A wake-up call heeded as 'Mad Men' season ends
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Just how low can Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sink before it all ends with wife Megan (Jessica Pare)? Viewers might find out in the next season of AMC's "Mad Men."
NEW YORK — We have now left Don Draper in a state ripe for rehab — both literally and figuratively.
Airing Sunday night, the season finale of "Mad Men" found its troubled hero reeling from one bender too many.
"I realized it's gotten out of control," he told his wife, Megan, after a night in a drunk tank after punching out a priest who ticked him off in a bar. "I've gotten out of control," he added.
In its penultimate sixth season spanning the turbulent year of 1968, this AMC drama charted Draper's downward spiral, cheating on his wife with a downstairs neighbor and wreaking havoc at the Manhattan ad agency where he used to be golden.
Until now a charismatic master of pretense, Draper by season's end acknowledged what every "Mad Men" viewer already knew: Don's fabled mojo had failed him. But he seemed prepared to take corrective action.
Did he have a lot of choice? In a startling scene, Draper (series star Jon Hamm) was summoned to a meeting for some bad news: He was being sidelined at Sterling Cooper & Partners.
That is, Draper was ordered to "take some time off and regroup," in the pointed words of fellow partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery).
This expulsion came after a powwow days earlier with the bosses of a possible new client, Hershey's Chocolate, where the silver-tongued Draper did what he does best: infusing the product with his own seductive myths.
Don had the Hershey execs spellbound with a heart-tugging recollection of his father rewarding him with a Hershey bar for mowing the lawn.
"Hershey's is the currency of affection," he rhapsodized. "It's the childhood symbol of love."
But then, as if suffering a crisis of conscience, he pulled a one-eighty. Always a master of revisionist history, Draper revised his pitch from fantasy to truth: He was actually an orphan raised in a whorehouse, he revealed, where, trying to capture the experience of a normal kid, he would eat a Hershey bar he got from one of the girls "who made me go through her john's pockets while they screwed."
Don's eyes moistened, his voice sank to a whisper in a scene that should clinch Hamm his long-withheld Emmy.
"Do you want to advertise THAT?" asked a puzzled Hershey exec.
"If I had my way, you would NEVER advertise," Draper answered. "And you shouldn't have someone like me telling that boy" — every happy, normal boy with a father who loves him — "what a Hershey bar is. He already knows."
It was a startlingly awkward moment for the agency partners, but a galvanizing moment of truth for Don.
This step toward redemption, if that's what it turns out to be, was likely triggered two episodes ago, when his teenage daughter Sally found him cheating on his wife. Sally was traumatized.
So was Draper at being discovered by her.
"It's the worst thing that ever happened to him," said "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner in a recent interview. "His pain and guilt and shame are indescribable."
It was the wake-up call Don was long overdue for.
"We discovered a lot about Don this year as he realized who he really is," Weiner said. "And we discovered that he doesn't want to be that way."
On the finale, he torpedoed the romance of longtime colleague Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) with her new love, agency partner Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm). Don facilitated Ted's wish to move to California with his family to separate himself from Peggy, breaking off their affair and thereby saving his marriage.
At the same time, Don put his own marriage in hock by breaking his earlier promise to Megan for them, not Ted, to make the move to California for the agency and make a fresh start of their own.
"The agency decided it," Don lied when telling her the change of plans.
Even with no inkling he had routinely betrayed her with a mutual friend who lived just one floor away, Megan had long felt he was growing more remote. His reneging on the move west with her was the last straw.
"You want to be alone with your liquor and your ex-wife and your screwed-up kids!" she seethed as she walked out the door.
Megan's words were an eerie echo of last season's conclusion, with Draper planted at a posh Manhattan bar and approached by a beautiful woman who asked, "Are you alone?" Viewers never learned what happened then.
What will happen next?
Painful recognition appears to be propelling "Mad Men" toward its final season, while leaving viewers to ponder how — or if — Don will patch up his marriage, his career and his relationship with Sally.
Weiner, who resumes the writing process soon, insisted many questions are yet to be settled.
On the other hand, he has had the final moments of the show in mind for years, he said, though he took pains to tamp down viewer expectations.
"There's no big reveal coming," Weiner declared. "What to leave the audience with is what I've been thinking about, and I have an image. But I don't want to oversell it. Honestly, I'm in denial about the show ending. But we'll get to it when we get to it — and then it will be on the air."
In the meanwhile, viewers are left with this image: Don Draper's newly discombobulated life. But signaling hope for both him and the audience, he seems to understand he can't just charm his way out of it.
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