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Mad Men season finale recap: The Don of a New Era

Don’s season-long slide finally hits a backstop in a powerful season finale that’s all about the characters.

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Mad Men Finale 08

Mad Men

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
run date:
Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Elisabeth Moss

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” – Step 4, Alcoholics Anonymous

Don Draper is dead, long live Dick Whitman.

There were plenty of indications that someone in the Mad Men universe was going to kick the bucket this year. This was the season that began with a near-death experience, after all, and then proceeded to be only slightly less heavy on death imagery than your average Día de los Muertos celebration. In the end, the show delivered on its morbid promise. It just turned out that, like so much else on the show, the death was symbolic.

When Don shows up to the office only to be told that he’s pretty much out of the company, everyone is dressed for a funeral. Joan sits quietly in black, and the three other senior partners look like a contingent of pallbearers. And while his career may not technically be dead, it’s been put into a medically induced coma at the very least. The meeting also has the air of an intervention, as a tribunal of Don’s colleagues render judgment on his past behavior. His punishment echoes the similar non-firing firing of the whiskey-pickled Freddy Rumsen, but this isn’t just about saving Don’s liver. It’s less an intervention for Don’s drinking than for Don’s Don-ness. The character’s saving grace has always been that he does good work. His life may be a mess, but he can still pull out a client-winning pitch in the ninth inning. If that’s no longer the case, there isn’t much to counterbalance all of his other, less valuable, tendencies. Don delivered his own eulogy preemptively, at the Hershey’s meeting. Tired of lying—to his co-workers, to the clients, to his wife, to his daughter, to himself—he opens the blinds on Dick Whitman and tells a 100 percent true story from his sad brothel upbringing. The look of relief on his face as he finally lays aside the mask is palpable. This was a mercy killing.

While he ends the episode stepping off a ledge into the great unknown (much like his silhouette starts every episode), Don began at rock bottom this week. Sally is still furious with him. “Well, I wouldn’t want to do anything immoral,” she snips sarcastically when her father calls about testifying against the burglar. Of course, that isn’t the only incident to which Sally can testify. Don’s soul also on trial here, and again his daughter is the key witness.

He misses the Sheraton meeting to discuss the Royal Hawaiian—the sunny lie that started the season—because he’s too busy drinking. A fistfight with a minister lands him in the drunk tank, a place many men before him have contemplated making an abrupt change in their lives. The next morning Megan finds Don pouring the liquor cabinet down the kitchen sink. “I’ve realized it’s gotten out of control, I’ve gotten out of control,” he admits, proving that six seasons late is still better than never. He steals Stan’s idea to turn the Sunkist account into its own satellite bureau, convinced (again like many men before him) that he’ll be able to start anew if he moves west. Its salvation-tinged name aside, Los Angeles has always represented unknown opportunity to the show’s New York types. For Don, it’s a place of escape, associated with Anna Draper and his whirlwind proposal to Megan, and he’s convinced he can go back. “We were happy there,” he tells Megan, but there’s no there there. The only thing he’s running away from is Don Draper, and that will follow him wherever he goes. It’s like looking in a mirror and trying to see behind your reflection: you’re never going to get past yourself.

NEXT: The end of the affair…

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