For Don Draper, Reality Bites — Hard
Season 6 of Mad Men ended last night with Don Draper (Jon Hamm) descending to the ninth circle of hell. The question is, will he stay there, and do we care anymore?
After six seasons of watching Droopy Don satisfy all his primal urges without regard to truth or consequence, reality came back to not only bite him in the ass, but to swallow him whole. Brother, did he earn it.
A full-blown alcoholic, he spends a night in the drunk tank. His emotionally battered wife walks out. He falls apart at a pitch meeting for Hershey’s chocolate. The Sterling Cooper partners order him to go on leave, with no return date.
No wonder the blurb for this episode, titled “In Care Of,” presented the storyline thusly: “Don has a problem.” Ya think?
The problem is not Don’s alone, however, and that is why Mad Men has lost its mojo. We have seen these behaviors, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, too many times before. Correspondingly, Don’s so-called epiphanies have become predictable and formulaic.
Others could argue that Don, a world-class liar, has decided, finally, to come to terms with his sordid past. After wowing the Hershey suits with a poignant remembrance of his father’s love and a Hershey bar, he suddenly confesses that he made up the story.
“I was an orphan, and I grew up in Pennsylvania in a whorehouse,” he tells the stunned execs — and agency colleagues. “My job was to go through the johns’ pockets when they were screwing. If I got more than a dollar, I got a Hershey bar … It was the only sweet thing in my life.”
In the last scene, Don drives his rebellious teenaged daughter, who loathes him, and his two young sons to the crumbling neighborhood of his childhood and makes them get out in front of what was once the whorehouse.
“This is where I grew up,” he says, prompting an empathic flash of a look from Sally. Judy Collins’s mournful version of “Both Sides Now” plays in the background.
Maybe, just maybe, Don will re-discover his soul — assuming he has one — and live an authentic life. In the extreme, that would mean returning to his true identity, Dick Whitman, and letting go of Don Draper, a mythic character who gets laid a lot but is incapable of love. I’m betting Dick is a nicer guy.
While Don tumbles into hell, the good news is that Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is on the rise, at least career-wise. After Don’s banishment, we see her sitting in his office, on Thanksgiving Day, no less. It’s a comfortable fit. Next stop: creative director and a partnership. Watch Peggy run.
I wish I felt more hopeful about Mad Men, which debuted to spectacular reviews and even sparked a ’60s-era fashion trend. But few hourlong dramas have the stamina to sustain greatness over six seasons. The gold standard in that department, The Sopranos, has yet to be equaled.
Given that Mad Men has one more season remaining before it closes up shop, creator Matthew Weiner may find a way to redeem this once-dazzling production.
I’d like to be mad about Mad Men again. Really.