I Really Don’t Know Love…
What a finale! I’ve chosen the line from the Joni Mitchell’s, Both Sides Now, as the title for this post because – wow! – what a brilliant choice for a closing song for this episode. Certainly we had a set of characters searching for love and finding themselves punished by their efforts (Pete’s mother (!), both Ted and Peggy, Roger’s family failures all around – with his first set of kids and with Joan, even though he gets to be with Kevin and, really, Pete too, forced to say good-bye to his daughter while she sleeps…or lies dead…I wasn’t quite sure?! Didn’t she look kind of dead to you??). But it’s the final lines of the song that pick up Don’s story so perfectly: “I’ve looked at life from both sides now, from up and down but still somehow it’s life’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know life at all.” After the first season moved away from the “who is Don Draper?” mystery, I wondered how crucial that story would be for the rest of the series. This season, via Bob Benson (who I’ve quite grown to like and hope sticks around for the final season) and his mysterious unfolding, we’ve returned to Don’s early self-creation. The slow seeping out of Don’s foundational lie has been so artfully done – in years of broken relationships, selfish decisions, a hubris that creates his own downfall and, finally, the shaking hands that reveal what we’ve all known all along but just couldn’t admit: Don’s a legitimate alcoholic, not just a cheery drunk. So the idea that it would come to a dramatic point when he’s asked to pitch a chocolate bar (!) felt so ludicrously true to me that I almost held my breath. His pressing desire to tell the Hershey reps his story because he “might never see them again” was, itself childlike – or, at least adolescent, in the sense of someone meeting a celebrity and losing control of themselves in the moment.
It also brought Don’s career choice into new light for me – when something is so good and true as Hershey, it seems for Don (and I can’t quite get my head around this because I think Hershey is gross!) advertising it destroys it. But this means he’s dedicated his life’s work to something he thinks destroys what is essentially true about himself. I guess I always thought that embodying “Don Draper” allowed Dick Whitman to become who he really was. It seems now “Don Draper’s” existence has entailed a systematic killing – or, at least, failed attempt at killing – all traces of Dick Whitman. No wonder this guy developed a drinking problem! In early days we thought he revealed the glamour of the 60’s – more and more, he’s come to represent a very particular crumbling psyche, not a cultural moment. Sure, everyone around Don seems to reveal the cultural moment…but more and more I come to think that he is something outside of time.
And so taking the kids to see the house where he grew up took on this additionally poignant quality. As Sally is on the cusp of being screwed up (if not over that cusp) by her dad’s brokenness, I have to wonder if the revelation of truth can bring some healing. We’ve been moving this season towards the idea that Don really did lose when he lost Betty and the kids – which I don’t think was an idea all that present in the early days of the love affair and marriage with Megan. We saw this with Roger and Mona – the realization that the first wife was somehow connected to the man more than the man ever realized (which makes Trudi’s speech to Pete even sadder, and Ted’s attempt to go back to his wife painfully complicated…but more on that in a minute). Don’s scrambling to connect with “Birdie” and with his kids despite his utter inability to do so in these last few episodes has been quite devastating to watch. I don’t know if he and Megan will try the bi-coastal thing (I was shocked to even hear it suggested), or if this is the end for them. I can’t say I care all that much. The original Draper crew is where the emotional weight of the story has hung all season, and given the symmetry that seems to be developing between seasons 1 and this one, in prep for the final blow-out (seriously, what is going to happen next season?!?!), I’m curious to see how those emotional bonds will revive and renew themselves.
Ted and Peggy – I feel like Elizabeth Moss deserves an award simply for her sharp delivery of the line about how nice it is to have decisions. We had to know it wasn’t going to work as soon as we saw the bliss on their faces lying in bed. And I hate Ted for doing that to Peggy, even as I find myself respecting him for backing off, for returning to his wife and putting the distance between him and New York that is required to fix his marriage. It’s the first time we’ve seen a man do something like that in Mad Men, I think, right? To try – in however a broken way – to consider the impact of his actions on the women around him. Much as Peggy has always marked the ‘new woman’ in this show, trying to find her way in a man’s world, it seems Ted is a symbol of the ‘new man’ – someone who doesn’t just treat women as objects. The problem is, this doesn’t seem to do all that much good for the women in his path. Even so, how great was it to see Peggy in that fabulously terrible pant-suit in Don’s office at the end. She’s been brimming all season for a little extra leadership – with both her mentors gone in shame, perhaps it really will be now her time to shine!
Which leads me to the wrap up on just what we need to be tracking for next season. Obviously, how will the (newly logo’d) SCP fare with DD? Sure, he’s blown pretty much every account this season, but yikes – with neither Don nor Ted in the main office, I’m curious to see if they sink, or if we get to see some new talent come to the fore. What is going to happen to Don? I feel like this could go any way – into utter annihilation, some clinical version of rehab, or some hippy version of healing, or…? Will more come of Pete’s mum’s potential murder, or is that story mostly in place to reveal the utter callousness of her sons? Mother always did love the sea! Is Trudi done, or will we see her again? Will Roger and Joan reconnect? And Bob Benson, oh Bob Benson – what is going to happen with him? The guy seems invincible but the illusion of invincibility was precisely Don’s downfall. I kind of think we’re going to see the meteoric rise of BB, with only hints of how he might crash some time in the 80s.
So much more to say, but I’ve already gone on way too long. Come back from your business trip quickly, friend – I’m eager to hear your thoughts!!
Happy Thanksgiving, sweetheart –
I am already two full weeks behind the game, but I have decided to jump in anyway. You have already hit all the high notes and I simply want to add my harmony.
Was that some misdirection or what, leading us to believe we should watch out for Don’s smoking when it is the bottle that did him in after all? I definitely noticed the uptick in surreptitious drinking moments (vodka in the orange juice, bourbon (?) in the coffee cup), but I was still surprised when his full-blown addiction was revealed so explicitly. That might sum up the way I felt about the Don plot all around. I think you are right on that the slow reveal of six seasons has been that Don is neither the suave man of his times nor the fascinating cultural relic we were inclined to see him as in the beginning, but a particular crumbling psyche stuck in one time. But we’ve also discussed, this season in particular, how heavy-handed the back story can be and how overt the symbolism and psychoanalysis. I am torn on how to read Don’s open confession of his childhood passed off as a half-assed attempt to win a client (though your read of what motivates him in that moment, is, I think right on). All the flashbacks and overt symbolism, have, to this point, been dramatic irony: the audience knows what is driving Don’s dark psyche but no one else around him (and maybe not even Don himself) are aware of it. So on the one hand, the open confession of his childhood was just another level of explicitness. On the other hand, it was something brand new – no longer in the world of symbolism or subtext, the naked truth of his past felt like real character development, or at least the seeds for some kind of change, which is something Don Draper does not seem prone to, for all his self-invention. In fact, it made me wish we could go back and learn about Don entirely through these unexpected moments of self-revelation instead of through flashbacks. For all the stained wife-beaters and sagging mattresses, nothing summed up the bleakness of Don’s childhood as well as his brief description of rifling through briefs looking for chocolate money.
Do you think, then, that what motivated Don’s sudden reversal on the California decision was facing his own broken childhood? The theme of “broken families” ran heavy through the episode: Betty uses it to explain Sally running off the rails; Ted is terrified of it as he gets closer to Peggy. Don knows a level of brokenness none of these others can approach and I read his decision to let Ted go to California as both a gesture of saving Ted’s children when he may no longer be able to save his own. And also, perhaps, as a realization that if Ted needs to run away to save his life, Don might just need to stay put to save his own. California has always been an idea – of freedom, re-invention – for Don and it is another glimmer of real growth that he lets go of that ideal. Or it is the beginning of his final spiral into utter darkness. Only time and season 7 will tell.
Speaking of California, what do you think will happen in California with Ted and Pete out there together – because Pete did say he was going to LA too, right? And yes, heavy-handed or not, closing with Peggy in Don’s chair, sizing up what could be her future, was just about perfect. I do not think Peggy is ever going to be lucky in love. If I had to predict, I’d guess she was one of the women of her generation who never married, but who did rise to new heights on the career ladder. I think we are going to watch the sacrifices that rise entails and get to decide for ourselves if it is worth it. I hope her story figures strongly in the final season – after all, maybe Peggy really is the answer to the various men who have let their “decisions” muddy the waters for too long.
I can’t wait to see what next season brings. As always, this show is one of my favorite to discuss and I’m glad to have nit-picked over it with you!
Are you looking for first? It’s the one with a one on it.