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

By Keith Staskiewicz
June 24, 2013 at 02:26 PM EDT
S6 E13
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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…

Don’s not the only one looking to California as an escape route. Ted begs him to let him move out there so that he might have a chance to escape the adulterous charms of Peggy and keep his family intact. It’s sad to see Peggy curdling right before our very eyes, turning into someone an earlier version of herself wouldn’t recognize. When Ted’s family shows up to the office, she gets jealous and parades herself in front of him in a revealing black dress, slathered in enough Chanel No. 5 for Cutler to recognize it at twenty paces. Ted can barely resist. Like Don with his drink, he’s an addict in serious need of detox.

Ted shows up at Peggy’s later that night and makes promises that he can’t possibly keep. Peggy’s lipstick ends up all over his face: she’s marked her man, much like she once advised other women to do in her copy for Belle Jolie. Something terrible is happening to our Peggy: she’s calcifying into a cliché. “I’m going to leave my wife,” Ted tells her. “Don’t say that!” she replies. “I’m not that girl.” Which is exactly the kind of thing “that girl” would say. This affair is so straightforward and obvious it belongs in a textbook on broken marriages. When Ted eventually tells her he’s headed to the West Coast because of her, she erupts, “Get out! Just get out!” like she’s some jilted lover straight out of To Have and To Hold.

She has a right to be irritated, though. Ted’s niceness isn’t a cooling salve, it’s salt in the wound. He tries to sell his change-of-heart, and unceremonial dumping of her, as a favor he’s doing for both of them. “Well, aren’t you lucky? To have decisions,” Peggy shoots back bitterly. This season has seen her buffeted around by numerous circumstances outside of her direct control: Her place of work, her apartment, and her two breakups were all foisted upon her. She may be moving up at the agency, but actual agency still eludes her. By the end of the episode, though, all three of these monosyllabic men—Abe, Ted, and Don—are out of her life. The moment she sits at Don’s desk and looks out the window, recreating the iconic image of the opening credits, it’s clear that she’s inheriting more than just a comfortable office chair. Will Peggy learn from her mistakes or will she just pave over her emotional potholes, becoming Don in ways that even Don no longer wants to be? The only thing that’s clear is that she’s wearing a pantsuit for the first time ever, so at least we know she’s ready to get down to business once the ’70s kick in.

NEXT: Mom overboard…

Pete’s triumphant pairing with Bob Benson is short-lived. He’s informed by telegram that his mother disappeared while on a cruise and is presumed to have fallen overboard. Pete naturally suspects Manolo, whose homosexuality didn’t prevent him from marrying the senescent Mrs. Campbell in hopes of inheriting a fortune. It seems that Bob is similar to his friend in more ways than one.

He confronts Bob in the elevator, leading to what must have been some great overheard conversation for their fellow passengers: “You didn’t know that your boyfriend Manolo kidnapped my mother, married her at gunpoint, and threw her off a ship?!” he demands. Bob decides it’s time to do something about Pete, and without breaking a sweat (or his smile) the Talented Mr. Benson quickly dispenses with him in Detroit. Knowing Pete doesn’t drive standard, he pressures him into taking Chevy’s display model for a test drive, which he immediately crashes. For Motor City bigwigs, a man not knowing how to use a stick shift is considered truly aberrant behavior—probably even more so for them than Bob’s homosexuality—and like that, Pete’s out.

Pete seems to know he’s been bested. He’s similarly defeatist when it comes to bringing his mother’s killer to justice. There’s a great comic beat when the private investigator tells the Brothers Campbell that it’ll cost a lot of money to track him down and you can see them doing the calculations in their heads. “She loved the sea,” they shrug and let bygones be bygones.

Chevy and his mother aren’t the only things Pete has given up this season without much of a fight. Before leaving for California with Ted, he drops in on his estranged family. Trudy is as resolute as ever, but it’s clear she feels bad for Pete. She tells him that at least now he’s “free,” free of his family, free of expectations, and, much like Don hopes to be at the end of the episode, largely free of himself. Pete’s life and career have always been a mirror to Don’s, only his ambition and desires weren’t swathed in icy detachment. Maybe California will be for Pete what Don wanted it to be for himself. Or maybe he’ll just spend his nights trying to pay for prostitutes with traveler’s cheques alongside Harry. He’s free to choose.

NEXT: Confessions and candy bars…

Don makes his choice during the Hershey’s meeting. It was the pitch that broke the camel’s back. After decades of making a living out of telling attractive lies, Don finally tells an ugly truth. As his partners watch, stunned, he unspools the bizarro, dark-side version of every pitch he’s ever sold, spitting out an anecdote from his sordid upbringing, and tying it all together with the product in question. “The closest I got to feeling wanted,” he confesses, “was from a girl who made me go through her johns’ pockets while they screwed. If I collected more than a dollar she would buy me a Hershey bar and I would eat it alone in my room with great ceremony. And feel like a normal kid.” He even ends it with what could almost pass as a slogan: “It was the only sweet thing in my life.”

This is Don drawing the line. He can’t keep lying because the ghosts of his past are catching up to him. The scene contains such a catharsis not because it’s about the other characters realizing the truth about Don, but because it’s about Don realizing the truth about Don. He tells the Hershey’s representatives that they shouldn’t advertise at all. (“You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is, he already knows.”) The appeal of the candy bar is that it’s its own best advertisement—what you see is what you get. (Of course, that was then. Nowadays, Hershey’s is petitioning the FDA to change the definition of “chocolate” so that its products can still qualify.) But for Don, the outside isn’t the same as the inside. His sparkly wrapper has long since disguised a rotting interior, like the dead tooth he had pulled in the last season finale, and eventually the smell was starting to suffocate him.

When Don gets let go from the agency, he sees Duck ushering in a potential replacement and it’s made clear that he needed his work more than his work needed him. Meanwhile, he ignored the things in his life that actually required his attention. Megan is understandably furious about Don’s “We’re going to California!/We’re not going to California!” about-face, and it’s unclear what will happen to this marriage during the upcoming off-season interim.

A phone call from Betty informs him that Sally may be more of her father’s daughter than either of them had hoped: she was suspended from Miss Porter’s for buying beer. (Although she used her mother’s name, which, in its own way, is kind of a compliment.) For all her faults, Betty cares about her daughter. Somewhere, past all the stratified layers of selfishness, Don does too. And so, after losing everything that made him Don Draper, he decides to take his children to the place where he was once Dick Whitman. “This is where I grew up,” he tells them, and the look he receives from Sally is the best evidence so far for the possibility of Don’s redemption.

“The only unpardonable sin is to believe that God cannot forgive you,” warned the evangelist in Don’s flashback, paradoxically. That may be true, but God’s more indiscriminate in his forgiveness than us mere mortals. The real question is, can Sally? Can we? Can Don?

STRAY THOUGHTS

Roger, too, is looking to connect with his kid. After his spoiled daughter rejects him, he tries to ingratiate himself with Kevin. This ends in a Thanksgiving tableau that really would have surprised Norman Rockwell: Joan, her boss, their child, her mother, and her turkey-carving gay best friend.

“How are you?” “Not great, Bob!”

Oh man, Peggy went on a date with a finance guy? How much further will she sink?!

“My father was a…you can’t stop cold like that.” Ted gives Don some bad advice from a good place. This line also puts their earlier informal drinking competition into a more sobering light.

“We’ll be bi-coastal!” Nice save, Don.

“Both Sides, Now” serves as yet another perfect episode-closing song choice. Don’s seen life from both sides, from the first floor of a whorehouse and the balcony of a penthouse, but he still really doesn’t know life at all.

Thanks everyone for watching this season of Mad Men with me. It was a lot of fun, and now I’m off before someone at EW realizes that I Bob Benson-ed my way in here.

Follow Keith on Twitter: @Staskijiwczejcz

Jon Hamm stars as Don Draper in the Emmy-winning ’60s-set drama
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