This post contains A LOT of spoilers about the season finale of Mad Men, which is probably obvious.
Don Draper spent the majority of this sixth season of Mad Men in a violent downward spiral, thrashing and flailing and tearing down his co-workers and family in cruel desperation. He drank himself sick, rampantly cheated on his wife, scarred his daughter, and vindictively fought against his colleagues with cold bastard cruelty.
In the season’s final episode, Don bottomed out — and it just may have set him free.
To escape the horrors of his childhood as the unloved orphan Dick Whitman, Don has carefully constructed a new image, built on lies and with thick walls that kept the world from ever getting inside. No one — save for Pete Campbell — at work knew his truth, and even as he wrecked everything around him, his identity stayed safe. He fucked up account after account, sweated and cried and experienced a brush with death, all as Don Draper.
Early in this episode, Don decides that he needs a change. He punches an aggressive minister — as he rattles off a list of 1968’s atrocities, he says, “Jesus has had a bad year” — and finds himself in jail. The next morning, he convinces Megan that they’ve got to go to L.A., where SC&P is opening a small satellite office. There, they can start over, and with an almost illogical devotion to her husband and a career offering plenty of opportunities out West, Megan agrees.
The partners agree, and the wheels are in motion for the cross-country journey. Don’s quit drinking, he’s extracting himself from the hell he’s created in New York, and things are looking up. Then, Hershey’s comes to town.
In vintage form, Don sells the chocolatier on a story about a childhood he never had, explaining that his dad let him buy a Hershey’s bar after a day of hard work. But for once, it’s a lie that he cannot tell. After a season filled with painful flashbacks, it’s the memory of being an orphan helping his prostitute roommate scour her john’s pants for change — and earning a Hershey’s bar for a job well done — that finally unravels him.
Sweating and pained, he tells the potential client — and his co-workers — the truth about his childhood. They’re shocked. The client exits. And Don does the first decent thing he’s done all season, giving up his spot in California to Ted, who needs the opportunity to save his marriage from an inter-office romance (and thus, not be a Don). More on that in a bit.
When he tells Megan the news, she bolts, finally awakening to the fact that their marriage is probably not worth saving; they have no kids together, and she doesn’t need him. Hell, the symbolism was pretty obvious: She requests to be written off her own TV show.
Things aren’t any better at work, either. The SC&P partners confront and suspend Don, the culmination of his nightmare year. He even sees his potential replacement, an ultimate act of vengeance from Duck Phillips. He was once the golden boy; now he’s been cut loose, with no return date in sight.
Here, however, is where things are different.
Instead of freaking out at his whole life falling to pieces, Don picks up his kids and brings them to that childhood house of horrors. He comes clean — tells them the truth, so they understand who their dad really is, and why their lives are so screwed up. Instead of sweaty and nervous and tormented, he appears free. The flophouse of his childhood is now dilapidated beyond repair, all broken shingles and shambles. He stares at it, almost like he’s proud.
Maybe this is the beginning of his end, now that Don’s true identity is almost entirely out in the public. But after spending all episode thinking that running away, across the country, would be his salvation, it seems like returning to face the cause of his torment is the key to a new, liberated life.
Ted declared his love for Peggy and a desire to leave his wife after a night of passion (aided by this killer outfit!). But he couldn’t follow through, couldn’t hurt his children by breaking their home. In short, he couldn’t be Don.
They spent all season squaring off, the light and the dark, and now they both are leaving for the time being, to fix their lives and their most important relationships. And they leave Peggy back in New York, alone and picking up the pieces, like always.
Seriously, she was in his office at the end, going through his files. It seems that no matter how far she runs, she can’t escape Don Draper — or, as he may soon be known again, Dick Whitman.
Then again, while forever linked to her boss, she may have finally usurped him.
The other person headed to California — the plan went from a tiny satellite office to big bicoastal presence thanks to everyone’s desperation to leave NYC — is Pete. In what was a largely admirable episode from the balding anti-hero, Pete’s mother seems to have died (after a shady ocean marriage to Manolo, Bob’s recommended nurse) and without the responsibility of her care, he heads west. He even has the blessing of Trudy, who has at least learned to tolerate his presence by the end of his time in Greenwich.