Mad Men closes its season with an amazing feat; making us care about Don Draper again
That’s the one avenue left for Mad Men’s Don Draper; set up by a season finale Sunday which saw our supremely dysfunctional advertising man finally move toward becoming a character viewers could find compelling again.
AMC’s hypnotic drama wrapped up its penultimate season with a momentous two-fer, as Draper revealed his true childhood -- as the son of a prostitute raised by an abusive stepmother in a whorehouse -- to both his partners at the firm and his children.
Besides serving as a way to soften Draper’s brutal image, it showed TV’s most self-deluded character finally realizing his survival lay in owning his past instead of running from it.
Last week, it seemed creator Matt Weiner was ready to sacrifice the appeal of his most prized creation to serve a storyline which found Draper isolated from everyone in his life. His affair with a neighbor was discovered by his daughter, his communication with his young wife had dwindled to nothing and his protégé Peggy Olson had denounced him as a monster while he undercut the rival who had become his business partner.
For a while, it seemed the man who had saved his own life by assuming the identity of a dead superior in the military would save himself by stealing again – nicking the idea of a subordinate to head a small office in California, allowing Draper to leave New York and start fresh with his wife.
But just as Mrs. Draper quit her soap opera job and made plans to move her acting career west, Draper decided to speak honestly on his childhood in the midst of a pitch to executives from Hershey foods. Longtime viewers have seen Draper spin a rosy fiction of his childhood to clients before, but this time the nonsense was unbearable to a man who seemed weary of the mask he has worn for so long.
After dropping jaws in that meeting – describing what it felt for an unwanted kid in such circumstances to get a taste of something normal as a chocolate bar -- Draper decided to let rival Ted Chaough take the California job, to put 3,000 miles of distance between Ted and office love Peggy.
The action looked selfless – like the act of reluctant hero who knows he has to do the right thing.
But then the final scene came, as Draper took his kids to see the real house where he grew up; a dilapidated whorehouse on the wrong side of a Pennsylvania town. As his daughter looked at him, realizing just how truly screwed up her father really was, viewers realized what a Hail Mary pass this revelation was.
Draper knew, at long last, that running wouldn’t work, anymore.
What, we wondered, would a Don Draper who doesn’t flee the messes in his life really look like? How can a guy who has been kicked out of his firm, alienated from his wife and distanced from his kids reinvent himself as the 1960s come to a close (for the record, the Draper kids visit to his home happened on Thanksgiving Day, 1968)? Will he reveal himself to his young wife the way he has to everyone else? After quitting her job for a move west which will not happen, will she care?
Lots of other amazing stuff happened in Sunday’s episode – from the enigmatic Bob Benson figuring a way to get poor Pete Campbell kicked off the firm’s General Motors account to Peggy Olson finally unveiling her beauty to snag poor Ted.
But nothing compared to the masterful way Weiner got us to suddenly care about Don Draper once again (aided by another masterful performance by TV’s best actor who has never won an Emmy, Jon Hamm). Like Draper’s endless stream of mistresses, we can’t help wondering if there is an amazing man wrapped up in that miasma of dysfunction and heartlessness.
Bravo Mr. Weiner. As TV’s antiheroes get worse and worse, you’ve just got us all waiting breathlessly for Don’s big finale next year.