SONIA BRAND-FISHER: Season Six of “Mad Men” has gained the notorious reputation for starting and stopping story lines without developing them in ways that reveal and decode its enigmatic characters. The finale, therefore, had to somehow tie up all of the loose ends of the season so we could be satisfied going into what will be the final season of “Mad Men.” The audience wants a climax, some resolution, or potentially a revelation. Instead, we had a fast-paced, at times absurdist finale that awkwardly stitched up some of the dangling plot points, while simultaneously seeing Don Draper fall apart at the seams. I had to let go of wanting that elusive climax and resolution, because in fact that’s not always how life works. And when that happened, I saw the best season finale of “Mad Men” to date.
I think it is safe to say that with the intertwining themes of Vietnam, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, and the various riots throughout major American cities, we were anticipating a more violent catastrophe to end 1968. With hints throughout the season of Ken Cosgrove being beat up by Chevy, Peggy stabbing Abe with a home-made bayonet, and intermittent bursts of aggression between many of the characters, physically and emotionally, perhaps what we had in our minds was more akin to a “Boardwalk Empire” bloodbath than the silent explosions we are used to on “Mad Men.” But we had something more raw that pure violence in this finale, a scene that felt arguably more gutting than Lane’s suicide or Joan’s sacrifice. We had Don bringing up the gritty, crusty, caked rouge and stained silk world of his youth, in front of the people who had only seen the Park Avenue perfection of this mysterious man, in a presentation for Hershey’s chocolate. Only Roger really knew the eager, young Don who was working as a fur salesman in the late 1950s. After giving a contrived, yet stellar presentation for a potential Hershey’s campaign that ranked with Don’s usual stream of glowing work, he stopped, sat down, and told the real story of why Hershey’s meant so much to him. Time seemed to stand still in those moments where Don spoke the story of a past that we had all seen in jarring, cryptic flashbacks. His voice cracked, he choked up, and the rusty clarity of painful honesty poisoned and punctured the conference room. Though we have seen him reveal the truths of his past before to people like Megan and Betty and Sally and Rachel Menken in Season One, we have never seen such a display while “in his element,” so to speak.
Don has never been the picture of vulnerability or honesty, and this moment of self-exposure seemed to be both a purifying and damning experience for him, for he subsequently “martyrs” himself by letting Ted be relocated to California to begin anew with his family instead of Don taking that advantage. California, in this episode, reprises its role as a symbol of freedom and fortune in the language of film and television. Don and Megan were happy there, and could have meant a new beginning for their marriage. Ted needs to get away from his infatuation with Peggy for the sake of his family and wife, who I truly believe that he loves. Stan and Harry both just really want to go to California. But what if things don’t work out as they should on the west coast? What is beyond “California”? Considering the reputation that California gains in 1969, I have no doubt that the Disneyland fantasy will fade.
By sending Ted in his place, Don begins to see how his sudden honesty begins to work against him through Megan’s anger and through that strangely lit scene where Don, in basic terms, is “fired” from SC&P in “don’t call us, we’ll call you” fashion. In shades of grey, black, and white the tribunal of Joan, Bert, Jim, and Roger ask Don to take some time off to “regroup” without a definite return date. The unthinkable has happened: Don cannot get away with being “Don Draper” anymore. He has single-handedly angered, screwed over, or jeopardized every person on that tribunal, and that can’t be tolerated anymore for the good of the company. The shot reverse shot “Et tu Brute?” moment between Don and Roger left an icy silence for the twists of the knife to walk out of the elevator: Duck Philips and Lou Avery. What has Don done?
Yet the glimmer of hope in all of this comes from that final scene, where Don takes his children to see the broken-down dump that is left of the whorehouse where he grew up. Judy Collins sings Joni Mitchell’s profoundly beautiful “Both Sides Now,” as Don begins to understand his two identities and his series of choices that shows that he really doesn’t know life at all. Sally recognizes this as not just a peace offering, but the beginning of an opportunity to actually get to know her father. In yet another shot reverse shot, we see the distorted framing of Don and Sally in these moments as exaggerated: a lower framing than Sally’s vantage point and a higher framing than Don’s. Yet both share the frame. Both know that this is a huge moment of connection between the two of them, and they are ready for that honesty. There is no other option than to tell the truth. Is this rock bottom, for Don? Or is this, truly, the jumping off point?
NAVA BRAHE: Although I agree with most of what Sonia said, I still need to indulge my inner cynic and say that everything Don did in the conference room during the last two episodes was a direct result of his not being able to let go of his irretrievably screwed up youth. Tugging at the heartstrings of the St. Joseph’s Aspirin and Hershey’s people was the most spectacular manipulation, and really dirty pool. SC&P was on dangerously thin ice with the aspirin people for misleading them about the commercial budget, and all Don could think of to do was to flout the idea for the aspirin commercial as Frank Gleason’s last idea before succumbing to cancer. If I were Peggy, I would have lunged at him from across the table. Then, I would have quit. His Hershey bar confession during the finale was more uncomfortable than an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” without the humorous element. Again, a lunge from Roger, Ted, Peggy, or Jim would have been well in order.
It might be appropriate to note, since we are mourning the passing of James Gandolfini, that Don’s behavior was very Tony Soprano-esque. Some of the most riveting episodes of “The Sopranos” were the ones where Tony was desperately unhappy, and felt the need to make everyone else around him miserable. Tony engaged in a lot of “douchebaggery” when he knew someone was happier than him. The most brutal was during the episode where he found out that the New Jersey assemblyman he had in his pocket was dating his former girlfriend. Tony wished them well, but was seething on the inside. He proceeded to show up at the assemblyman’s house one night and beat him with his belt. Of course, that sort of behavior is not conference r00m-appropriate, but what Don did to Peggy was essentially the same thing. When Ted told him that she could smell the Cleo award for the aspirin commercial, you could sense Don’s plotting. He couldn’t stand the fact that she and Ted were in love with each other, and discrediting her in front of the client was the perfect revenge. Moreover, his magnanimity towards Ted in letting him go to California instead of him is a giant façade; could Don be setting up to move in on Peggy during the final season?
Overall, I was pleased with the finale because it left just the right number of strings hanging. Will Don ever regain his place at SC&P? Was Peggy promoted to Creative Director, since the last scene she was in showed her working in Don’s office? Will Megan leave him? Will Sally wind up a juvenile delinquent? Will we ever find out who Bob Benson really is? Most importantly, what will Don’s ending be? Will Matthew Weiner pay homage to David Chase and “The Sopranos,” and leave us wondering for all eternity?
HOWARD MEGDAL: Seeing Don Draper stop lying was a fascinating way to end Season Six. And I would be remiss not to point out the shot of Peggy, her back to the camera, finally in charge at SC&P in a visual tableau obviously meant as an homage to the Mad Men logo itself.
But I am shocked that you both didn’t discuss the very best part of the finale: Bob Benson and Pete Campbell in the most entertaining version of Spy vs. Spy ever.
At the end of the penultimate episode, Pete recognizes that he can’t outwit Bob Benson. It was powerful, it was great television, and it lasted a few minutes. Pete can’t help himself. And as a result, Pete loses his Chevy foothold, he loses his mother overboard (though the always-wise Trudy points out this isn’t necessarily a net loss), and he’s off to California.
Will we get more Pete vs. Bob? Good lord, I hope so. Pete might be the best character on the show. And somehow, Bob has already made himself as compelling. Still, the line of the night belonged to Pete, about his possibly still-swimming mother: “She loved the sea.”
Beyond that, seeing good things happen to Duck Phillips was as uneasy to watch as Don’s self-immolation with Hershey’s. But the payoff of Sally looking up at her father as he presented his real self to them was as iconic as any image in the history of this show.
It is worth wondering who we’ll be following in Season Seven. Don, obviously. Peggy, now at the center of the work world in the show. But is Ted gone? Is Pete (I sure hope not) gone? Do we finally get a Roger/Joan romantic reunion? How much Bob will we receive?
A season finale with that much dramatic payoff and simultaneously, that many created new questions is a difficult balance to strike. But in what might have been the most wide-ranging emotional season of this astonishing show, the finale lived up to both sides of that creative conundrum, evoking the end credits song from Joan Collins.