Mad Men season finale recap: The Don of a New Era

Don's season-long slide finally hits a backstop in a powerful season finale that's all about the characters.
Ep. 13 | Aired Jun 23, 2013

HAVE A SEAT: Cutler and Roger are there to let Don know they'll no longer be requiring his services.

Don makes his choice during the Hershey's meeting. It was the pitch that broke the camel's back. After decades of making a living out of telling attractive lies, Don finally tells an ugly truth. As his partners watch, stunned, he unspools the bizarro, dark-side version of every pitch he's ever sold, spitting out an anecdote from his sordid upbringing, and tying it all together with the product in question. "The closest I got to feeling wanted," he confesses, "was from a girl who made me go through her johns' pockets while they screwed. If I collected more than a dollar she would buy me a Hershey bar and I would eat it alone in my room with great ceremony. And feel like a normal kid." He even ends it with what could almost pass as a slogan: "It was the only sweet thing in my life."

This is Don drawing the line. He can't keep lying because the ghosts of his past are catching up to him. The scene contains such a catharsis not because it's about the other characters realizing the truth about Don, but because it's about Don realizing the truth about Don. He tells the Hershey's representatives that they shouldn't advertise at all. ("You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is, he already knows.") The appeal of the candy bar is that it's its own best advertisement—what you see is what you get. (Of course, that was then. Nowadays, Hershey's is petitioning the FDA to change the definition of "chocolate" so that its products can still qualify.) But for Don, the outside isn't the same as the inside. His sparkly wrapper has long since disguised a rotting interior, like the dead tooth he had pulled in the last season finale, and eventually the smell was starting to suffocate him.

When Don gets let go from the agency, he sees Duck ushering in a potential replacement and it's made clear that he needed his work more than his work needed him. Meanwhile, he ignored the things in his life that actually required his attention. Megan is understandably furious about Don's "We're going to California!/We're not going to California!" about-face, and it's unclear what will happen to this marriage during the upcoming off-season interim.

A phone call from Betty informs him that Sally may be more of her father's daughter than either of them had hoped: she was suspended from Miss Porter's for buying beer. (Although she used her mother's name, which, in its own way, is kind of a compliment.) For all her faults, Betty cares about her daughter. Somewhere, past all the stratified layers of selfishness, Don does too. And so, after losing everything that made him Don Draper, he decides to take his children to the place where he was once Dick Whitman. "This is where I grew up," he tells them, and the look he receives from Sally is the best evidence so far for the possibility of Don's redemption.

"The only unpardonable sin is to believe that God cannot forgive you," warned the evangelist in Don's flashback, paradoxically. That may be true, but God's more indiscriminate in his forgiveness than us mere mortals. The real question is, can Sally? Can we? Can Don?

STRAY THOUGHTS

Roger, too, is looking to connect with his kid. After his spoiled daughter rejects him, he tries to ingratiate himself with Kevin. This ends in a Thanksgiving tableau that really would have surprised Norman Rockwell: Joan, her boss, their child, her mother, and her turkey-carving gay best friend.

"How are you?" "Not great, Bob!"

Oh man, Peggy went on a date with a finance guy? How much further will she sink?!

“My father was a…you can’t stop cold like that.” Ted gives Don some bad advice from a good place. This line also puts their earlier informal drinking competition into a more sobering light.

"We'll be bi-coastal!" Nice save, Don.

"Both Sides, Now" serves as yet another perfect episode-closing song choice. Don's seen life from both sides, from the first floor of a whorehouse and the balcony of a penthouse, but he still really doesn't know life at all.

Thanks everyone for watching this season of Mad Men with me. It was a lot of fun, and now I'm off before someone at EW realizes that I Bob Benson-ed my way in here.

Follow Keith on Twitter: @Staskijiwczejcz

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