Futurity, Daddy Issues, And Other Problems And Stray Thoughts About The ‘Mad Men’ Season Finale

“The train is leaving the station,” remarks an unsympathetic Don Draper, when Ted Chaough arrives in his office begging to be transferred to California. This is a little more than halfway through the episode. Its opening scene introduces the opportunity for one member of the firm to move to the West Coast, and proceeds to follow various characters vying for the position in hopes of escaping personal and political turmoil associated with living in New York City. (This season in particular, the show has been focused on global unrest, depicting the “troubled state” of the world through visceral examples of violence in Manhattan.)

As usual, Don and Ted want the same thing, but for once, they also seem to want it for the same reason. “I’m the one who needs to start over,” Ted pleads. Hoping to flee troubled marriages and a company grown increasingly confused and poorly managed, it is, of course, archetypically American to look West.

It is easy to describe this episode as something like “the chickens coming home to roost”, but I think that there is something else going on here. While its plots are deeply invested in futurity, they tend to culminate in moments when a particular future or vision slips away or is compromised greatly. So there is a particular feeling of inevitability that I associate with the tragic, and the ever-present sense that a profound fall is imminent or required in order for progress to be made possible. A motif of deflation or recession also can be detected throughout the episode, which differentiates it, I think, from an episode about retribution. It does not exactly describe things happening to these characters so much as it reveals what is not happening to them, which makes the satisfaction we may derive from it a little bit confused or perverse. “We could be happy again,” Don tells his wife Megan, proposing that they move to Los Angeles. Echoing Don’s vision of himself and Megan as “homesteaders”, the dreams we glimpse in the season finale are already diminishing, and once-passionate relationships now seem at best, to lead to compromise or dispassionate surrender.

Don and Ted’s is only one of many central pairings in the finale. Most frequently, these pairings are “odd couples” of sorts, struggling to overcome some element of détente or paralyzing non-struggle (reverberating the state of the world at large, if you care about that sort of thing). Sometimes, like Ted and Don or Ted and Peggy, these couples consist of two people who want the same thing and are somehow incapable of realizing it at the same time, or, like Pete and his brother, are joined only by a common problem. Even the shared past that has bonded Roger Sterling and Don Draper for the majority of the show, particularly in the face of the increasingly obvious gaping generation gap both in and out of the office, appears flimsy. Roger has begrudgingly settled into his place beside the Burt Coopers of their world: sitting at the table, mostly silent, making the occasional quip while Don reels towards self-destruction, thrusting himself at an impenetrable cultural boundary, running to catch up with a generation he does not understand while simultaneously yearning to return to a lost, invented past that only erodes further each time it is recalled.

If Mad Men is a show about the future, which I believe it is, Don Draper, the man at its center, begins as a titan, shaping his world into the world of his dreams. By the end of its sixth season, he awakes ravaged by it, with no choice but to walk through a nightmare. This could be a kind of atonement: there is a quiet hope in the idea that man is alone, and, ultimately only he is capable of saving himself.

It is difficult to determine if “In Care Of” is more replete with pairings fraught by figurative coitus interruptus or the triangulated characters and plots that appear with comparable frequency and lead to similar paralysis. Stalled between two distressed women he no longer loves, Don Draper is unable to be a father or a husband. Ted leaves for California to salvage a seemingly doomed marriage and escape the woman he loves but refuses to leave his wife for. The holy trinity may be useful metaphor for the stability that evaporates throughout the episode. Orphaned by his own father, it is made evident that Don has not fully taken on the role of the father or the son, and as the spectral myth of his life dissipates, he is left suspended, stripped of even his job, wading through vestigial, ruined relationships and collapsed identities, pressing up against a past, present and future that remain imperviously wedged up against each other.

In keeping with the psychoanalytic turn the show has taken in its two most recent seasons, it should not be forgotten that, largely, this is an episode about fathers. In arguably its most cathartic moment, we see Don pitching to Hershey. He begins with an anecdote about his father taking him to get a chocolate bar as a child, recalling the Hershey bar as a “childhood symbol of love”, but his usual saccharine bullshit story quickly deteriorates into a confession that he actually had no love in his childhood. Don continues to reveal his upbringing in a Pennsylvania whorehouse, much to the horror of the Hershey executives and other partners of SCDP (or whatever it’s going by these days).

Maybe this scene is so intense because of how much we know and the deep tension of seeing the fabric of lies that has maintained Don’s life’s work and his life itself up to this point, something that, until this instant, he has struggled to hold it intact. And the struggle has been hard to watch. There is a strange relief in watching him give it up. Maybe it is intense because it seems like the only true thing he’s ever said, and it’s soaked through with so much pain and surrender. It shouldn’t feel like winning, but it does, and I don’t think it’s because we want Don Draper to be punished; I think it is because we want him to stop suffering.

Unwanted, fatherless, and forced to “(re?) create himself,” Dick Whitman became the mythic Don Draper. This is moment in which the myth collapses in on itself, and, however earnest or long anticipated, the truth collapses alongside it, and it collapses fantastically.

Much like Don’s desperate attempts to sober up, his confession comes too late to save him or do much of anything except prolong the very same anxieties and problems it hopes to mitigate. (Though The Wire has already made remarkable use of it) I feel compelled to cite Scott Fitzgerald’s big line “There are no second acts in American lives.” Is it this very realization that brings Don to give up the ‘real story’, or the opposite: is he naïvely clinging to some furtive hope that ‘coming clean’ could grant him another beginning or chance to generate a new self? Is he just a little too sober for once?

Lets talk more fathers. There is Nixon, who we see pictured on the poster in the bar where Don speaks to (and ultimately punches) a priest (or “father”). “Nixon’s the president, everything’s back the way Jesus wants it” Don slurs over his drink, the obvious irony being that not even Don seems believe that this restoration of order is possible, suggesting similar implications about his desperate attempts to restore order within the sphere his own life. And we know, of course, that Nixon will prove an absent father at best. “The only unpardonable sin is to believe that God cannot forgive you,” he is told, but Don Draper certainly isn’t buying the package the church has to offer. It didn’t save the Kennedys or Martin Luther King, he points out, adding to his laundry list of lost paternal figures. I want to believe, though, that he is thinking about forgiveness in this scene, and again at in the last shot of the episode, as he stands beside his children, gazing across the remains of the place he grew up. An adolescent Sally Draper looks back at Don as though she is trying to understand or forgive him, and it feels, for a moment, that while the particular new beginning Don seeks so desperately throughout the episode is not possible, it isn’t too late for him to become a better father to his own children.

Much like Don’s dreams of Los Angeles, Pete’s new frontier on the Chevy account is put to an abrupt halt, as he literally is unable to drive the car forward. He returns to New York to find out that his mother has fallen off a boat and poetically joined her husband’s corpse in the same water his plane went down in. (“She’s joined father in the ocean”, Pete’s brother remarks, somewhat comically.) “No one/ to witness/ and adjust, no one to drive the car” William Carlos Williams wrote only six years earlier, and still, in 1968 (ie. the show’s) vehicles are portrayed primarily as sources of anxiety, violence, and lost control. But the train keeps going. Peggy takes Don’s office. Roger visits Joan’s house, finally accepted as a part of his son’s life, despite the paternal failure he is accused of by his daughter at the episode’s opening and Joan’s persistent rejection of him as a romantic or sexual partner.

Many interesting and obscure Shakespearean threads have been identified in this season in particular; the preceding episode “The Quality of Mercy” is relatively overt about this, taking its title from The Merchant of Venice and invoking the play in numerous instances (Todd VanDerWerff presented these elegantly in his piece for the A.V Club last week.) My familiarity with ‘the bard’ is comparatively meager, but I think there’s something there. Like Macbeth, who draws his identity from the women that surround him on stage, whether these ‘gifts’ arrive in the form of language or the grotesque visions granted to him by the witches, Don Draper’s failure is a failure to self-generate. In the previous episode, this arrives in his infantilization and increasingly futile attempts to “return to the womb” as he suffers the loss of yet another surrogate mother figure in Peggy. “In Care Of” sings a similar tune as we feel the ever-heightening dissonance between the man and the myth: a dissonance that the show describes, in this case, through paternal rather than maternal absence.

“There is nothing to be done,” cries a distressed Betty Francis/Draper over the phone, afraid of the world that the world has become, somehow, in front of her. She is right, in a sense. She belongs to a dying aristocracy and the world that bore her is lost or profoundly unrecognizable. The future is coming. The train is arriving and you either get on or are left behind. There is no third option. You certainly can’t go back, so when Don brings his children to gaze at the remains of his childhood home, it isn’t an entryway into the past he is looking for, it is a passage into the future that is only possible through some form of atonement.  It may be true that loss of control can often lead to epiphany, but sometimes the epiphany is only that what is gone is gone and what lies ahead is too terrifying to face into. Maybe that is the problem the iTunes store is referring to. Or it could be something different: that everyone needs to start over and no one is allowed to. TC mark

image – Mad Men

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