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'Mad Men' Finale Recap: Goodbye to All That

In the Season Six Sendoff, Don Comes Clean

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Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in the season-six finale of 'Mad Men' Credit: Jamie Trueblood/AMC

In November 1968, the Hershey Foods Corp. announced that it would be talking to a "pre-screened" list of agencies about taking on its advertising business. Hershey was not just looking for a new agency but, despite the late date, its first in the United States. Called "the country's most famous advertising holdout" by The New York Times, the candy bar maker had leaned hard on the late Milton Hershey's dictum that the best advertising was a quality product. Mass media changed that, however, and the company ended up hiring Ogilvy & Mather and becoming the major advertiser we know today.

Now, we don't know this next part for a fact, but it's safe to say that when Hershey's marketing men made the rounds on the real Madison Ave. they didn't hear the old A-Hershey-Bar-Was-the-Highlight-Of-My-Orphaned-Childhood-Among-the-Whores pitch. Nope, nobody does it quite like Don Draper, for whom the truth is as destructive as his lies.

Don's pitches are typically full of nostalgia and slick nonsense, but the sixth season of "Mad Men" was bookended by a pair of brutally honest moments with unsuspecting clients. In the premiere, Don unsettled the Royal Hawaiian Hotel with what was essentially an ad for death. In the season finale, Don pivots from some schmaltzy idea of what a candy bar meant to his -- entirely imagined -- happy childhood to what we might now call a moment of radical transparency. The movement from death to brutal truth is good; it's just the context we might question. You know, in front of a prospective client and some pissed-off partners. That context.

The Hershey performance, along with a bunch of other spotty behavior, results in Don getting pushed out of the agency. The scene is a tough moment to take despite his general cretinous behavior, which I suppose is a testament to Jon Hamm's acting and the show's writing. You want Don to get his comeuppance but when it finally happens it's not as pleasurable as it should be. Bad as it is when the likes of Roger and Joan turn on him, things are straight-up cringe-worthy when, on the way out, Don encounters Duck Phillips and a guy from Dancer Fitzgerald coming in.

But Don's workplace fall was not even the grimmest moment in an almost unrelentingly dark season finale. Don has alienated everyone, not least Megan, who is last seen walking out him in probably the only moment of the season in which she didn't seem lobotomized. Meanwhile, Ted and Peggy finally consummate the season-long flirtation, a sequence of events in which Ted manages to betray both his wife and his protege, in quick succession. Pete immediately fumbles the Detroit opportunity, displaying his inability to drive stick in front of his new car clients, and packs off to California with Ted for some vague hope of starting over. His marriage is done and his mother is presumed dead, gone overboard on a cruise after marrying nurse Manolo, who, it seems, was a con man. To top it off, Pete has been outsmarted at every turn by Bob Benson, who leaves the season just as he entered: as an enigma.

By my reckoning, there's precisely one upbeat scene, the one in Joan's apartment on Thanksgiving that I choose to read as a sort of proto-"Modern Family" tableaux, Wearing an apron and carving turkey, Bob Benson is playing gay-ish self-described "buddy" to Joan. Meanwhile, Roger, in attendance because his daughter disinvited him from her own Thanksgiving, is feeding the illegitimate son he had with Joan, who just kind of tolerates it all. However short-lived, this very non-nuclear family moment is a flicker of happiness in some pretty weird and unhappy lives. It also points to how the very redefinition the concept of family will change as divorce and remarriage become more and more common and as gay rights emerge. (I do, however, reserve the right to take this all back if Bob Benson ends up being the evil force he seemed he might be at one point.)

In any event, this is a far cry from the "broken home," to use Betty's word, we see from the Drapers. The episode's title is "In Care Of," is a reference to a piece of mail that Don receives on behalf of Sally, a banal but necessary reminder of his responsibilities to his kids and how he's abdicated them in a haze of sex, booze and general inattention. The impact of all this has become startlingly clear. It has shattered Don's relationship with Sally. And she is rejecting him, perversely, by following in the loathsome footsteps of her father. As Don is spending the night in the drunk tank after punching out a proselytizer, Sally is confined to the infirmary of her boarding school for getting herself and some of the other kids wasted.

A lot of messes have been made and it seem like the popular fix is to just up and go to California. The agency has to open an office there for Sunkist, providing a place of escape. Ted needs to get away from his weakness for Peggy. Don needs to flee everything. Stan Rizzo also wants to go, but in his case there's a legitimate reason -- he wants to build a business out there -- so he's denied.

In the end, Don decides to man up and stay in New York. He cedes Los Angeles to Ted, giving him a chance to not completely screw up his marriage and children. The collateral damage is Peggy, who is just tossed aside. The amazing thing about Peggy is that she will rebound. When we leave her, she's already in Don's office, starting her work as the most senior creative in the New York office.

What ahead for Don isn't clear. He's weirdly selfless, at least for the moment. He has no job, at least for the moment. Megan has walked out on him, at least for the moment. He's not drinking, at least for the moment. Will any of this stick? That of course is the big question for the seventh and final season, which will surely focus on whether Don can repair -- and atone for -- the damage he's caused.

When we last see Don, it's Thanksgiving and he's taken the kids to a decrepit-looking house in a rough neighborhood. Don tells the kids this is where he grew up, but instead of prostitutes there is a poor black child on the steps. The kid is eating not a Hershey bar but a popsicle.

Is one way to fix the present and the future to stop running from the past? Is the look Don and Sally share one of real understanding, and deep enough that she'll begin forgive him? Let's hope for the Don's case, it is.

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