There is a certain fickleness at work in the culture whereby a long-running television series or personality achieves a certain level of fame, recognition, audience, and at some point, the expectation among reviewers – in the case of “Mad Men,” recappers – and viewers reaches such heights that a subset of them is bound to be disappointed. Such is the case with this past season of “Mad Men.”
I, for one, think the Monday morning quarterbacking around this season’s stature in the whole of the series (as opposed to episode-by-episode analysis) is categorically premature, and that declaring season six the [insert your negative superlative of choice; “weakest” is a popular one] is an exercise in futility, for the aforementioned fickleness, but also because we, the viewing public, the fan culture, won’t be able to assess any one season of “Mad Men” or any serial drama without seeing the whole of it.
I also must note that even the great nineteenth-century literary serialists, like Leo Tolstoy, whose “Anna Karenina” was published in serial form between 1873 and 1877 in the periodical The Russian Messenger, and Marcel Proust, whose “Swann’s Way” spans seven volumes, have their lackluster moments. Even the greats flag, or make miscalculations, or exhaust some of their storylines, as they make their writerly way to the end of the narrative. For instance, I’ve always thought “Anna Karenina” could have done a better job fleshing out Vronsky, the man for whom Anna Karenina left her husband and, because father’s got custody of the children, effectively gave up her son.
This is not to say that I thought season six of “Mad Men” flagged. I do not, and I can’t begin to assess where this season, the penultimate one, will figure, critically speaking, in the expanse of the series; the above is a response to the response. What I do know is that for the past 12 weeks, I have looked forward to watching “Mad Men,” my decidedly favorite television show of all time, and to mulling the recaps and the tweets and the comments, and of course to writing these responses.
I also know that few television shows have ever made me cry, and this past Sunday, when I watched Don Draper give his confessional Hershey soliloquy, in what was one of the great surprises in television history, and then, at the show’s end, walk with his three children, their shadows long in the late afternoon light, to show them the house he grew up in, revealing a shell of an impoverished and untold past, a sob welled up in me. I still, after several attempts, haven’t quite sobbed it out of my system.
“In Care Of” unfolds in the days before Thanksgiving 1968, and ends on the holiday itself. By the time the episode is over, Don’s given up drinking; Don’s told Hershey executives and his business partners about his whorehouse upbringing; Pete’s mother has fallen or been pushed off a ship, after having married Manolo; Ted and Pete are headed to California to work on the Sunkist account; Bob Benson is assigned to the GM account; Megan’s left Don, though it’s not clear if it’s permanent; and Don’s been ordered by the firm’s partners to take a leave of several months in order to, as Roger puts it, “regroup.”
If “In Care Of” was about anything, it was about how parenthood defines lives, for the parents themselves and those around them. In scene after scene, we saw “Mad Men’s” characters struggling with the responsibilities and burdens of parenthood, starting with Roger angering his daughter Margaret by refusing to continue investing in her husband’s business — so much so, it’s clear he’s not welcome to Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, nearly all of the first ten or so scenes of this episode turn on fatherhood. Roger, jealous of Bob Benson’s gifts to Kevin, his son with Joan. Megan, showing Don the letter summoning Sally to testify about the house break-in. Roger, summoning Bob Benson to his office for a performance review that turns on his relationship with Kevin (“That’s another man’s kid. You know that?” Roger tells Bob Benson.)
Then, Don’s call to Sally at boarding school, in which she refuses to speak to the police, and suggests her father tell her what she saw, a nod to her catching Don with Sylvia. Then Don at the bar, in the middle of the work day, presumably drowning his sorrows over what’s happened to his relationship with Sally, where he has a flashback to the whorehouse, where a preacher tells him, “The only unpardonable sin is to believe that God cannot forgive you.” Then Don in prison, because he punched a preacher at the bar because he was so drunk over Sally. Two scenes later, we see Ted’s two boys running through the office, flying by Peggy, who watches Ted and his wife Nan leave the office together.
That’s a lot of children and a lot of fathers and a lot of women affected by them. In the midst of this, Pete learns that his mother is lost at sea after having fallen off a ship, so he and his brother have to deal with how to handle that. Since their mother’s developed dementia, they’ve assumed the role of parents to their parent, with Budd passing her off to Pete like an unwanted child when his wife felt they should share the responsibilities.
When Don tells Megan he wants to move to California, she eventually asks, “What about the kids?” Don’s already concluded that they’d prefer a whole summer in L.A. to weekends in New York.
The parenting theme, in all its enormity, continues with Betty calling Don in the middle of the night to tell him that Sally has been suspended from Miss Porter’s for getting drunk, and getting classmates drunk, with beer she’d bought with a fake I.D. Here Betty expresses the heartbreak of not being able to rein in Sally, even after she’s done everything she could do. “The good is not beating the bad,” she relays. “Don, she’s from a broken home.”
The next day, Ted asks Don if he can go to California instead of Don, so he can start fresh with his family, so he can get distance from Peggy, with whom he’d slept the night before. “I’ve got kids,” he pleads. “I can’t throw this away.” Don explains that he needs the fresh start, too, and that his wife’s being written off her TV show. As Ted leaves, he tells Don to have a drink before they meet with Hershey. “My father …,” Ted says. “You can’t quit cold.” So, we learn, in a few words, that Ted’s father was an alcoholic.
Don takes Ted’s advice, and has a drink before his meeting with Hershey, which had recently sent out an RFP (Request for Proposals) to the top 30 ad agencies, including SC&P. In the meeting are two Hershey executives and Jim, Pete, Joan, Roger, Bert and Ted. Here, Don delivers a powerful pitch based on a fictionalized childhood with his father taking him to the store to pick out what he wanted after he’d mowed the lawn, and it was always a Hershey bar. “Hershey is the currency of affection,” Don summarizes. “It’s the childhood symbol of love.”
Don sits down, and his hand trembles in alcohol withdrawal, and suddenly, with no warning, Don tells the truth about his childhood, and what Hershey really meant to him. He tells them he was an orphan. He tells them he grew up in a whorehouse in Pennsylvania. He tells them that he read about Hershey’s school for orphans, and it made him imagine another life, a life of being wanted. He would earn a Hershey bar if he collected a dollar in change by fishing through the pockets of one of the prostitute’s johns. He’d eat it, alone, with great ceremony.
The Hershey executives ask if that’s what he wants to advertise. Don answers no, he doesn’t feel that Hershey even needs to advertise. The partners are so stunned — they aren’t even sure if Don’s story is true — that no one offers a counter pitch, like integrating the two stories, with Don’s being an homage to Milton Hershey. Jim takes control of the fetid air by declaring, “Don’s being modest. It’s just this kind of theater that makes our work so different.” The meeting ends, everyone leaves but Ted and Don, and Don tells Ted he can go to California.
Why? As novelistic as “Mad Men” gets, there’s no omniscient narrator to explain moments like this. Was it because he wants to stay East and face his childhood? Or was it because he realized his leaving might leave his children feeling abandoned, despite the bliss of summers in L.A.? Did Don want to spare another man’s children of being from a broken home? It’s probably a little of all of the above.
Ted tells Peggy he’s going to L.A., that Don gave up his spot for him. In what to me was one of the most salient lines of the episode, Ted says he would get lost in the chaos if he didn’t have his family. What he means by chaos, whether it was political, which after the events of 1968 would make sense, or psychological, as in the chaos of trying to build a new life with Peggy while navigating post-divorce parenthood, is unclear.
When Don goes home, Megan tells him there’s a partner’s meeting the next morning, Thanksgiving Day, at 9 a.m., to discuss California. Don tells her that something’s come up, and they can’t go to California, but he’ll support her, they can be bi-coastal. She bursts, since she’s quit her job and lined up interviews in L.A., and tells him she doesn’t know what’s worth fighting for, since they don’t have children and all he seems is to want to be alone with his alcohol – forgoing any sort of recovery for alcoholics program – and ex-wife and messed-up kids. She catches herself on her impulsive description of the children, and says she loves them, and that she used to feel sorry for them but then realized they were all in this together. Megan says she can’t be there right now, and leaves, with just her keys.
We see Pete dropping off some of his mother’s things at Trudy’s, and they have a sweet moment, and Pete goes in to Tammy’s room to say good-bye, promising not to wake her from her nap. The shot is the same as Betty Draper standing outside Sally’s room when Don says good-night to a sleeping Sally at the end of the series pilot, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Touching, and another thematic nod to parenthood.
Don shows up at the office at 9 a.m., with Joan, Jim, Bert and Roger already present. He’s asked to leave the agency, to regroup. Don, always a man of few words when push comes to crunch, offers to explain. They say that his behavior cannot be explained. They tell him it’s temporary, a few months, but they won’t give him a return date. On his way out, he sees Duck — another alcoholic — with Lou Avery of Danzer Fitzgerald, the one who told Don and Roger that they’d lost the Vicks account when they happened to be waiting for the same flight to Detroit, when they were both up for the GM account.
Roger goes to Joan’s for Thanksgiving dinner. When he sees Bob Benson carving the bird, and ask what he’s doing there, Joan explains that she’s inviting him into Kevin’s life, not hers. “Moon River” is playing in the background, a song that suggests nostalgia, a call-back to simpler times, but also continuity, the continuity of family, as fractured as this one is, and holiday tradition.
The final scene of the final episode of the next to last season has Don and his three children pulling up in a car, with Bobby asking about Hershey. It’s a tight shot, so we’re not sure where we are. Sally wants to know why they’re stopping here. Bobby notes that it’s a bad neighborhood. The three children walk with their father, who looks up at the house, and declares, “This is where I grew up.” Sally looks at him with a look that suggests a realization that she may finally get to know more about the father she knows she doesn’t really know. Somehow Don seems strong, and resolute, even though life is as uncertain as it’s ever been for him.
So, that’s where things stand, with one season to go. I do hope the show gets some Emmys for acting this year. Jon Hamm was at his best in this episode, especially in the kitchen scene, where he tells Megan he wants to move to California, and also in the Hershey soliloquy, too. Vincent Kartheiser and Elizabeth Moss were incredible in their respective roles as well.
It’s been an honor and a privilege to share my thoughts with all of you. I’d love to hear what folks think of this episode, and the season as a whole, too. Leave thoughts in the comments below.