One of the luxuries of a long-running, character-driven television series is that it allows the cast to grow and mature, for personalities to develop, for motives and ambitions to evolve. At their best, such shows also manage to bring continuity into sharp focus, calling back to previous events or perhaps establishing rhythms of life and behavior.
“In Care Of” is Mad Men at its best. A meaningful, event-driven episode, it’s low on the overly dramatic hysterics yet manages to completely change the status quo of the series. Indeed, it may have completely changed Mad Men‘s fundamental nature.
I’ve lamented Don Draper’s stagnation as a character throughout my write-ups of the sixth season; from the very beginning, we’ve seen him fall into his old patterns of adultery, disregard the feelings and wishes of others, stumble through life in an alcoholic haze, make impetuous decisions that affect everyone around him, and refuse to change (let alone improve) anything about himself. Anyone could see the writing on the wall: Don Draper was due for a cataclysmic episode of having his life fall apart. Surely, the series’ final season would be a study in dismantling the life of an arrogant, deceitful, self-involved man whose entire existence has been wrapped in a lie for so long he doesn’t know how to grow as a person.
What I didn’t expect was for that personal disaster to happen so quickly and with such finality. And I certainly didn’t expect for it to come as a result of a sudden surge of self-awareness, from Don finally taking a cold, clinical look at himself and realizing how empty and awful a human being he had become. “In Care Of” sees Don hit what he thinks is his life’s rock-bottom, reevaluate his existence, vow to better himself, and suddenly reach a much lower low than he had known in years. As the season ends, Don Draper – for all intents and purposes — is dead.
Don Draper the persona, I mean. The slick, fast-talking ad man, the hard-drinking adulterer around whose whims a top 30 ad agency revolves. The steely-eyed façade behind which Dick Whitman hides from the ghosts of his past has crumbled irrevocably. To the show’s credit, the factors that have caused Don Draper’s demise have been laid out steadily, one by one, over the course of a season. And yet, the outcome was hard to predict, because the catalyst was something almost entirely new to the show: Don finally allowed himself to be honest with others and with himself.
Mad Men has depicted a vulnerable Don Draper a few times: When Betty uncovered the truth about his past, and when his only true soulmate, Anna — the real Don Draper’s actual wife — finally passed away of terminal cancer. But those were moments of near-solitude, shared between Don and one other person. Don’s newfound self-awareness has a different flavor to it; it’s him waking up in jail after another substance-induced blackout, or standing over a sink pouring out his bottles of liquor one by one. It’s him confessing his roots to a room of people. It’s him giving up what he wants for the sake of a rival.
And even then, it wasn’t really a change, not at first. Suddenly, keenly aware of how badly his life had begun to degenerate after waking up in jail, Don’s first instinct is to run, like always. He tells his wife Megan that they should move to California, grasping desperately at one of his life’s few recent happy moments, yet simultaneously stealing another man’s dreams — yet seemingly unaware that in his desperation to run away, he’s not only swiping Stan Rizzo’s wide-eyed scheme to start a new agency in Los Angeles, he’s stealing Rizzo’s exact words. Tying in with the previous episode and Pete Campbell’s decision to keep Bob Benson under his thumb, Don’s seemingly unconscious intellectual theft recalls shades of his desperate scheme to run away, far away, with Rachel Menkin so long ago when Campbell threatened to expose his identity to Burt Cooper. Where he stole Rachel’s rebuke to use against Pete in the past, here he steals Rizzo’s ambitious plan in order to convince Megan to go west with him.
And yet, as so often happens, it’s the boardroom sales pitch that proves to be Don’s pivotal moment. But this is no Carousel moment, no flash of personal insight that warms the heart and wins the day. Rather, it’s Don seeing himself in the mournful, anxious expression etched on Ted Chaough’s face and realizing at long last that he can’t simply keep running from his problems or his past.
The pitch scene is brilliant in its subversiveness. It begins like any other, with Don striding into the room and sharing a personal anecdote that will bloom into an ad campaign. And it’s a great pitch, but it rings false; Don talks about his father rewarding him with Hershey’s chocolate and tousling his hair, which sounds wonderfully heartwarming. Of course, we know it’s a lie; we’ve seen the truth of his upbringing. As Don speaks, his peers smugly share self-congratulatory glances around the room. They’re almost suffocatingly overweening, cocksure in the profundity of Don’s deception. It’s cloying and obnoxious, and you kind of want to scream at Don and his peers for their vapidness.
But then Don looks down and sees his hands shaking, trembling with DTs brought on by a lifetime of drinking as an escape. He sees Ted, eager to run as far from his obsession with his understudy Peggy as possible, clinging to the only self-defense Don knows: Escape. So, for the first time, Don talks about himself, about his terrible childhood. And while the message at the end of his shaggy-dog story is the power that the Hershey’s brand holds in his life, both his point — that Hershey need never advertise because every child knows what it represents — and the path he takes to get there — tearfully musing on his abusive father and his life growing up friendless in a bordello — utterly undermine the pitch and lose the firm a potentially enormous contract. Don braces up to his past and decides not to run, and instantly loses everything.
Megan is furious at his decision to let Ted move to California in his place, having already given up her spot on the soap opera in which she’s become a rising star, and vows to move West anyway. And the next morning, Don comes to a partner’s meeting only to discover that SCDP’s recent change of name to SC&P makes it much easier for the company to drop the D altogether. It’s a shocking move by his peers — Don Draper, the award-winning ad man, mastermind of not one but two radical upheavals for the company, cast out on indefinite hiatus as a collective persona non grata — but he himself has sown the seeds of his exile over the course of the season, alienating even once-dear friends like Joan Harris and Roger Sterling with his erratic, selfish behavior.
At the end, Don, for the first time since fleeing Korea with another man’s name, is left with nothing. (The change in status quo is cemented by Peggy’s assumption of Don’s office, workload, chair, and silhouette; at long last, she’s finally completed her character arc and has truly become Don.) All he has to his pretend name is his money, something we’ve seen time and again to have no real value to him.
And yet… the episode ends with him bringing his children to a terrible, run-down neighborhood to gaze up at a dilapidated old house. When they wonder aloud why they’ve come to such a dangerous place, Don says simply, “This is where I grew up.” And perhaps it’s the fact that he’s revealed a truth about himself to them, or perhaps it’s the melancholy in his eyes, but as his daughter looks at him gazing at the remains of the old bordello, you can see her actively reappraising her opinion of him.
Who knows where her opinion ultimately will land. But the final season of the show won’t be the story of a man’s life falling apart from a foundation of tenuous lies; that’s already happened. Now it’s more likely to be the story of a man rebuilding himself after 20 years of falsehood, of establishing a true relationship with his estranged daughter and distant sons. Of finding out who he really is. For the first time, Don Draper has nowhere to go but up, and the potential for the story to change its nature entirely — for him to systematically tear down Don Draper and learn to live at peace with the reality of Dick Whitman — is enticing.
Anyway, a pretty good episode.