Mad Men Recap 6.12: “You’re a Monster”
The definitive image book-ending the recent Mad Men episode “The Quality of Mercy” is an overhead shot of Don Draper curled up in the fetal position–first on a children’s bed in his apartment, then on the couch in his office. Awaking in bed alone, Megan finds Don curled up in the aforementioned position, and, concerned, orders him to take a “sick” day. Later in the day, then, Don and Megan go to the movies so that Don might escape pesky work calls. The film they see–Rosemary’s Baby–is essential to qualifying the image of Don in the fetal position. Don’s and Megan’s disturbed faces are shown at the end of the horror film, because they’ve discovered that Rosemary’s baby is (*spoiler alert*) the spawn of Satan–a “monster,” you might say.
Don’s got a severe case of guilt and shame, and the only prognosis he can devise is alcohol. He’s a sweating, anxious mess who comes home from the bar and passes out in his work clothes. His descent has been six seasons in the making, but this particularly dark rut stems from his daughter, Sally, walking in on Don having sex with his mistress, Sylvia. Earlier in the season, at the sultry height of their affair, Don tells guilt-ridden Sylvia, referring to their adultery, that “this didn’t happen,” and then, pointing to his head, continues, “it’s all in here.” The implication is that so long as the affair is kept secret, then there are no real consequences. But the exposure of Don’s delusional, philandering self to his daughter’s eyes–the illumination of his secret, self-absorbed lifestyle before a person to whom his identity is inextricably tied with responsibility–is necessarily like a blunt trauma to Don’s lost soul. The consequences are indeed real, and dire.
Much of this episode explores the fallout for Sally, who decides to remove herself from her parents by requesting that they send her to boarding school. There’s a sense in which Sally’s desire to leave mirrors her father’s desire to scrub away his past, which too is marred by irresponsible parents. A glimpse at boarding school life for Sally, however, reveals that while she may be able to create an identity for herself separated from her parents, she does so at the risk of entering a different life that still has its own set of problems–and, notably, they include smoke, booze, domineering men, and sex. An obvious negative consequence of boarding school life is that it is for the attending child a total displacement from the family and culture that she knows as home. Again, this mirrors Don’s life in that in order to escape his broken home life, he gave himself a new life that never truly alleviates his profound homesickness. Boarding school, too, is likely not an answer to a broken home, but, like alcohol, is a temporary escape that ultimately means the perpetuation of the resultant sickness.
On the way home, Betty allows Sally to have a cigarette, saying, “I’m sure your father’s given you a beer.” Sally, with an icy sadness, responds, “My father’s never done anything for me.” It’s a line that suggests the source of rootlessness that plagues Don, one that has spread to the next generation.
Don’s done a lot worse than when, in the meeting with St. Joseph Aspirin, he manipulatively humiliates Peggy and Ted while lying to the client–both under the veneer of hypocrisy that says he’s “doing what’s best for the company” (re: when “what’s best for the company” aligns with what’s best for him). So when Peggy–now Ted’s embarrassed mistress–storms into Don’s office at the end of the episode, telling him that he’s “killed everything,” and that he’s “a monster,” it’s less appropriate to Don’s latest instance of self-absorption, than it is a kind of culmination of not only this season in particular, but every episode since the beginning of the series when Don, away from his kid’s birthday party, sat in his car staring with self-loathing at oncoming trains. As Andy Greenwald pointed out in his latest Grantland podcast, the revelation of Bob Benson as Don Draper’s doppelganger serves first and foremost to remind us that this show is fundamentally about Don’s identity crisis, a question of whether or not he can find new life that redeems his past without ignorantly trying to forget it.
But we’ve known this from the beginning. Now, though, Don himself seems increasingly aware of the monstrosity he’s become. He collapses back on the couch with his drink, paralyzed by the realization that he’s at a dead-end with the self-created facade that is “Don Draper.”
Mad Men Recap 6.13: “I know there’s a good man in there”
The finale of Mad Men’s sixth season begins with a shot of Don Draper entering the offices, and on the doors we get a clear glimpse of the company’s official name, “SC&P.” Just past the doors, Stan greets Don so that he might have a word with him, and they walk past a large wall mounting of orange-colored SC&P. The next time we see Don he’s pouring himself some alcohol, and we get a close-up of the coffee mug with the SC&P logo. Of course, this shot emphasizes that Don’s still drinking heavily enough that he’s continuing to sneak it early in the day. But the persistent way the episode highlights “SC&P” around Don seems to underscore that there’s no longer a “D” on the company’s insignia. And, indeed, by the end of the episode, we discover that Don’s been put on leave by his fellow partners. But that’s not what surprised me about this finale; in fact, Don’s leaving SC&P seems almost an afterthought.
We’ve come to expect our Mad Men seasons to end in horrifying ways, and this season seemed on track to culminate in more suicide, more sexual destruction, more alcoholism, more death . . . more hopelessness. But SC&P’s split with Don wasn’t this. It wasn’t the latest gravestone in their culture of death.
This season has been about children. It’s been, at different points, about Michael Ginsberg and his father, about Joan and her young boy Kevin, about Roger Sterling and his daughter, about the Rosens and their son, about Frank Gleason and his daughter, about Don and Bobby, about Ted and his kids, about Pete and his mother, and, perhaps in a way that sums up all of these interweaving scenarios, it’s been about Peggy’s and Pete’s child, who while never on screen–never central to the scene of their lives–is unavoidably ever-present nonetheless.
Most recently and significantly, though, this season has been about Don and Sally, for the latter has now seen who her father is, and in happening upon his affair with Sylvia, understood his absence in her life. Don, who has always thought he could keep his life’s tragedy, darkness, and ugliness a secret, has been made visible in the most humbling way, and it’s a shock to the system that he can barely handle. Don calls Sally to let her know about a mandatory court date, and, before eventually hanging up on him, she sarcastically responds, “Well, I wouldn’t want to do anything immoral.” For a moment, the camera lingers on Don’s hurt expression, clearly stung by the sense in which Sally now knows him for who he is, and in a sense, her realization is forcing Don to see with clarity who he’s become.
My expectation, though, was that Mad Men would continue building toward an inevitable end involving the madness of recognizing our own recklessness, but feeling hopeless to do anything about it. And this is where the finale’s truly surprising narrative turn comes in–one that begins with the proclamation of Jesus in a bar. I’m not suggesting that Don Draper has–or will have–any sort of explicit conversion to Christianity, but any discussion of this show’s seeming sudden change of trajectory in the season six finale will have to consider back-to-back turning point scenes filled with talk of Christ as the forgiver of sins.
The scene begins with a shot from behind of Don sitting at the bar, and, with the camera remaining on Don’s back, we hear an evangelist say, “You don’t have to listen, but I have to say it: We’re all brothers in Christ.” The line notably emphasizes the possibility of a new family. There’s a quick cut, then, to show the front of Don along with the evangelist and the man with whom he’s sharing the gospel.
“We’re talking about a fellowship far more powerful than drink.” And that’s the line that strikes a chord of irritation within Don–clearly putting him on the defensive in the most revealing way. “Can you keep it down?” he says with annoyance. Don plays resistant during his confrontation with the evangelist–even coolly taking a jab reference at the “God works in mysterious ways” cliche. At the offer of “freedom from pain in this life,” Don’s eventual response is to punch out the minister (which lands him in jail), but first we get another flashback to Don’s childhood at the whore house. When a preacher there is kicked out of the house, he pleads to young Don, “The only unpardonable sin is to believe that God cannot forgive you.”
Like most of this excellent series, the editing in this episode is brilliantly suggestive, if at times a bit obvious. Following Don’s awakening in a jail cell, we see Peggy getting ready to leave the offices. She sees two young boys running past her in the hallway, and calling after them is their father, Ted, who comes walking past with his wife. She politely says hello to Peggy, while Ted tries to avoid contact. Peggy’s having to be present to Ted’s wife is similar, though at this stage less severe, to Sally walking in on Don with his mistress. She is forced to be present to the people most affected by her lascivious decisions, even if she has one more successful, voluptuous attempt at stealing Ted away for herself. And much of what follows is about how Don’s and Peggy’s stories intersect (more on that below).
After watching the first four seasons of Mad Men over a two month span, I wrote an essay about the nature of Don’s madness. I concluded by wondering if any of these mad men would recognize their madness for what it is, and find the kind of judgment–the sense of self-restraint–which is characteristic of truly free will, and of sanity.
So it was a striking moment that follows after Don laughs as he tells Megan that he spent the previous night in jail. “Why are you laughing?” she says. “Because I’ve realized it’s gotten out of control,” Don responds. “I’ve gotten out of control.” It’s an understatement, to be sure. The other thing Don realizes, though, is that he “[doesn’t] want to be here anymore.” He wants to move with Megan to California where SC&P is going to have a small office specially devoted to Sunkist. But the import of the realization is that Don recognizes that Madison Avenue is not a home for him. But, even more to my surprise, this finale isn’t content to leave off with Don and Megan going to California, which would be too easy–in fact, in the very next scene, we see that a move to California would be another instance of Don getting his own way at the expense of someone else, namely Stan.
Following one last tryst between Peggy and Ted, the scene cuts to Don and Megan asleep in bed together. The phone rings and it’s Don’s ex-wife, Betty, who’s discovered that Sally bought beer with a false ID. She was drunk and got other girls drunk.
“The good is not beating the bad,” Betty says tearfully, clearly distressed. “She obviously needs more than I can give her.” Don tries to reassure her, saying that it isn’t her fault. But Betty knows better.
“Don . . . she’s from a broken home.”
Don’s last words to Betty are “I’m sorry.” Megan asks Don if everything’s okay, and all Don can manage, grimly, is “no.”
Again clearly interweaving Peggy’s affair with the continuing fallout from Don’s failed marriage, the scene transitions from Don and Megan in bed together to Peggy and Ted in bed together. In case this editing choice is not obvious enough, Ted tells Peggy that they should go to Hawaii, and it seems as if the two of them are about to enter the dark wood in which Don’s been lost. A second transition to a scene in bed shows Ted–wide awake–next to his wife. And her presence in the aftermath of his having sex with Peggy clearly affects him.
The next morning at work, Ted stops by Don’s office and tells Don that he wants to go to California. “I’m the one who needs to start over,” Ted says. “With Peggy,” Don assumes, and so it seems in the moment. On the verge of tears at the sound of the assumption, Ted says, “No, with my family.”
“I don’t understand,” Don says.
“Yes you do,” Ted quickly responds. “It’s my only chance, Don. I’ve got kids. I can’t throw this away. I can’t go on like this.” At first Don resists the idea of allowing Ted to go instead. Then Ted continues, “I don’t know what I brought out in you, but I know there’s a good man in there. I need you to help me put 3,000 miles between me and her or my life is over.”
Don and Ted go to their meeting with Hershey, and what happens next is one of the series’ most memorable scenes. Don begins a pitch to the Hershey executives that involves a sentimental story–a lie–about his father’s love for him growing up: “Hershey’s is the symbol of affection,” he says, “it’s the childhood symbol of love.”
“Weren’t you a lucky little boy,” one exec says. Don, knowing better, laughs nervously then looks at Ted, who is still despairing about his predicament. Don’s hand begins shaking, and rather suddenly, he does something truly remarkable–something that suggests the seventh and final season could be heading for something less maddening than I previously expected: he tells everyone in the room the ugly truth about his childhood, about his past–about who he is. He was an orphan who grew up in a Pennsylvania whore house, and he read somewhere that orphans had a different life at Hershey–and he dreamt of a different, better life, one in which he was wanted. The closest he ever was to feeling wanted was a prostitute who would have Don go through her patron’s pockets in search of money. If he got a dollar, he’d get a Hershey bar.
“I would eat it alone . . . in my room . . . with great ceremony. Feeling like a normal kid. It said ‘sweet’ on the package. It was the only sweet thing in my life.”
Stunned, everyone leaves but Ted and Don, and the latter, in a purely selfless deed, tells Ted that he wants him to go to California. Ted eventually tells Peggy that he’s going to California with his family–that he has to “hold on to them, or get lost in the chaos.”
Don’s decision to let Ted go to California is bad for his relationship with Megan, who doesn’t take the news well. Between his falling out with Megan and SC&P, Don’s life is indeed unraveling, but not in the way that he has been over the last six seasons. This time, it’s “Don Draper”–the self-created mad man–who is, to my great surprise, unraveling. Although, amidst this chaos, there is no easy redemption coming.
Aside from Don’s meeting with the partners about the leave he must take, the show ends with a series of scenes involving the aforementioned children. There’s one of Trudy watching Pete sit at his daughter’s bedside. There’s one of Joan inviting Roger into Kevin’s life. And lastly, there’s a concluding scene between Don and his three kids, Sally included. But, before that, there’s a brief glimpse of Peggy, symbolically sitting in at Don’s desk in his vacant office. With Ted going to California, it’s a significant moment suggesting that Peggy might yet achieve Don’s success without becoming Don Draper.
Then, in the final scene of the season–one that’s as functionally confessional as the Hershey meeting–Don takes his kids to see the whore house in which he grew up. They pull up to the house as Don tells them the story of a man named Hershey. As they approach the house and walk into view of the camera shot, their shadows come before them, but they come too, and there’s a sense in which Don and his children might not live as shadows of themselves any more. Don and Sally share a knowing glimpse.
What do we mean when we say that another person is a “monster?” Generally speaking, we reserve the description for the person who does something we find essentially inhuman. In this sense, these mad men–all we mad men–have, to varying degree, moments of monstrosity. But it’s also essentially human to not only feel acute homelessness, but as such to feel all of its lack, and to desire the sense of fullness we call home. And all of these mad men–all we mad men–come, in this spiritual sense, from broken homes. We’re displaced from the fullness of humanity–displaced from our essential selves. Don’s Hershey moment, coupled with taking his children to see the former life of Dick Whitman, is confessional in the sense that he’s telling the truth about himself–he’s being present to them.
Now if only he’d listen to the truth confessed to him earlier–that even Don Draper might be forgiven by Jesus, the God who came to earth, exemplified true humanity, and takes the consequences of our monstrosities upon himself, that once being mad, we might become sane. Once lost, we might find home.