Whooosh. This is a sigh of relief, by the way. We made it through another year in the land of Draper. Quite honestly, I waited a while to do this post (current season of Mad Men concluded last month) because I needed to digest and calm down. Now that the required “cooling off” period has passed, I’m ready to share some thoughts.
First of all: great news, I was wrong about this being the last season of the show (assuming it does get picked up, but really, why wouldn’t it?). I had heard from a very credible source on the show that season 6 was indeed going to be the last, and the final episode did actually have some “Series Finale” undertones to it, right? I suspect this season concluded with a lot of loose ends tied up in a neat bow just in case AMC didn’t pick it up for a final romp. After all, Matt Weiner faced this very dilemma a couple of years ago, and perhaps he did his fans a great favor by creating a possible ending for the show if it doesn’t get renewed.
So assuming all goes well, we have another season (year 1969-1970) to look forward to. And after this wackadoodle roller coaster 6th season, I think we need it.
This season wasn’t my favorite and that’s hard for me to say because I have always felt this show has been not only consistently great, but has even surpassed itself at times. Season 6 was an uneven and bumpy ride from beginning to end and not an entirely enjoyable one. As with every season of Mad Men, the show has A LOT to say and if you compare the first episode with the last all of the seams come together, but if you take the season as whole- the beginning, middle, and end- it is not a smooth transition from point A to point B.
Consider the opening couple of episodes where Draper and Megan are sunning in Hawaii- Don looking morose and uneasy and Megan putting on her “brave face”- and Don presents his Hawaiian vacation campaign to the Sheraton folks back in NYC. He captures the idea of a man shedding his clothes, his shoes- his “skin” if you like- and all his worldly goods, and disappears into the surf with just footsteps remaining in the sand. This is Don’s idea of escape, an idea he is already familiar with, and an idea he would very much like to pursue again. Now take a look at the last episode: Don has the perfect opportunity to shed his skin- his wife, his job, his mistress, his kids, his miserable life- and disappear off to California. Only he doesn’t. The light bulb finally goes off and Don realizes- maybe for the first time in his life- that escape doesn’t mean freedom. It simply means “diversion”. His past has always haunted him (and it haunted him all season, what with the constant flashbacks to his days in the whore house) and would continue to haunt him unless he actually confronted it and told the truth for once.
(As a side note, I believe Don gave Ted the California trip not as a gesture of good will, but as a kind of last “fuck you, buddy and good luck”. Think about it: if Don knows full well that a trip to California, when you are leaving behind a pile of burning and damning personal baggage (in the form of Ted’s one night stand with Peggy), absolutely does not mean freedom and the past will eventually creep up on you, then why in the hell would he offer it willingly to Ted? C’mon, Don’s never been nice.)
This entire season was chock full of folks attempting to escape, folks finally revealing true selves, and exposing the masks they hide behind. Who ended up becoming truly free? And who is very much glad for it?
It’s difficult to talk about the entire season as a whole without getting caught up in all of the drama and conflicts between characters, so I’ve decided to write about specific characters and his/her arc for the season (I’m excluding Don because, jeesh, enough about him already 🙂 ).
1. Megan Draper
Megan got a bad rap this season from a lot of critics, and I’m not sure why. She was mainly written off by a few as no longer important to the Don Draper story. But just as Don tends to cast off his women when they are no longer useful to him, I was saddened that the writers attempted to do the same thing. The point is that Megan was a wonderful character in her own right and this season exposed her very own coming of age that would have made Don’s own story much more trivial if she hadn’t provided some sort of emotional conflict to their relationship. The entire season featured Megan coming to terms with her new acting career, Don’s disapproval of her as an actress, her slow awareness of her crumbling marriage, and the dichotomy of playing twins on set while also playing two facets of the same woman in real life: wife and career woman.
Megan’s mask, if you will, was finally revealed during her last scene with Don when he announces they are no longer moving to California, despite the fact she already quit her TV show in preparation for the move. Megan simply can no longer play the role of “happily married wife to Don Draper”. And I saw a visible relief on her face when she can finally admit what she truly wants: her career. All season long she has struggled with this wish. What was the first thing out of Megan’s mouth when Don first announced the move? Hollywood. And what was the first thing she said when he revealed they were no longer going? Her show. Megan’s truth is that she outgrew their relationship long ago. Perhaps she needed him at one time- and I will contend she was never conniving in her relationship with Don (I believe she truly loved him)- but the need is no longer there.
2. Sally Draper
Oh, Sally. For a minute there, I was convinced Sally Draper was in a for a long life filled with intense therapy, extreme sexual hang ups, and a pregnancy at age 15 (probably with Glen, no doubt). There is nothing more tragic than not only learning at a tender young age that your parents are just as cracked and human as your worst nightmare, but to have that same cracked parent whom you used to worship lie to you straight to your face and manipulate your feelings and experiences to where you just don’t know who you are anymore, is downright cruel.
But I truly think that it was Sally who became the catalyst to prompt Don out of his downward spiral to the depths of lie-dom and cheating-town and back into truth-ville. I absolutely love the very final scene of the episode where Don reveals who he really is to his children, and the look of understanding, wariness, and fear that crossed Sally’s face was classic. Don has a long road ahead of him with his children to win back their trust. I also love his reaction to Megan’s terse statement referring to “Your screwed up kids”- he had a look of such shock and dismay as if this was news to him, but it eventually sunk in and made him realize that his daughter Sally is on a one-way road to following in his footsteps and completely fucking up her life. That she went from a scared young teen intimidated by a wayward woman burgling her dad’s apartment to a rough and tumble girl on the fast track to becoming bad news via drugs and alcohol in the span of 6 months was finally not lost on her father. If Don didn’t want his kids to live a life of lies, he certainly needed to start cleaning up his side of the street.
3. Bob Benson
No one wore a larger mask or had a bigger cover up this season than Bob Benson. He became the highlight of the web with every Mad Men fan wondering who he really was. A government spy sent in to investigate Draper? A gay man? An up and comer trying to take over the company? Just a nice guy? In the end it’s suggested he is gay. That he never really confirms yes or no is important, I think, because it further reveals just how complicated this guy is. He wears the mask of a helper, an average Joe intent on making good in the business world, and I actually think he is this and more, but he could just as easily been trying to read Pete and pinpoint Pete as a gay man as much as we the viewers did the same with him. In short, Bob was always reading people and adjusting his persona as needed. One minute he’s tough as nails and single handedly defeating Pete in front of the Chevy team, and the next minute he’s as cheerful as a clam in the sun and helping Joan carve her turkey and wearing a frilly apron to boot. It’s revealed that Bob Benson also lied about his past, much like Don, to get ahead. So we know a little more about Bob, but I don’t think we know the full story, not by a long shot.
I’m writing about Peggy and Joan’s arcs this season as one unit because both women experienced very similar scenarios. Peggy sure got the shaft this season. She’s back at SDCP almost against her will, she buys an apartment she hates to please her boyfriend, said boyfriend then breaks up with after she accidentally stabs him (thinking some is breaking into her sad apartment in a neighborhood she loathes), she loves Ted and he dismisses her, she loses the credit for an account, Ted admits he still loves and woos her, and then Ted promises he will leave his wife for her and promptly regrets that decision the very next day and heads out to California on Don’s ticket.
Did you get all of that?
In the end, it’s Peggy wearing the pants and seemingly set up to run the agency in Don (and possibly Ted’s) stead. So happy ending, right?
Joan experienced a journey quite similar to Peggy’s. She’s moved up in the agency at the start of the season, a result of having to spend a cringe-inducing evening with a potential Jaguar client in order to secure business for the agency at the end of last season. However, Joan’s now realizing that her decision to become partner based on “delicate” terms, also comes with a price. No one truly takes her seriously (especially not Pete or Harry) and she admits to her girlfriend that after all this time she is still a glorified secretary. Faced with the opportunity bringing in a new makeup client, Joan has to do double-dealing in order to even get credit for a new account. We are to assume Joan successfully landed it, since she’s in the final episode with the partners breaking news to Don that he’s on forced sabbatical.
What’s interesting here is that both women got exactly what they’ve dreamed of- success and clout- but basically had to scratch their way to the top. Nothing was ever handed to them without a string attached, which is probably very true of a working woman in 60s. In the conflict scene between Peggy and Joan after the Avon meeting, Peggy exclaims that she never slept with Don to get where she is. Yes, that’s true, but she did sleep with Ted after that conversation and now she’s in Don’s office, in charge by-proxy. Of course, she didn’t willing sleep with Ted in order to get her temporary promotion (and we are left to wonder whether it really is temporary or not), but the similarity between her and Joan’s situation is glaring.
With Ted out of the picture, and Joan gently telling Roger to bugger off and that sex is no longer on the table, it will be interesting to see how these two women handle their new found power without having the trappings of a relationship hanging over their heads. Are these women now truly free? We shall have to wait and see.
5. Pete Campbell
Is there anyone more free than Pete? I think he’s probably the only character on the show is truly free at the end of the season. There is no mask to hide behind anymore: He no longer has a wife, his mother is now dead, he’s pretty much lost out on the Chevy account, and I think he is finally ready to step out of the shadows of Don Draper and become who really is. And only Pete can determine who that is now. He’s off to California too and as opposed to Ted, it’s definitely not an escape but a chance to start over.
All season long Pete has complained about the agency and his role in it, and Don even told him to maybe it was time to get out of the business. It was a tender moment (some reviewers even said it was too tender) when he has a final moment with Trudy and his daughter, and Trudy tells him he is finally free, to which he responds, “I just never thought it would happen this way”. True, we never do, do we? I bet Don is thinking the exact same thing. Pete let a lot of his “Pete-ness” go this season. He’s come to an understanding with his family, rather than just be a horrible husband and sniveling son-in-law, and he even let Bob Benson off the hook by not turning him in for being a fraud (although I still contend Pete really did this not out of generosity, but because his mother had told him to leave that “nice Bob Benson alone”).
It might even be possible that Pete even came to terms with Peggy over the baby they made together and basically stayed mum about its existence, all those years ago. I loved the scene between the two of them at dinner with Ted- I don’t think I’ve ever seen Pete more real or relaxed. I think it’s safe to say that Pete is entering a new world completely untethered.
Besides Peggy, I think Betty is the only other character who has completely changed since season 1. Sure, there is still the essence of old Betty-catty, childish, and insecure- that rears its ugly head every now and then, but gone is the woman who clung to and hid behind her idea of the perfect wife and mother.
Actually, the scene that impressed me the most was when Betty went into NYC on her own looking for Sally’s missing friend. I don’t think the old Betty would sit in a squatters apartment and help two strangers make Goulash in a pot that probably also collected vomit and feces at one time. That Betty even cared, or bothered, to help this girl is truly remarkable. It reminded me of her first dealings with Glen and how she had struck up a friendship with the young boy.
There is a soft side to Betty that we rarely ever see, and I saw more of it in this season than any other. She’s tender to Don, understanding with Sally, proud of Harry, and appears to be an altogether rather confident woman. She’s definitely had her ups and downs, but she no longer blames others (as was her usual M.O.) and realizes she is responsible for her own choices. And yes, I realize she slept with Don and cheated on her husband, but the scene of her at breakfast just showed a woman as secure in her bad decisions as much as her good ones. And that is definitely not Old Betty.
Here’s to more Mad Men in 2014! I can’t wait to return to these characters.