So an ad man and an evangelist walk into a bar…then later the ad man ruins a meeting with Hershey’s with his figurative “come to Jesus” moment and gets fired.
At least I’ve got a punchline, even if I don’t know what the joke is.
But I do know that “In Care Of,” the finale of Mad Men’s curious and fascinating penultimate season, was a mighty fine hour of television, one that floored me both with its massive character moments as well as its restraint in refusing to give the audience exactly what it wants.
It’s pretty much impossible to choose an ideal starting location for an episode so jam-packed with developments – including the long-theorized murder, rest in peace Mrs. Campbell. Oh Menolo, you dog! – though that Hershey’s meeting seems like the best bet. Not only was this the high-water mark of the season in terms of writing and acting (Jon Hamm has rarely been better), but it tied together both season-long and series-long threads about Don’s identity.
Don Draper was raised in a whorehouse. We know this because of the sometimes (ok, mostly) interminable flashback sequences, and have gradually seen the profound effect it’s had on who he is today. In past seasons, Don’s behavior has largely been attributed to the day he dropped his old name, but this year more than any other we’ve learned that the problems run deeper than that.
Here though we see Don gearing up to pull a classic Dick Whitman gambit, taking Megan by the hand and whisking the both of them away to California, enticed by the sweet aroma of Sunkist as well as the thought of opening up his own shop – a fact that didn’t occur to Don until Stan giddily brought it up at the start of the hour. Oh, Stan. First you tip Peggy off to a dissatisfied client, now you’re letting Don move in and bogart all your hopes and dreams. I hope your lush, manly beard will serve as a suitable basin for your tears.
Megan excitedly agrees to the plan, quits her job, and begins booking meetings in LA. As we know, Megan, for all her good intentions, has no idea who Don is. Coming off a night spent in prison for whatever he did to the evangelist at the bar who DARED impugn Nixon’s spotless reputation, Don’s in no position to make big life decisions. He’s running, the same way he wanted to run off with Rachel Menkin in season one, or the variety of other instances where Dick Whitman takes the wheel and wants to get out of dodge.
“We were happy there,” Don reasons to Megan, pitching LA to the converted. They “were” happy there, but they wouldn’t be happy for long. Don can vacation in happiness, but he’s never been a resident. The boy who grew up in a whorehouse is too self-destructive to let that happen.
And, for once, Don Draper realizes this.
It took Teddy, an actual good man whose personal life has spiraled since going into business with Don, to snap Don to his senses. Ted’s plotting his own Dick Whitman move, driven plum crazy by Peggy’s not-so-subtle teasing (who wouldn’t be?), to the point that he spends all night waiting at her door to claim he’s leaving his wife for her. Then Ted, drenched in Chanel No. 5 and guilt, returns to his wife. The next morning, he begs Don to allow him to take the California job, not so he can run away with Peggy but so he can get away from her, and start over with his family.
The first crack in Don’s resolve comes in the form of a late night phone call from Betty. Sally, now openly hostile to Don, has been suspended for buying beer with a fake ID. Betty needs Don to pick her up from school, reinforcing just how absent of a father he has been to their children.
Still, Don initially turns down Ted’s plea for practical reasons, then enters the meeting with Hershey’s. He dazzles, relaying a childhood story about his father tassling his hair and buying him a Hershey’s bar that warms the heart of all involved and is also utter BS. Normally, Don would smile wryly, down his old-fashioned, and make the sale.
But here, with the shaky hand of a drunk trying to sober up and a conscience racked with the guilt of all that he’s done this season, Don Draper comes clean. He tells the story of his childhood, how he was only given Hershey’s bars by a working girl when he’d find more than a dollar rummaging through a john’s pocket. “It was the only sweet thing in my life,” Don relays through tears. The meeting ends, Don approaches Ted and lets him know that he’s had a change in heart, that Ted can go to California in Don’s place.
“In Care Of” featured a lot of that, characters trying to find their own California and get away from their current New York. For Ted (and Pete, I guess?), it could very well be the literal California. But for Don? A change of scenery won’t do a damn thing for Don. He’d be boozing and whoring within a month, and he’s finally come to terms with that fact.
So the season culminates with both Ted and Don coming clean. Ted tells an understandably furious Peggy that he’s decided to leave her for California and his family. “Well aren’t you lucky, to have decisions,” Peggy hisses. Don sits Megan down and tells her that he can’t go to California, suggesting that she pursue her acting career there anyway. Megan leaves, and may very well never return.
At work the next morning, Don is informed by the partners that he’s being put on an indefinite leave of absence. On the way out, he bumps into Duck Phillips, bringing in his replacement.
Nobody said coming clean would be easy.
The last image of the season, though, is not Don drunk and distraught, but driving his kids home. They stop in what little Bobby calls “the bad part of town” to get out and stare at a building. “This is the house that I grew up in,” Don explains, as the camera pans to the now-abandonded whorehouse where young Dick Whitman lived.
Despite Don losing everything both personally and professionally, I found this to be a tremendously hopeful finale. ‘Mad Men’ is so often about hollow, Pyrrhic victories. Pete gets sent to Detroit but is unhappy about who he’s sent with, Don gets the Hilton account and it turns out to be a nightmare, Joan becomes a partner but at the expense of her personal dignity. In fact, ‘Mad Men’ is almost ENTIRELY about hollow victories. “What is happiness? It’s the moment before you need more happiness.”
There’s something profoundly uplifting about seeing Don Draper, the man who said those words, losing all tangible sources of his happiness and being fine with it. His young, beautiful wife is gone, moving to Los Angeles and probably divorcing him. His job, the source of so much of his pride and anxiety over the years and so deeply tied to his transition from Dick Whitman, is gone. Whatever pride he had left is gone, thanks to that meeting with Duck in the elevator. As Lou Avery, Don’s presumable replacement, asks, “Going down?”
But he’s not going down. Don Draper is fine. He’s getting clean. Nobody said it would be easy.