Dear Television is Jane Hu, Evan Kindley, Lili Loofbourow, and Phillip Maciak. This season, they'll be posting weekly letters about AMC's "Mad Men." While this is not a full recap, there are still plenty of spoilers. Read the last installment here.
Dear TV, as Lili devastatingly argued, there is a difference between the narrative progress of a television series and the individual progress of its main character. “The show has changed by highlighting that Don hasn’t,” Lili writes. “It has changed dramatically this season by decoupling itself from Don and peeling its progress away from his stasis.” The constant callbacks to previous episodes, it turns out, were not clues about Roger’s death, Megan’s murder, or whether or not Bob Benson would make it off the island. Instead, they showed us that this series is both aware of its past and moving forward.
So, Lili, I agree with practically everything you’ve said here, but I want to suggest an alternate reading of that final scene, one a little more in line with the way you (and I) understand the series as a whole. Perhaps Don Draper hasn’t had an epiphany, or at least not a traditional one. From his efforts to quit drinking to the sunny lyric “I’ve seen the clouds from both sides now” that ends the episode, there’s certainly plenty of evidence that Don has indeed had his come-to-Jesus moment, but I think we should entertain the possibility that it really is too late for Don Draper, and, furthermore, that he knows this. What if Don himself has realized that he’s not the protagonist of his own show?
Some of our favorite scenes to hate-watch in this season of Mad Men have been the insufferable flashbacks to Don’s adolescence in what turned out to be a Hershey, P.A. brothel, downwind from the more wholesome kiss factory in that town. In a series that is usually winkingly self-aware about its themes, the scenes of Don’s youth were uncharacteristically ham-fisted dollops of armchair psychoanalysis, with acting and set-design more befitting a Lifetime movie than the standard-bearer of television’s new Golden Age. This episode ends with Don bringing his children to see his now-dilapidated childhood home. “This is where I grew up,” Don explains to his kids, to us. And thus we come full circle.
But, in retrospect, those scenes now seem less revelatory for what they tell us about Don’s psyche than what they reveal about the arc of this series. Viewers expecting to see Don grow and change over time may be disappointed, but that’s not what Mad Men is about. Don’s last line is important because it’s in the past tense. This is where I grew up. It’s already over for him. Mad Men is not the bildungsroman of Don Draper. But it might be somebody else's.
Throughout this series, and this season especially, there has been so much weight placed on the dynamics of influence. Don is the way he is because of the way his father treated him or the way the whores at his home showed him kindness or because a hobo once told him how to ferret out a dishonest man. Does Peggy get more from Don’s tough love or Ted’s sappy, puppy-dog love? Does Bob Benson want to learn from, sleep with, or destroy Pete? Our stories, Mad Men tells us, are less about what we do than what is done to us. Lili, if Don has a revelation this episode, I don’t think it’s that he needs to quit drinking or be faithful to his wife or cherish his family. He’s had those epiphanies a thousand times before, starting with the first season. Don’s revelation is that he finally realizes he cannot change. Don has hit rock-bottom way harder than this, and he knows from experience that he can’t escape to L.A., he can’t stop drinking, and he can’t stop screwing around. If Don Draper realizes anything, it’s that he’s no longer the waif trapped in unlucky circumstances, and he hasn’t been since we’ve known him. Don’s the father now, the hobo, the dishonest man.
But there is growth in this realization, and I think that’s the source of the ending’s clear-eyed, progressive tone. Don might not be able to be anything other than Don Draper, but he knows now, after Sally saw him with Sylvia, that there are people watching and learning. He doesn’t have the power to change himself, but he does have the power to hurt or help those in his wake. From Sally’s rude awakening all the way back to Bobby’s innocent shock at the ending of Planet of the Apes, Don’s children have asserted themselves as substantive presences in Don’s life this season, and, paired with Peggy as his protégé, they constitute the center of this narrative. Mad Men is a chronicle of massive change told from the perspective of a non-participant, a Nixon voter, a Dad.
At the beginning of this episode, Stan tries to pitch Don on the idea that California is an opportunity and that he’s the right man for the job. Don says, “That’s not the way I saw it,” to which Stan responds, “No, that’s not the way you saw me. But you can change that.” Perception is everything, and, for most of this series, and most of this episode, Don saw himself as the leading man. But by the end, he knows different. Two episodes ago, I wrote about the look that Sally and Don exchange when she sees him with his mistress. Sally’s is a look of horror and revulsion; Don’s is one of shame and panic. The final scene of this episode—with its harpsichord pop, deadpan visual non sequiturs, and cartoonishly rundown manse lifted wholesale from The Royal Tenenbaums—is Don’s self-conscious attempt to recreate that exchange. This time, however, the looks are much ambivalent. Don’s eyes are remorseful, confessional. But Sally’s are more inscrutable. Is she horrified at the squalor from which her father emerged? Does she understand him better now? Is she disgusted by the gross exhibitionism of this errand? Or is she moved by its honesty? It’s unclear at the moment. As the song plays out and the last frame of the season shows Don and Sally looking ahead together, with Don’s face in focus and Sally’s blurred in the foreground, we mirror the camera’s priorities by wondering what Don is thinking, what kind of revelatory vision he’s had. But we know that’s not the point and now so does Don. It’s what Sally sees that matters.
Everything’s back where Jesus wants it,