June 24, 2013



There was hardly a moment in Season 6 of MAD MEN when Don Draper (Jon Hamm) seemed to feel comfortable in his own skin.  Oh sure, he could gather up some venom when he had the chance to cut colleague Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) off at the knees, he could massage a pitch (sometimes) when he needed to, but the sleek, certain, glamorous Don Draper that we met in 1960 was eight years older, and a marriage, who knows how many other women, and potentially an entire distillery of booze later; on some level, he could feel that it was all going wrong.  Don enjoyed causing suffering to others at times, but sometimes he was just out of control, and he suffered himself, too, perhaps most piercingly when his power-struggle relationship with neighbor Sylvia (Linda Cardellini) proved, in the end, that he didn’t have the power at all, and then of course when his daughter Sally’s (Kiernan Shipka) world collapsed after she walked in on him and Sylvia.  Something broke inside Don Draper that day, as much as it broke inside his daughter.

Given all that, perhaps the very last thing one would have expected from tonight’s season finale, written (with Carly Wray) and directed by series creator Matthew Weiner, was that Don Draper might find the beginning of some kind of redemption.  And indeed, in the course of the hour, Don lost–probably–his marriage and his job, and maybe even his alcohol, the things that had defined him.  But in a season that turned out to be about 1968 after all, about revolutions and fighting desperately for freedom and the burning need to start over, the very last scene, with the look exchanged by father and daughter, suggested that maybe losing everything was the best thing to happen to Don Draper in years.

People compare Weiner to his mentor David Chase all the time, and for obvious reasons, since although working on The Sopranos wasn’t Weiner’s first job, it was his big break, and both shows center around deeply troubling protagonists and perfectly realized universes.  But Chase has always been notable for what’s almost an insolence towards narrative, raising characters and plotlines and story arcs and then just letting them hang without conclusion or vanish abruptly–epitomized, of course, but the end of the series itself.  Weiner doesn’t operate that way.  His stories nearly always have beginnings and endings–he just demands that you have patience while he gets there, something that’s increasingly problematic in this age of instant analysis.

That was certainly the case with this season of Mad Men.  It was, until this final episode, an awfully hard season to get a handle on.  There were patterns aplenty–parallels, echoes, reverses, and multiple references to Rosemary’s Baby and Planet of the Apes.  (Both, by the way, about people who lose absolutely everything they thought they knew about their own lives and have to start over in an unimaginable way.)  There was Bob Benson (James Wolk), the Don Draper clone–a charming climber who’d manufactured an identity, as Duck (Mark Moses) noted, “out of steam.”  Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) ended up working with Don again (not because she wanted to), and found herself in another intimate relationship–though physical this time, not spiritual–with a supervisor.  Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) not only found himself facing down the new pseudo-Don, but in the finale his mother joined his father in a violent accident (?) under the sea.  Roger Sterling (John Slattery) had his own doppelganger in equally sharp Jim Cutler (Harry Hamlin).   Sally found out a terrible truth about Don just as her mother Betty (January Jones) had.  Betty, for her part, had some vacation sex with Don that meant as little to her as the affairs he’d had with other women during their marriage.  Even Megan (Jessica Pare) was playing twins on her soap opera, for god’s sake.  Clearly something was going on, but it wasn’t clear what.

It seems now as though the season was preparing us for whatever this new chapter will be in Don’s life, surrounding him with people recreating either their own pasts or the pasts of others even as he was systematically stripped or stripping himself of his entire support system.  In the finale, Don ripped down the wall that had always existed between Don Draper and Dick Whitman, even as he gave the final touch to his unconscious need to jettison out of his comfortable job, confessing to Hershey executives and a room full of colleagues that his own experience with Hershey bars had come when the prostitute who was the closest thing he had to a friend growing up in a whorehouse gave him chocolate if he found more than a dollar in the pockets of her johns.  He, and seemingly everyone else at the firm, seized at the life-raft of a California move, and then he gave it up so that Ted could keep his family together, almost certainly knowing that Megan–who’d left her job to accommodate the move–would leave him.  And then he brought his children, most especially Sally, to his own ground zero, the dilapidated, dangerous whorehouse itself.  It told Sally something about him, and maybe told him something about himself.  Is it real?  Will it last?  Or will Don fall right back down into the pit he’s created for himself over the years?  We can’t know.

At this point, after six seasons, it hardly bears repeating that Jon Hamm (who’s never won an Emmy) is giving one of the classic performances in TV drama history, although perhaps in this week when we’ve all mourned the loss of James Gandolfini it does bear repeating after all.  The entire cast (none of whom has ever won an Emmy), including this season’s newcomer Wolk, is consistently spectacular, as are the remarkable production design, costumes, cinematography and the other components that make Mad Men superior to all the other period shows on the air–maybe ever.

Weiner has made it clear that barring some apocalyptic change, the next season of Mad Men will be its last.  The excitement that would already have engendered is only heightened by the fact that given this finale, it’s impossible to even guess where the show is going.  Don’s job, his marriage, his children–all are up for grabs.  Like Don himself, Mad Men will begin its ending with a clean slate.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."