A good season finale opens the chest of things you didn’t know you’d been thinking all season.
Tonight’s Season 6 finale of Mad Men did just that. While this season seemed as glacial as Matthew Weiner’s storytelling can get, and the finale wasn’t particularly revelatory (though it wasn’t uneventful), it really clued us in to what this season - and in fact, the whole show - is driving at.
It’s about past vs. future.
The future is volatile. It’s as uncertain as anything can get. Don is so scared of it that fact, he sabotages everything just to maintain some control over it.
And the past, that pesky horrible flicker in the distant background, well it’s equally as disastrous, but in the end it’s just about the only thing we know for certain. Ignoring it only leads to more pain.
In Care Of finds Don finally reaching the realization that if he doesn’t learn to restrain his self-destruction, his life will spiral.
Don has been turning to drinking - and alone, no less - as a respite from his confused self-hatred. And finally, after ending up in the drunk tank for punching a minister, he decides “enough is enough.”
Time to build a future.
Of course, Don’s way of building a future is stealing it from someone else. He did it when he became Don Draper, and now he’s doing it with Stan Rizzo.
Rizzo volunteers to be put on the Sunkist account in order that he can go to California and start a satellite agency, and when Don realizes he needs a shakeup, he figures that sounds like a good plan. Megan, of course, takes very little convincing.
But when Ted tells Don that he wants to go to California himself, in order to escape his love for Peggy and keep his family together, it incites something profound.
At first, Don says no. He’s sorry, but the gears are already in motion. Megan is being written off her show, plans are being made.
But then, Don has a realization: Ted - this timid, scared man - is in danger of ruining his life. Like Don ruined his.
During a pitch meeting with Hershey, Don reveals to the clients, and to his partners, some deeply locked away portions of his childhood that he’d never told anyone.
He was raised in a whore house - not by a loving father like the version of himself in his pitch to Hershey - where nobody cared about him. The only sweetness in his life was the Hershey bar he earned from stealing money out of Johns’ wallets.
This is not the first time Don has sabotaged a pitch meeting with his wild impulses, but it is the first time that he seems to have had a true catharsis doing it.
Until this very moment, all of his erratic behavior has been destructive. It has been a way to influence the future - however negatively.
Now, for the first time, he is embracing the past; dealing with his pain; confronting it, publicly.
After Hershey leaves, he tells Ted he can have California.
After all, Ted is trying to right his wrong. Not that he acted on his feelings for Peggy but that he has them in the first place. That’s a consideration Don never seems to have even realized existed. It’s big.
And it hit Don hard. After an entire season of finding Ted to be an annoying pest that he could more or less walk all over, he now sees him as a man at a crossroads, and one that Don himself was on without even knowing it.
So Don tells Megan that they’re not going to California after all. And of course Megan, who has always been just a piece of furniture unluckily positioned in Don’s blast radius, is justifiably upset.
Final straws are being pulled. And just when Don has taken his first step toward finding himself.
Megan leaves in a huff, possibly forever. And the next morning, Don shows up to work to find out he’s been unceremoniously canned. Another final straw has been pulled.
So Don, without a wife or a job, has finally shed all the things that comprised his future. He has nothing left to destroy. Nobody to cheat on. No accounts to sabotage.
Finally Don can work on his past. Sally, who told her father this season that she realized she knows nothing about him, is about to learn. The final scene of the season finds Don showing his three kids where he grew up. That he’s Dick Whitman.
The secret that ruined his marriage with Betty, that threatened his job, that he has done countless horrible things to protect, is no longer a secret. It’s him.
- It wouldn’t surprise me if Betty comes back into the picture next season. Weiner and his staff are great at making little things that seemed to just be scenery along the road turn out to be clues to major themes and plot details. The fact that Don and Betty had that nice little trip together as a family again, that they slept together again, compounded with Don’s embracing of his troubled past, suggests that him and Betty may get back together. Of course, it could also be a red herring.
- Poor Rizzo. Even when Don, who stole his idea, gives it away, he doesn’t even give it back to its rightful owner. He gives it to Ted.
- Peggy said something very poignant at the end of the episode. When Ted tells her she'll realize he made the right decision, she tells him that it must be nice to be able to make decisions. Peggy has grown so much as a character, it's tough to see her continue to be thrown around so much.
- SC&P is an entity without a spine now. Don is the entire reason the merger happened and the new business was created. He’s also the reason Sunkist won out over Ocean Spray. While he agreed to let Draper remain out of the new Name, Don really is the foundation of it.
- It will be very interesting to see what Don’s embracing of his past holds for his future. While he was told he could come back to work in a few months, that probably isn’t true. And for the sake of compelling storytelling, I hope it isn’t. The future is as uncertain as ever.