"Mad Men" ended its sixth season with an episode, "In Care of," that could have easily ended the entire series, as one of those circle-of-life affairs that sought to erase or at least begin to resolve that constant theme that's propelled "Mad Men" forward from the very beginning: Don Draper's famously divided self.
Even in tone alone this one seemed to want to reverse what drove the entire sixth season (that prevailing sense of doom and dread, precipitated by the turmoil of the world beyond, it all began with a scream... and death, or near-death; and the two faces of Don Draper, refracted through other faces, like Bob's).
The sixth ended with bonding, possibly and potentially the first genuine bond Don has had with any woman since Anna Draper (Melinda Paige Hamilton) who wasn't even his real wife, but his make-believe wife.
The entire episode was optimistic, often caustically funny ('''she always loved the sea,”) and despite the season very nearly tracked like a summer's day forecast -- sunny, few clouds, 20 percent chance of thunderstorms. "In Care Of" could have worked as a series finale, a reasonably happy one at that.
So, if you've read this far in the post, I've purposely avoided any spoilers, and if you care to bail out now, be my guest. If not, the finale had not one shock ("shock" begin a relative term in this context) but five:
- Don is nearly fired, and put on leave from the very agency that nearly bears his name (Sterling Cooper & Partners) only to see the old nemesis that he put on permanent leave, Duck, arrive by elevator with his potential replacement.
- Don and Megan split, or if not "split,' they make about as complete a breach as you or they could imagine, as she heads to California, he remains in NYC; it is over completely (this isn't exactly a shock, of course, so let's just settle for "significant plot development”).
- Ted leaves or will leave for the west coast, abandoning the complications he created for himself, of marital infidelity and an office relationship with Peggy -- who finds herself suddenly all alone with all the same guys, Don temporarily excepted, she tried to escape from in the first place -- the Sterling Cooper principals.
- The scene with Hershey's... A famous "Mad Men" moment already, where Don reverses a story about why Hershey's should advertise to one that freezes over the entire room, destroys the pitch, and turns Roger's genially vapid "let's-go-eat-lunch" suggestion afterward into one of the funniest lines of the episode. Don finally reveals his true self to the world -- not quite the Dick Whitman conversion story, but the onion has been peeled.
- That closing scene, with Don and family outside his, umm, childhood home -- a battered dilapidated shell under a perfectly blue sky. Don looks down at Sally, Sally looks at Don . .implied understanding passes between both. That shot alone, in the shadow of those smokestacks, could have almost wrapped everything and wrapped it for good.
Except that would have been too easy, too facile, too TV. Don's conversion, or at least Don's story has a way to go.
Worth noting that Matthew Weiner and company have taken some elements of the story full circle from the first season, notably the first season finale ("The Wheel") where Don gives a pitch to Kodak (about its carousel "wheel") that establishes the protagonist's genius for advertising and for self-delusion and self-invention. That episode also occurred just before Thanksgiving, also ended with the end of a marriage (Betty and Don's).
It also contained some of the most famous lines in the show's run: Don to Kodak -- "This device isn't a space ship"... click, picture of Don holding Sally..."it's a time machine..." click, holding Bobby and Sally..."that takes us backward and forwards, to a place where we ache to go again"... click, click..."travels the way a child travels, around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved..." Click, click, click... Don and Betty, kissing, at their wedding, lying together.
Someone somewhere has written a long and detailed blog post about how every "Mad Men" finale is a refraction of the same theme, told over and over and over again, circling around on itself, the theme reduced to essentially the same old story, of Don's fractured self, as if there is no escaping that self.
Last night, we got something a little different, as Don finally, at long last, begins to repair the damage and gives fans a sense that the cycle stands a chance -- the barest glimmer of a hope -- of being broken.
Now, onto the seventh and possibly final season, sometime next year, with many questions still to be answered, possibly these two first among all equals: Will Don return to the agency? (Don't forget he has gone on a long leave before -- the many months he spent as Dick Whitman in California, with Anna, so I don't think a hiatus is a big deal, though it could allow Don to relaunch on his own.) Or: Will Don return to his old self?
Finally, when all is over, will we learn whether "Mad Men" -- one of the most celebrated series in TV history -- was a tragic story or simply a farcical one? You know that old line (from Marx) which coincidentally happens to describe “Mad Men's” narrative: History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Don's life, and "Mad Men," are full of both elements, and for the moment at least, there's no way to know which will ultimately prevail.