exchange between Stan and Don at the start of the episode had a hint of “Both Sides Now”: Don: “That’s not the way I saw it.”  Stan: “That’s not the way you saw me. But I’m gonna change that.”

I’ll revisit this whole season again later this week and write an overview piece. For now this strikes me as Mad Men’s weakest season overall, often lacking the thematic, visual and rhythmic unity of seasons one through five – though there’s a chance that it’ll feel more complete and organized once I’ve had a chance to re-watch the entire thing. It might even seem to have a certain “drunk’s logic” to it, with the show flailing and lurching and stopping and starting like Don groping toward his epiphany. The merger of the rival agencies seemed less an inevitable and carefully prepared-for twist than an example of a show painting itself into a corner, then escaping by drawing a previously nonexistent door on the wall, though it certainly resulted in great comedy and soapy intra-office intrigue. It felt as though it was dog-paddling throughout most of the first half of the season, keeping its nose above the waterline, trying to find new things to say about characters that were starting to feel played-out. (Peggy was a conspicuous exception; her story was so fascinating that I wouldn’t have minded if they’d killed off Don this year and refocused the show on her, thereby making the show’s social-changing of the guard theme official.)

But such judgments are relative to the rest of what TV offers. Even at its least urgent and least focused, Mad Men is a consistently surprising, clever, intelligent and mostly fair-minded drama, genuinely interested in the construction of the human personality in all its contradictions, and in the ways that history does and doesn’t affect the individual lives that pass through it. “Both Sides Now” indeed: it’s impossible to judge any character, even Don, too harshly once you’ve taken their full measure.

Odds and Ends

* Bob Benson showing up faster than a horror movie stalker when Roger summoned him was the episode’s best joke, I think. “You have a hand on every rung, don’t you?” Roger demanded.

* “You know what they say about Detroit: it’s all fun and games till they shoot you in the face.” Roger, you comedian.

* I loved Megan telling the harsh truth about Don's kids, albeit under duress, then amending, "I used to feel pity for them, but now I realize we're all in the same boat." We meaning just Megan, or everyone in Don's circle? It could go either way.

* The episode's noting of Peggy's perfume, Chanel No. 5, led me to expect that Ted's wife would smell it on him when he crawled into bed with her after trysting with Peggy. Either she was suffering from a head cold or Ted showered before leaving Peggy's. (UPDATE: Readers point out that you can faintly hear the sound of a shower being turned on after Ted leaves Peggy's bed.)

* "I don't want anyone else to have you," Ted tells Peggy. For a nice guy he's quite emotionally destructive; his need to win extends to his romantic life. His response to Peggy's "Don't say that. I'm not that girl" is even more devastating for its simplicity: "I love you." Well, for tonight anyway. Ted's very Don-like in this episode. To quote an observation about Don in season four, maybe he only likes the beginnings of things.

* Ted and Don have mirrored each other this season nearly as often as Don and Bob. In this episode, the men cruelly toy with the love and loyalty of intelligent professional women who adore them (Peggy and Megan, respectively). They rope them into potentially life-altering decisions, reverse themselves without warning, then apologize too late, and in arrogant and self-serving ways. Don's a drunk. What's Ted's excuse?

* Midway through this episode I found myself fantasizing about Don Draper going into therapy next season with Hannibal Lecter. I doubt the good doctor could eat Don's liver, though. The alcohol content might be too high.

* “I’m doing fine. Nixon’s the president. Everything’s back where Jesus wants it.” Don to the Bible-thumper. Better yet: “Jesus had a bad year.”

* Related: The preacher’s line in the mandatory whorehouse flashback really stuck with me. “The only unpardonable sin is to believe God cannot forgive you.” Substitute “the viewer” for God and you’ve got cable’s philosophy of drama.

Photo: Jaimie Trueblood/AMC