A difficult season of Mad Men ends with an episode that throws the characters into turmoil and the future of the show into the unknown. Along the way it dabbled in morbidity, sentiment, and found some savage humor in the proceedings. In other words, it perfectly encapsulated everything we've been through the last three months.
This season, nothing has lasted. Characters make decisions and pacts, only to have them immediately upended. Sometimes it felt as if the writers themselves were unable to commit to a linear, ongoing plot. The pattern only accelerated in this episode, with dreams and ambitions ricocheting between the characters at record speed, actions taken in one scene immediately taken back in the next.
Four characters, the male principles, are each in various stages of losing their families. Three of them, Pete, Don, and Roger, have basically already lost theirs. Roger remains out of favor with his terrible, spoiled daughter and at odds with Joan and her kinship with Bob. Taking pity on him, Joan invites him, cautiously, to Thanksgiving dinner and their son's life.
Pete has reached the "leaving everything behind stage" of his Don trajectory. Bereft of wife and child and orphaned (more on that later), Pete's fate is to set out to California to join half of SC&P in staking out new territory.
Don's year long quest to completely destroy his life finally comes to fruition. Don misses a client meeting, drinks himself into a stupor, punches out a minister, and spends the night in jail. His impulsive decision to leave for California is just another iteration of his constant urge to flee. Always the chameleon, Don appropriates Stan's hopeful words to sell his running away as something more than it is.
Lost in his own turmoil, Ted tries to avoid an incensed Peggy who instead throws a date in his face with a showy, va va voom outfit. Ted finally loses it and ends up in her bed. In their post-coital bliss he is ready to leave his wife and be with Peggy, but back at the office he has again changed his mind. Ted's decision to take his family to California solidifies him as a Draper-lite. He's a more pathetic, realistic version of Don. Wishy-washy, but more emotive and relatable, Ted acts more like a regular person would struggling with these issues.
Peggy is furious, once again spurned and at the mercy of her boss's whim. Years ago she rejected Pete's child and love, telling him, "I wanted other things." Her story arch since has seen her vacillate between professional success and desire for a family. With Ted, there was the possibility of fulfilling both.
But she does end up with one triumph. Following an epic nervous breakdown by Don, who delivers the ultimate anti-pitch to a very important client, Peggy ends the season mirroring Don's familiar silhouette.
Don's badly timed confession, that his life is a gleaming series of well rehearsed lies, was probably the closest the character could come to redemption at this point. After years of phony revelations and progress, Don undermined the seat of his power with a crazy speech about his lonely past in a whorehouse. It's the first time this season I've been sympathetic towards Don.
He's still himself of course. The fact that he didn't see his firing coming is only a testament to his eternal narcissism, but the beautifully done final scene, with him showing his children the dilapidated house he was raised in, pointed towards some sort of growth for the character, a willingness to embrace his shameful and difficult past
NOT SO FUN STUFF:
—I gave short shrift to Pete's mother's apparent MURDER AT THE HANDS OF MONOLO because the episode did the same. I mean, it definitely lead to the conflict between Pete and Bob that ruined Pete at Chevy (great stuff). But when the sociopathic Campbell brothers look each other in the eye and tacitly admit that they don't care about her death, that was too much. It was an insane, contrived development that went too far and trivialized what in real life would have been a horrific tragedy. That said, I guess it was kind of funny.
—Ted ended up being a good influence on Don after all. Through Ted's example (and oddly enough, Betty's words) Don finally saw that his children were all he had left, his only chance to leave behind something good. Sometimes Mad Men reminds me of The Royal Tennenbaums.
—Roger versus Bob Benson has a lot of potential. Bob is racking up quite the trail of bodies behind him.
—Nice to see Trudy again, though she was awfully nice to Pete.
—Don on the wrong end of two sick burns this episode. Sally: Why don't you tell them what I saw? Stan: I've got a sandwich on my desk. I'm gonna go eat it before you do.
—Read this Matt Weiner interview by Alan Sepinwall. Weiner interviews are like secret Cliff's Notes to things about Mad Men that Weiner assumes we all understand. For instance, Joan got the Avon account. No reason to show that I guess! No reason to conclude one of the largest unresolved conflicts of the season on screen! Hey Matt Weiner, here's an idea for a five second scene. The partners are in the conference room. Joan sticks her head in and says, "I got Avon!" Everyone claps and goes, "YAY!" What do you think of that? You seem like kind of dick Matt Weiner, but obviously you should hire me.
—The Atlantic has a great essay about young Dick Whitman being essentially raped by the prostitute earlier in the season. Don as the victim of sexual abuse makes a lot of sense. The article also discusses the strange reaction of recappers to that scene, including on writer who claimed it was "what Don really wanted," which is a super creepy take on what happened.
—What is next year's final season going to be like? Just Don and his family? Everyone but Don? He has always hated advertising. Now he's just a rich dude with no job and nothing to do. Maybe he'll join the counter culture.