California Dreamin—Going West the Default Option in Mad Men’s Season Six Finale
The last episode of the season of Mad Men finds a number of central characters seeking a new start and a new life in the City of Angels. Los Angeles may be “Detroit with palm trees”, in the words of Don Draper (a useful line at the time to get Stan off his back about relocating there), but with the Sunkist account providing the prospect of an anchor client for the firm, it’s time to heed the words of Horace Greeley a century earlier and “go west”.
For Don, it’s an opportunity to give up the bottle and rekindle his flagging relationship with Megan, while reliving the moments when things were still young in their relationship and the possibility of happiness with the younger woman was palpable. For Ted, it’s a way out of a relationship that will destroy his family, and lead him down the path that has made his nemesis, Don, such a sad basket case. For Pete, it’s the means of starting over, and getting away from an increasingly manipulative and malevolent Bob Benson (yes, that Bob Benson- the fallen Christ figure who’s beginning to look like Jesus’ opposite, literally killing Pete’s chances of a successful tenure as lead on the Chevy account by suckering the notoriously awful driver into getting behind the wheel of a stick shift Camaro, with embarrassing and career deflating results. Not to mention his shaky choice of friends– at the very least his pal Manolo has married Pete’s mother for her money, and at the worst, has thrown her overboard during a honeymoon cruise as shark bait to hasten the collection of said money).
Don Draper’s noblest gesture- allowing a stricken, panicked Ted to go out to LA with his family in his place in order to save his rival’s marriage- may ironically have destroyed his own marriage while sending Megan to Hollywood stardom. Don pleads for understanding from a fed up Megan when he breaks the news to her that LA is no longer part of the plan, and she notes that she has all kinds of meetings with producers already lined up, implying that she’s moving with or without him. Chalk this up as an ingenious plot device hatched from the fertile brain of Matthew Weiner in order to send Megan to what we’ve thought all along was her manifest destiny. It’s Don’s idea, but she acts on it by getting herself written off her soap opera, and he’s likely left behind, temporarily or perhaps for good, his vision of a “bicoastal” relationship notwithstanding. Last year, it was Don walking off the set of Megan’s commercial breakthrough and back to his former ways; this year, it’s Megan walking out the door toward a new life, leaving Don to contemplate what’s next for him. Whether he intends to win her back or go it alone is left tantalizingly unsaid.
The plot is propelled by Don’s belated but real recognition that he has a drinking problem, when he wakes up in the drunk tank after having punched a preacher who had the misfortune of looking to save souls in the wrong bar, engaging Don in a conversation that harkened back to—what else? —a distasteful episode with a preacher in his former life as Dick Whitman. Don being Don, thinks that pouring some booze down the sink and moving to California are the only things he needs to do to avoid the DTs. But as he finds during his pitch to the Hershey’s people, it’s not that easy.
About that Hershey’s chocolate presentation—when a lot of the dust settles from this season, and scenes are argued about for their seminal importance, Don’s true confession about his upbringing in a whore house and what a Hershey’s bar really meant to him (as he calls it “the only sweet thing” in his life) is sure to take on a life of its own as a mini-classic. It has the emotional resonance of the Carousel pitch from year one, and while Harry Crane wasn’t there to run out of the room in tears, there were no doubt a lot of moist eyes across America watching as Don, channeling the young Dick Whitman, having run out of places to hide and literally spent and dissipated from his lifetime of deceit, unspools the most nakedly honest two minutes of his life in front of total strangers and aghast (and at least in Ted’s case sympathetic) colleagues. The Carousel pitch was about the “ache of nostalgia” for a simpler time when life was better or more fully realized. The Hershey’s confessional was about the ache of a scorned young boy searching for something- anything- that would bring him recompense for the rejection he felt every day just by living. In this scene as in others in this excellent season finale, Jon Hamm has reached for something extra in taking his characterization- and character- to a new level of complexity and richness. This scene is Matt Weiner’s gift to Hamm and the one that will surely resonate with Emmy voters.
What makes the scene more resonant and ingenious is the reaction the partners have to watching essentially a train wreck unfold before their eyes. It reminds viewers of how much of the show still rides on the formidable coattails of Hamm, and how often the scenes around the conference room table hinge on the reaction shots of others to his verbal wizardry. You can see the minds of the old pros Sterling and Cutler (the great John Slattery and the career resurgent Harry Hamlin) spinning, trying to figure out how to weave an acceptable narrative out of Don’s behavior that will keep the meeting from ending in disaster. You can also see Ted—who may at this point understand Don better than anyone—change his aspect from tortured resignation at the impending implosion of his life to concern and sympathy for Don’s plight. It is noteworthy that in the penultimate scene of the season, when the partners convene to give Don his temporary walking papers, it is Ted who is elsewhere, perhaps too respectful to be present for Don’s humiliation.
Ted’s crisis is in the form of a beguiling Peggy Olson, who vamps it up in a short, suggestive outfit that clearly is meant to turn Ted’s head and turn on his libido. And it works—Ted confronts Peggy at her apartment at the end of her date, confesses his love for her and promises her that he intends to leave his wife and start a new life with her. Since this is Peggy, and her taste and track record with men is ridiculously bad, we have a sense that this is not going to end well, and it doesn’t, with Ted giving her the prototypical “you’ll thank me one day” speech while breaking her heart. Ted has been the anti-Don all year, and while his behavior with Peggy is Don-like, he really doesn’t have it in him to cheat, lie and break up his family. We can see that as he slinks into bed with his wife after betraying her, showing her the kind of tenderness and affection that men about to leave their wives generally do not display. He knows that leaving his wife will destroy a good part of what make him who he is, and so he stops himself at the brink. What booze is to Don, Peggy is to Ted, and so the two men are looking to go west to avoid the very thing they believe will kill them. And in a display of selflessness that would have been unheard of before this episode, Don gives Ted what he wants. As Don says to Dawn on his way out the door, “have a great Thanksgiving, sweetheart”, and he essentially has said the same thing to Ted a few minutes before when telling him that he’s stepping back from his LA adventure in favor of Ted.
Ironically, the move to Los Angeles is considered a “demotion” when Don suggests that he go out there instead of a more junior person, like the eager Stan, who lobbies him for the role at the beginning of the episode. The partners still see LA as the boondocks and don’t really get the attraction. What they do know is that they love the Sunkist business, and Sunkist has insisted on an LA presence. Sometimes it’s not great business decision-making but sheer luck- or an insistent client- that turns a decision of necessity into a great decision. And, there’s no doubt that with so much economic activity shifting to the West Coast well into the seventies, this promises to be a great move for the firm, especially with the earnest Ted Chaough, newly recommitted to his marriage and his children, at the helm of the enterprise.
Thanksgiving is a mixed bag for Roger, as Joanie allows him to participate in Kevin’s life, but at the price of watching the ubiquitous Benson taking on the head of household role by carving up the turkey. Benson, now thoroughly revealed to be a manipulator at a world class level, turns the knife a bit into Roger’s gut, by noting that Joanie’s mom went out and had her hair done for him, as if it’s only Gail and not Joan who would be attracted to a geezer like him.
And in a subtle surprise, Thanksgiving is the day that Pete says goodbye to Trudy and his daughter Tammy, to venture out to Los Angeles, ostensibly on his own. Pete has always been a bit ahead of the game when it comes to where the ad business is going, so perhaps he’s the one SCP person going out there for the right reasons, rather than to get away from or get cured of something. Carving a turkey for Benson seems appropriate, given how adroitly he carved Pete out of Chevy and perhaps out of the agency for good. The havoc Benson may be able to cause, given his increasingly iron grip on the Chevy account, is only hinted at, but it’s likely that his guile and amorality will play a significant role in the final season.
The episode’s name, “In Care Of”, comes from the letter from the government requesting Sally Draper’s testimony about the intruder, Grandma Ida, from the past episode. The irony is that Sally is beyond Don’s care, and charting her own Don-like course as the new scourge of Miss Porter’s. In a “like father, like daughter” move, Sally uses the alias “Beth Francis” to score some beers and entice her classmates into getting drunk with her. Unlike her dad, who has gotten away with this behavior for far too long, there are immediate consequences, starting with being suspended from school. The suspension is yet another signpost along the way that reveals to Don that a new path for his imploding life is called for.
For those who see Peggy Olson as the female Draper, there’s a huge payoff at the end of the episode, as the firm that Don conceived is left essentially in her care. Peggy, tossed aside by Ted and left again alone with only her work to occupy her, is last seen sitting in Don’s office, feeling her mentor’s vibe, perhaps only a small consolation for the love that she has lost again.
So much of Mad Men’s power are the echoes and reverberations from previous episodes and years. Three years ago, in “Shut the Door, Have a Seat”, it was Don calling the shots, leading the conspiracy that led to the formation of the new firm. In this episode, it was Don taking a seat, as the partnership administered the tough love that at one point—with a Don at the height of his charismatic and creative powers– would have been unheard of. A subtle irony is that Bert Cooper (the reliably excellent Robert Morse), essentially background noise for much of the year, reasserts himself and takes the lead, much as he did years ago in a more encouraging time, when he first urges Don to take his seat at the table of New York movers and shakers. Don Draper, the indispensable ad man, is told by the firm’s oldest name partner to go home and not come back until the partners are good and ready to see him again. In a way, it was Draper’s sheer audacity and innovativeness that emboldened the SCP partners to do away with him, as through the merger he had conceived he bought himself additional management firepower in Ted Chaough and Jim Cutler. The irony of Duck Phillips coming back inside with a job candidate while Don is going down, is a bit heavy handed but appropriate, and Don takes his comeuppance grimly albeit gracefully.
This is the resignation of a man who knows he has a mountain to climb. What is yet to be seen is whether he decides to take the hike. The scene with the three Draper kids at the end, where he at last provides the puzzle pieces of himself in a desperate attempt to reconnect not only with the wayward Sally but with his own sad and forlorn past, may be the first step. Whether it is or not will have to wait for the next and final season of this groundbreaking series. Season Seven—Bring it on!!
- There’s nothing like kicking a city when it’s down, and Detroit these days is nothing if not down for the count, given the decades of corruption and cupidity that has brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. For the Mad Men cast, Detroit isn’t a dysfunctional city but a place for dysfunctional clients, and that’s the source of their antipathy—and Bob Benson’s opportunity. The implication is that among the city’s shortcomings yesterday that led it to where it is today is a case of hubris, borne at a time when it was Motor City and the center of the automotive world.
- While Don’s “Come to Jesus” moments are more numerous and played for more emotional resonance, the other character who leaves the season in a more hopeful but lonely place is Pete, who is reconciled to his mother’s passing and his failure at Chevy and seemingly is seen striking out on his own in California (although never overtly stated what he plans on doing once he gets there). Trudy pointedly says that Pete is free not only of his mother, but also “them”, undoubtedly referring to SCP, and the fact that he along with Ted are not present at the partners meeting ejecting Don from management underscores this supposition. Given how frustrated Pete has become about Don’s antics, if he were still partner he’d want to have a ringside seat for Don’s emasculation, but as he says earlier, he has bigger issues on his mind. It will be interesting to see where this leaves Vincent Kartheiser in the final season- he has been a worthy foil to Don for all these years, and one can assume we’ll see Pete among the palm trees next season. He had better learn how to drive proficiently if he intends to stay out there, though.
- One of the loose ends not tied up in this episode is whatever happened to the Avon account. Joan is still standing and her presence is felt lightly but decisively in the “Don is toast” scene. So did she get Avon? It’s not like Weiner to leave a plot point dangling like this, so I’m assuming this will be resolved either overtly or subtly some time next season.
- Last week, I mentioned that Kevin Rahm, who plays Ted, was not in the opening credits. I was as wrong as I was about Peggy’s flat being on the West Side rather than the East Side. For this as well as other small and larger mistakes this year (the use of protégé rather than mentor was a good one), I apologize. And now I take my leave.
Submitted by Harlan R. Teller