It may be a coincidence that minutes before the sixth season finale of Mad Men aired, a father of three crossed the Grand Canyon on a high wire, 1500 feet above the ground, without a harness or a safety net—but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Surely, there’s no way Matt Weiner could have planned that a madman like Nik Wallenda’s stunt would take place right before his own mad man sacrificed his dream for family. But that’s how it happened, for whatever reason, and in many ways it couldn’t have been a more perfect set-up: a man traversing the heavens simply because no one else has and he’s always wanted to, while the wife and kids whose stake in this he’s ignored watch and wonder what’ll happen if his foot slips.
That’s one of the reasons the drama of Mad Men is so effective; most of us are not juggling vices and working in advertising, and none of us are living in the 1960s, but we are a nation of dreamers, and this show has never shied away from depicting the dark side of walking around with our heads in the clouds. Because the problem with dreaming big—we’re talking tunnel-vision, everything-else-on-the-back-burner, Gatsby big—is that satisfaction becomes less and less likely. We slip sometimes. We shoot for the moon, and we wind up in Detroit.
Much of “In Care Of,” like this sixth season as a whole, saw characters getting what they thought they wanted only to find satisfaction and happiness still elude them. Ted and Peggy finally give in and sleep together, but after some ill-advised, Draper-esque talk of escaping to Hawaii, Ted wises up and realizes he’s not cut out for office romance or sneaking around with a mistress. So he makes a solo escape to California to work the Sunkist account. The big death fans were predicting turns out to be not so big after all, but still affecting, as Pete gets word his mother—after marrying her gay nurse Manolo—has fallen off a cruise ship. It’s one more headache removed for Pete, kind of, and as he drops off some of her stuff at Trudy’s, Trudy tells him this is what he’s always dreamed of: “You’re free.” “It’s not the way I wanted it,” he responds, before lingering to tenderly say goodbye to the child he never wanted. He too is California-bound.
The big twist is, of course, who isn’t headed for the Golden State. Don’s all poised to make the move and be an SC&P homesteader, building a new agency from just one desk—an idea he stole from Stan—after hitting rock-bottom and punching a priest. He wants an escape, a fresh start, and we know how California’s been to him in the past. Megan quits her job, Don doesn’t consult Betty but assumes his kids will trade weekends with him for a summer in LA, and it seems like everything’s coming up Draper until he gets a late-night phone call from his ex-wife telling him Sally has been suspended for buying booze. “The good, it’s not beating the bad,” a defeated Betty laments. “She comes from a broken home.”
The next day at work, he meets with Ted, who asks for the California position and explains he needs to get away from Peggy and rededicate himself to his family. Don declines, and Ted tells him to have a drink before the Hershey’s meeting before mumbling something about his father and delivering the line that perhaps best summarizes Don Draper’s six-season arc to this point: “You can’t stop cold like that.” Don has the drink, delivers a nice, bullshit-laden pitch about how his father always used to buy him Hershey’s bars and how it’s “the currency of affection” and “the childhood symbol of love”—and then, to Ted, the Hershey’s guys and anyone else completely unfamiliar with his past, he stops cold. All of a sudden, he’s done with the lies, and he admits he was an orphan raised in a whorehouse who “dreamt of being wanted.” The only person who made him feel that way was a prostitute who would make him go through her johns’ pockets and buy him a Hershey’s bar if he came up with more than a dollar. It’s a huge breakthrough for Don, this whole “honestly confronting his past” thing, but of course it’s not what Hershey’s wants to hear. They leave feeling weirded out, Don tells Ted he can go to California, and before we know it, Don’s being called into a meeting and put on forced leave.
It seems rash, but this all has been a long time coming. We’ve watched Don at work for six years now, so we know his moments of genius only come in between extended absences, heavy drinking and long lunchtime visits to the movies or various mistresses. This season especially, he’s done whatever he wanted to without any regard for the effects on the company or other partners. So when he demands a return date, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t get one, and as he heads to the elevator for the last sad ride of the season, he runs into Duck Philips (who is now a headhunter) and a rival, Lou Avery, on their way to meet with the partners. “Going down?” Lou asks. Oh boy. If he only knew.
The thing is, honesty has been a long time coming for Don too. He hasn’t stopped cold; he’s teetered back and forth, tried and failed for six seasons now. He’s reverted back to his old ways on many an occasion, sure, but there have been tiny breakthroughs (telling Dr. Faye—and subsequently Megan—about his Dick Whitman identity, telling Sally about Anna) along the way. And during the final montage, after “Moon River” plays while Roger and Joan share Thanksgiving and Peggy sits in his office, we see Don with his kids on the holiday. He pulls over at an old, run-down house in a bad neighborhood and tells them, “This is where I grew up.” It’s poignant, but is it permanent? He sacrificed California for his family when he realized he still wanted to be wanted. Could it be that the loss of his career, going down that gloomy SC&P elevator, is what it took to launch Don up and out of his own personal inferno? We won’t know until next year, but hey, we can dream.
-The Roger-Joan-Bob storyline—and especially its bittersweet “Moon River” finale—only highlighted the fact that Roger and Joan didn’t get nearly enough screentime this season.
-”She’s in the water with Father. She loved the sea.” Two things about this: 1) Pete’s parents have horrendous luck with transportation, which is made slightly more hilarious when you consider Pete’s future with Chevy dies as a result of a car accident. 2) How perfect that Pete’s mother’s watery demise was foreshadowed all the way back in the season premiere with Don’s Hawaii pitch.
-Megan’s not dead, but her marriage to Don does finally appear to be. She’s California-bound without him.
-Peggy has also gotten what she’s dreamt of by episode’s end—she’s the new Don, for the time being at least, but this can’t be how she wanted it, with one mentor’s career in shambles and the other (who she also happens to be in love with) moving 3000 miles away to avoid her.
-Vincent Kartheiser’s delivery of “NOT GREAT, BOB.” was one of his all-time best Pete moments.
-Last season’s finale wrapped up with a “You Only Live Twice” montage (“one life for you and one for your dreams”). This season, it’s “Moon River” (“dream maker, you heartbreaker”), but the duality theme continues as the end credits roll over Judy Collins’ take on Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (“I’ve looked at life from both sides now/ From up and down and still somehow/ It’s life’s illusions I recall/ I really don’t know life at all”). Another A+ outing from the Mad Men music team.
-”I know there’s a good man in there.” I’m not sure how Ted knows this—up until that point, Don had been pretty awful to him—but…I think I’m inclined to believe him?
-I hope we get to keep up with Ted in California next season. What a complex guy he turned out to be.
-”The only unpardonable sin is to believe God cannot forgive you.” Don’s attack on the preacher in the bar is supposed to be his rock-bottom, but it’s actually a move that sparks his path to redemption. The remark that sets him off—that the Kennedys and Martin Luther King weren’t “true believers” and thus somehow deserved what they got—is an ugly one, and it’s the icing on the foul, toxic cake that is 1968 (as Don says, “Jesus had a bad year”). He’s sick of contributing to the darkness, so he takes a stand and begins planning his escape to sunnier climates.