‘Mad Men’ Finale: Both Sides Now

Mad Men Finale

Season six closer lays clear tracks for storylines in final season next year

SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading if you haven’t seen the finale of “Mad Men.”

I can’t remember a “Mad Men” finale that laid quite so much track for the storylines of the subsequent season. For the show’s penultimate season, that’s appropriate as the saga of Don Draper heads into its final 13 installments.

I have to hand to to Matthew Weiner and Co. I didn’t see Don Draper’s confessional moves coming, even though of course in hindsight there were plenty of hints. Indeed one of the most powerful moments of season six was the fearless Sally Draper looking her father in the eye and telling her father “I don’t know anything about you” in the wake of the experience with creepy “Aunt Ida.”

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Don is obviously on a mission to change that in the season six finale, “In Care Of,” written by Carly Wray (a writers assistant this season who’s having her “42nd Street” moment with the opportunity to co-write the finale ) and Weiner.

Interesting that Don is emboldened first to unburden himself in a client meeting with Hershey’s, which has unusual resonance with him thanks to his traumatic upbringing in the namesake town. Don seems to be off on his own version of a 12-step program to overcoming the central problem of his life — his lack of a genuine identity. Even his late father-in-law, Gene, identified that problem a few seasons ago (“He has no people!”), before he dropped dead.

We’re left with the notion that the self-medicating with booze and serial philandering are symptoms of Don’s larger demons. Ted’s line to him about “You can’t just stop” prior to the Hershey’s meeting was prophetic. Yes Don did take a big slug of whiskey before the meeting and yes his hand was shaking. But the real coming-clean process started with the meeting — which turned on a dime from a classic Draper smooth-as-butter sales pitch to a WTF moment even as Don still gets to the essence of why people love that particular chocolate bar.

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Rather than the end of season 6, it seems that the last scene of Don taking Sally, Bobby and Gene the younger to the rundown Victorian-style  home where Dick Whitman had the misfortune to spend his adolescence is really the start of season 7. As Bobby helpfully tells us, the house is in a “bad neighborhood.”

Getting fired (sort of) from Sterling Cooper and Partners is the last push Don needed to confront the source of his alienation from those who are closest to him. That was foreshadowed in Betty’s great “That poor girl” line regarding Megan.

Don seems to already know that his relationship with Megan is on borrowed time, which is why he’s willing to be magnanimous and let Ted go to California after all. He can’t stand in the way of a man trying to save his family from broken-home syndrome. And he knows that Megan is better off pursuing her acting career in L.A. anyway. And as Megan is quick to point out, they don’t have any kids. Her line about Don’s “screwed-up kids” clearly hurt him as he realizes that it’s not just mean-spirited — it’s true. Don’s suggestion that the two will maintain a “bicoastal” marriage is pretty laughable, which is probably why Megan heads for the door. And again, who can blame her?

Parallels, parallels: Interesting that James Wolk’s smarmy but compelling Bob Benson character was introduced just as Don decides to wise and up ‘fess up to his real history. (Just like Bob, Wolk has a habit of turning up everywhere on TV these days!) In breaking up with Trudy, Pete continues to be on the Don Draper track, at least on a personal level. And also interesting that this season ends just before Thanksgiving — perhaps a call out to the end of season 1, when Don comes home to an empty house in Ossning just before Turkey day.

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But the season finale also reminds us that for all the sideshow drama involving the rest of the Sterling Cooper and Partners gang (and their families), the story of “Mad Men” is the story of Don Draper — the other characters exist largely to add color and nuance to his grand story arc.

Season six was confounding to many as fan favorites like Joan Harris and Roger Sterling had little to do. Bert Cooper’s primary reason for existing this season seemed to be to deliver the menacing news of Don’s suspension in the second-to-last scene of the finale. Harry Crane delivered a few great punchlines here and there but not much else.

Here’s a rundown of where the rest of the core supporting characters stand going into season 7.

PEGGY OLSON: It’s tempting to say that the biggest news for Peggy this season was the pantsuit she wore in her last scene in the finale. The times they are a’ changing. Obviously, she’s going to be dealing with some bitter heartbreak after the brief affair with Ted Chaough and the break up with the bohemian Abe. And she’s got that Brooklyn Upper West Side apartment to unload. To me, the central question about Peggy going into the final season is when and how she will come to grips with the child she had with Pete Campbell. As good as Kevin Rahm was in the role of Ted, I always got the feeling that he was a short-term plot device on the show, so I never put much stock in his romance with Peggy.

PETE CAMPBELL: Pete and his sideburns were working overtime this season. Vincent Kartheiser shined in playing Pete’s craven moments with enough depth and nuance to make us root for him, no matter what. As with Peggy, the central wrap-up issue for him would seem to be the baby he had with Peggy (the kid would be about 7 now, right?). And then there’s the issue of his marriage to Trudy (may not be as dead as it seems); whether or not he has a legitimate new father-in-law in the gigolo nurse Manolo; whether his crazy mother is really dead; and whether he’ll actually learn how to drive after he moves to L.A. Maybe with Peggy facing so much anguish and Pete being untethered from Trudy, their time as a couple has come? Hard to see it but you never know.

BETTY DRAPER FRANCIS: I missed Betty this season. She didn’t have much to do other than the usual: bug her daughter, bug Don (and then bed Don), bug Henry, undoubtedly bug her mother-in-law and gaze at her newly svelte self  in the mirror. I was disappointed that the early storyline of her seeking out the runaway girl didn’t go anywhere. I suppose the idea there was to enhance her concern for Sally amid the blossoming of the counterculture. True to form, the prospect of being in the public eye as first lady of New York state was the push Betty needed to shed her extra pounds. Watch her wind up preggers again from her camp visit tryst with Don.

MEGAN DRAPER: Speaking of being in the family way, I could not shake the suspicion that Megan was going to wind up that way by the end of the season. The suggestion was planted in Don’s hashish dream about her at the L.A. party, and I was convinced last week that being pregnant was why she was so scared by “Rosemary’s Baby.” (Two words: Ruth Gordon. Greatness). I think Megan’s anger to Don about his “screwed up kids” will be a big weight on her relationship with Don. I’d lay odds she’s living with her agent or her hairdresser (please don’t let it be Jay Sebring) in L.A. by episode 4 of season 7. But kudos are due to Jessica Pare for delivering this season with a lot of complex stuff to play. Like Megan, Pare can be underestimated as an actress because she’s so dazzling to the eye, but she proved her worth and then some this go-round.

SALLY DRAPER: Once again, Kiernan Shipka made it look easy, tackling everything the writers threw at Sally and then some. She remains the queen of the cutting one-liner. Turns out Sally is the moral center of the Draper family, her beer run in the finale notwithstanding. I wasn’t the only one cheering when she stood up for herself against Glen’s creepy friend in last week’s episode. I just hope Shipka has good management right now because by all rights, this young actress should be able to write her own ticket, so long as she makes smart choices in the years ahead.

JOAN HARRIS: Weiner and Co. owe us some serious Joan next season. She really felt MIA this time out. I loved that she went rogue in pursuing the Avon account, but the storyline hit a dead end (at least so far). I really didn’t get her relationship with Bob Benson other than the fact that he’s non-threatening and eager to please. I expected Mr. Harris to be killed in action in Vietnam this season. With her literally opening the door to Roger being in his son’s life, they’ve got to dispense with the creepy doctor sooner rather than later. Perhaps the highlight of the season for Joan was the Look she gave Don while Bert Cooper was delivering the bad news of his forced vacation.

ROGER STERLING: Definitely didn’t have enough to do this season. But John Slattery did direct two episodes, No. 7 and No. 10, so it’s not like he was slacking.

Other Sterling Cooper employees deserving of honorable mentions:

KEN COSGROVE: Try to imagine the look on Aaron Staton’s face when he got the script for “The Crash” and saw his tap-dancing scene.

HARRY CRANE: Didn’t have enough to do this season but always reliable for comic relief. And now we’ve seen him in swim trunks.

STAN RIZZO: Beneath that bushy beard beats the heart of a decent and sensitive guy.

MICHAEL GINSBERG: Like his character, I’d be surprised if Ben Feldman was still employed by Sterling Cooper next season. That’s nothing against the actor, the writers just didn’t know what to do with him. I suspect there were larger plans for his character starting back in season 5 that never quite panned out.

JIM CUTLER: I never seen Harry Hamlin in a better role. He seems to get that less is more with this character. A worthy addition to the mix.

CLARA (Pete’s secretary): I just like her. She’s smart.

All in all, I loved “In Care Of” especially after back to back viewings. But I found the volume of “for your consideration” campaigning on-air a bit much. This is not a show that lacks entries in Emmy’s record books, you know?

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  1. Oldgold says:

    This is one the best season wrap-ups I’ve read but I think you have downplayed Betty’s role and growth this season; her tryst with Don and growing support of him and their “broken family” has been really special. Her lines in the finale to Don about Sally’s need for help (the bad overtaking the good) is really what pushed Don to turn himself around at the end.

  2. Kate Smith says:

    I was relieved when Betty was sidelined as Don’s wife, because she just cannot act her way out of a paper bag! One note, always the same. Artificial even holding a cigarette. Cringeworthy. Hope she goes away even further. Peggy is fun to watch! Loved how she sat in the chair where the ‘action’ is. Joan needs more of a storyline. Sally has a future, you are right! I hope Peggy doesn’t end up with creepy Pete, she needs to be smarten up and be strong! Oh dear, hope she pulls it off!

  3. Advertising says:

    I hope Peggy doesn’t rush to sell, she owns the whole building, not just an “apartment”. She was primed to purchase a nice east side apt. when Abe talked her into being an urban pioneer with a bargain building. The 70’s regentrification of the UWSide is just a couple of year’s away and her property there will be worth a mint.
    Greg Harris is “Dr. Harris” not “Mr. Harris”.

    Typo in file tags at bottom referring to “Matthew Seiner”.

  4. Joey says:

    I happen to like the Judy Collins version best, but there’s a very good reason they didn’t use the Joni Mitchell version: it didn’t come out until 1969, while the JC version was ’67.

  5. Michael says:

    Cynthia, you must be on Weiner’s P.R. payroll. This season of Mad Men was a complete failure. Almost every single character was despicable, the writers were lost in political sub-plots, and Weiner recycled the same bovine scatology with Draper. I won’t be watching next season, and neither will millions of former fans.

  6. Diane says:

    I love this show, I love the fashion,the beauty and the stories. I really hope they change their minds and keep this show going.
    Don and Betty great couple.

  7. ASW says:

    One note: Sally did not look her father in the eye and tell him that she didn’t know anything about him. That conversation took place during a phone call.

  8. JD says:

    I really liked the similar silhouette effect on Peggy in Don’s chair at the end of the episode. It was like a passing of the torch moment and was a great visual.

  9. Al says:

    I really wish you would have mentioned something about Dawn. It was like one moment we were starting to get a glimpse into her life and then the black characters completely faded into the background, as if she no longer mattered. Here’s hoping that Weiner and co are planning something good for next season, and not just evil Aunt Ida and the riots affecting the white characters.

  10. Deb says:

    Great summary. But I think you meant to write “a genuine identity” not “a genuine identify.”

  11. John says:

    I didn’t realize Jim Cutler was played by Harry Hamlin until reading this. I still think of Harry Hamlin from his LA Law days!

  12. slowbait says:

    Peggy’s apartment is on the upper west side.. it is not a Brooklyn apt

  13. Andre says:

    The apartment Peggy bought is on the Upper West Side not Brooklyn.

  14. Paul says:

    “WTF Moments” could have been the title of this entire episode. The Hershey’s Confession pointed out here certainly was a jaw dropper. The Pete’s Mom subplot – bordering on the absurd all season – launched into orbit with the double whammy of her wedding at sea and subsequent going overboard. Even my favorite moments of the episode – Peggy’s ultra-sexbomb office exit and Sally’s final moment empathy upon seeing the whorehouse – were almost entirely out of character.

    • Bill says:

      Neither moment was “out of character,” but rather both were not only in-character but indicative of some major character development.

      Consider Peggy – she’s gone from mousy, knocked up secretary to self-confident woman who can show Ted “Hey, want to parade your wife around the office – you’re giving up THIS, a**hole.”

      Likewise Sally’s final moment was WONDERFUL, as, as we’ve seen from Betty, despite the ability to be cold and manipulative, there is some real caring and concern down deep that Don has tapped into over time, whether on purpose or inadvertently. To Sally, this is the beginning of the answer to the question she posed earlier of not knowing anything about Don.

      He has no reason to lie about this, she knows this is something actually truthful from a man she doesn’t trust – because he has no reason to lie to them about what he’s showing them.

    • Isa Freeling says:

      You couldn’t be more right.! I always feel like Mathew Weiner is struggling to stay afloat hence he drowned tonight like Pete’s poor performance and Don’s Bi-Polar confession. Wow! That took me right out of the 60’s into the 2000’s of WHY?

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