If the final episode of season six of Mad Men felt like the final episode of Mad Men, period, that was probably by design. Matthew Weiner & Co. never did like sticking to the expected story structure of a season and they’ve often revealed all the major shocks and moves forward in the story at the penultimate episode of a season, rather than the finale. So it makes sense they’d shock the hell out of us all during the penultimate show finale rather than the actual one. Pete is free of all family ties and exiled to California; Ted is trying desperately to maintain his family ties by moving them all to California; Megan reveals that she doesn’t want to work on her failing marriage, essentially calls Don’s kids crazy, and walks out the door to California; after a full season of getting buffeted around by the whims of the men around her, Peggy winds up in the corner office, with all of SC&P’s creative department under her feet; and Don Draper is out on the street once again, staring at the whorehouse where he grew up, all of his demons having effectively destroyed his life. Never before have these characters all been so scattered and far apart from each other. Another “broken family” in a long line of them in Don’s life.
The grand irony of Dick Whitman’s long exile from the world and feverish need to cover up his true self is that his greatest fear of discovery turns out to be true: people abandon him the minute they find out who he is. Just as Betty walked out once she found out Don wasn’t, in fact, a football star who was angry at his father but instead simply poor white trash, the partners of SC&P forced him out the minute he told them all about his Whershey Whorehouse antics. For a decade and a half, he’s lived in mortal fear of being found out and it turns out all his fears were well-founded, from his perspective. Megan’s the only person who stayed with him after hearing the truth of him but it’s been a struggle from day one for the two of them to stay connected and with last night’s angry monologue after finding out he screwed her over yet again, we find out that Megan isn’t quite as committed to this marriage as she tries to appear. And yet despite all the unrelenting darkness of this season and the constant threat of abandonment hanging over his head, Don still tries to reach out; to reveal a tiny little bit of himself to the people he’s hurting the most. Don does, in fact, show a little bit of growth here.
EDITED TO ADD: Because several have misunderstood us here; we’re not saying the partners ordered Don out because of his childhood or that Betty left him because he wasn’t a football player. We’re saying that, from Dick’s perspective, his greatest fears turned out to be true each time.
Sally obviously is the young woman most affected by Don’s demons at the moment and just as we said in last week’s review, her attempts to run away from her father by embracing her mother’s desires for her isn’t working, because no matter how hard she tries to, she can’t get away from her father’s influence. Like father, like daughter: they both spend the night “in jail” after getting drunk. Once again Matthew Weiner rests the entire emotional weight of a scene on Kiernan Shipka and once again, she knocks it out of the park. The look she gives Don at the end; that look of understanding coupled with anger, compassion and suspicion; almost had us bursting into tears, it was that effective. She may never forgive him for what he did, but there’s some small part of her that understands him better. But will she run away from it like so many do when they glimpse the truth of Don? The show is deliciously ambiguous on that front.
Having said that, the ambiguity sometimes got a little annoying, if not downright insulting at times. Matthew Weiner says in a post-season interview conducted by Alan Sepinwall that not only did Joan land the Avon account, but that he assumes the audience understands that. This has always been the major flaw in Mad Men‘s writing and the problem that arises when subtlety and ambiguity are goals for the show: the writers sometimes lose track of what’s in their heads and what’s on the page. We’re reminded of either the commentary track or the “Inside Mad Men” video on “My Old Kentucky Home,” where Matthew Weiner goes on and on about what Betty and Don are thinking as they kiss each other at the end of Roger’s party; important, insightful bits of character information that inform the scene and put it in context – none of which appeared onscreen or would be knowable in any way by the audience. On the one hand, we appreciate a show that expects the audience to keep up and figure things out along the way without being spoonfed. On the other hand, the show’s pacing problems grew to epidemic proportions this season and it seems to us we could have been spared 30 seconds of Dick Whitman’s Whorehouse Frolics in order to get one short line informing us that the most important and dangerous thing Joan did all season actually paid off for her.
Similarly, it feels like entire scenes are missing from Pete’s story this episode as he went from threatening to destroy Bob for his mother’s death to somewhat resignedly packing up his bags and moving to California. We get why he’s off Chevy and we can even understand why he’d choose to go to California, but there was nothing bridging those scenes to show us how he got to that point. Bob humiliated him in front of the Chevy execs and that’s why Pete backed down? Okay, so it would have been impossible to prove that Manolo actually killed his mother or that Bob had anything at all to do with it, but it seems odd that Pete would just resign himself to that fact with little in the way of explanation.
Granted – and we’re likely to get into trouble with this – we believe Bob when he says he had nothing to do with Manolo and Dorothy’s fate. Literally every single thing Bob has ever done in this story was done to advance in his career or protect his job. There has never been any action taken toward any larger plan or scheme. To be honest, we find the whole Manolo thing kind of hokey and silly for this show. We said all along that Pete was right to fire him, since there always was a kind of legacy of gay gigolo types preying on socialites, but to have both Pete’s parents die in such dramatic and similar manners is one of the ways in which the show has lost some of its subtlety this season. We think the writers have been playing around with more soap opera-style arcs this season, using the framing device of Megan’s soap, “To Have and To Hold,” but even so; an aging socialite who gets thrown off a cruise ship to her death by her gay Spanish gigolo husband doesn’t sound remotely like a Mad Men plot to us.
On the other hand, we’re thrilled that Bob is still in the story, still gay (and if you don’t believe THAT, trust us; this exchange between Joan and him: “I’m gaining weight!” “You can’t tell!” is PURE Gay and his best Fruit Fly, as is, “Gail had her hair done for you!”), and not quite the scary sociopath he sometimes came across as. Looking at it from his perspective, he was kind of right to humiliate Pete like that. Pete just told the Chevy execs that Bob wasn’t going to make it to dinner with them; clearly signaling his intent to screw with Bob’s status on the account. But Pete should have remembered the lesson he learned last week: you don’t tangle with preternatural charmers like Bob Benson or Don Draper. You’d do best to either get out of their way or hang onto their coat tails. For a brief moment, it looked like Pete was going to do just that after last episode, but he couldn’t contain himself and Bob got him yanked off the account simply by smiling and handing him a set of keys.
As for Peggy, she’s HAD it. “Well aren’t you lucky,” she spits out to Ted, “To have decisions.” That’s been her arc all season as she’s wound up in a home and a job that she got pushed into by other men. And while she’s snarled and strained at her restraints all season, she never got that moment of freedom or self-actualization. That she’s now got the corner office to herself is thrilling, but as with so much on Mad Men, it’s likely to be illusory and fleeting. She’s not going to be made Creative Director, most likely. It’s still 1968 and she’s still a woman, after all. Besides, slimy Duck was right on the scene already with Don’s replacement. But seeing her behind Don’s desk, looking out the window Draper-style, we can really see for the first time just how close Peggy is to realizing all her career dreams. That Stan was standing there to admire her for it gives a whole battalion of Stan+Peggy fans hope for a relationship between the two down the line. That SC&P has been such a ridiculously volatile company in its short five years speaks to the possibility that more upheavals down the road will continue to benefit her if she just keeps her head down and does the work like she always has.
Bullet time, because this is already going long:
- Margaret Sterling Hargrove is a spoiled little bitch.
- Roger indicated to Bob that he would do well to be a “family man” if he’s going to handle the Chevy account, so we wonder if he’ll go the Sal Romano route and find some poor girl to marry him. We hope not, if only because it’s a storyline that’s been done. It’s possible he could make a play for Joan, but it seems pretty clear to us that Joan knows he’s gay, which makes it seem unlikely. On the other hand, we’d love to see Roger Sterling try to tangle with him over Joan’s affections. Bob’ll find out quickly that Roger’s no pushover like Pete.
- By the way, is Bob the sole accounts man on Chevy now? That’s a hell of a move up the ladder.
- Two somewhat sad callbacks to the pilot episode, “Band of Gold”playing in the seedy bar, echoing the same song playing in a more glamorous Mid-Century bar in the opening moments of the show, and Pete’s goodbye to Tammy, which was framed exactly the same way as Don’s goodnight to his children.
- Trudy’s sometimes portrayed as a supernaturally understanding wife figure and we have to admit, we had a hard time buying her kindness toward Pete this episode. He detonated their marriage in a pretty ugly way less than a year before. She’s a single mother in 1968 with the same upper-class expectations for her life that Betty Hofstadt once had. We like that they’re drawing distinctions between her and Betty (who was consumed with rage for years following the divorce), but her calmness and kind looks were a little unsettling – unless Pete and Trudy aren’t really done yet (which we have to admit, is our hope). Pete’s a shit, but he deserves more happiness in his life.
- For the first time, Betty openly expresses regret over the divorce to Don. We don’t think this signals a return to a relationship for them, but we do think she was only able to be that honest with him on the phone because they’d recently slept together again. We really felt for her when she said that no matter how hard she tries to steer Sally right, the bad always takes over the good in her. She’s her father’s daughter to a T.
- The more we think about it, the more annoyed we are that Joan’s story this episode was all about reconciling with Roger, with not a word uttered about Avon. She’s more than who she’s slept or been romantically involved with, writers. Come on, now.
- We think there’s something subtly interesting about Roger’s reaction to Don’s reveal; a sense that he’s both a little repulsed by Don’s seedy upbringing and more than a little offended by the way in which he revealed it. He’s been let down by someone he considered a friend (in his narcissistic, Roger Sterling kind of way).
- Also notable was Joan’s look away from Don during that meeting. That was the moment he – and we – realized he had no friends here.
- Hamm knocked it out of the park with that anti-Carousel, anti-nostalgia Hershey’s “pitch.” “Buy Hershey’s, the choice of whores and fucked-up little kids for generations!” Speaking of which…
- “FUCK THE AGENCY!” Megan gets her major anger moment and it was a long time in coming. Will Don ditch everything to follow her to California? Granted, he doesn’t have much left to ditch.
- How chilling was Randian Lion Bert Cooper in that partner’s meeting? The one man on the planet who can get Don Draper to shut the hell up with one sentence. “The verdict has been reached.”
- Kiernan Shipka absolutely wrecked us with that last look. A devastating bit of wordless acting that is astonishing to see in someone so young.
- Bob is in a frilly apron at the end.
MUCH more to come in Wednesday’s Mad Style entry, not the least of which will be spent on Peggy’s amazing “I am woman, hear me roar,” polyester pantsuit.