Mad Men season 6 finale review: In Care Of

Mad Men concludes its wonderful, surprising sixth season with a moment of uncharacteristic hope. Or does it? Here's Frances' review...

This review contains spoilers.

6.13 In Care Of

“Going down?”

From season one, episode one, Mad Men’s opening credits have told us we’re watching the descent of man, or more properly, of one man. Following the structure of classical tragedy, we met Draper when he had it all – job, wife, kids, mistress, cool hat – and have watched as piece by piece, it’s fallen away.

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In the beginning, Don was Jay Gatsby; he came from nothing, achieved everything, but remained dissatisfied. Like Gatsby too, his early life was mired in secrecy and hushed scandal, and ever since we’ve known him, all signs have told us to expect a tragic ending.

It’s a surprise then, that In Care Of left us somewhat optimistic about Draper’s chances. Perhaps six seasons of Mad Men’s thoroughgoing cynicism have just warped my definition of hope, but seeing Don offer his kids a piece of his unadulterated past soundtracked by the whimsical wisdom of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now felt almost like it. “When is everything going to get back to normal?” was the key quote of last season, and this year, it was, “something has to change”. Now, finally, something has.

Granted, it took him punching a minister, losing his job (in true Mad Men-style, Don’s removal from the office was presaged by the episode’s very first scene as he strolled in through doors that no longer bore his initial), and his second wife walking out to do it, but Don is no longer on the run from his past. He extended a peace offering to Sally and Bobby to repair the damage done to his “screwed-up kids”, and was rewarded for it by a moment of rapprochement outside his childhood home.

Of course, we’ll have to wait for the seventh and final series to find out whether this is a turning point for Don, or – we’re reminded of the suit-shedding Hawaiian resort ad he designed in this season’s opener – the last sloughing off of his assumed identity before he takes that final walk into the sea.

Those beautiful closing moments at the former whorehouse were an inversion of the key image from the season five finale – that silhouetted shot of the SCDP team on their as-yet unpopulated second floor, looking out to the future. Season six had Don and his kids staring in the opposite direction, into the past. Work had been replaced by family, and ambition by honesty. It may have felt sombre, but that ending is about as warm and fuzzy as Mad Men gets.

The scene at Joan’s Thanksgiving table was a heartening one too, even if single mother and baby, estranged louche father and closeted man-without-a-past-in-a-frilly-apron aren’t exactly the cast of a Norman Rockwell painting.

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Roger’s daughter had frozen him out for rejecting her refrigeration investment, so it was Joan’s turn to show some compassion and let Roger in. I’d say Joan is more Bob’s beard than his buddy, but hopefully Mrs Harris has seen enough of the world and is enough of a pragmatist to understand what she’s dealing with in Bob Benson. Lord knows the rest of us aren’t yet sure.

Another parent reunited – temporarily at least – with his child was Pete Campbell, the unluckiest man on Madison Avenue. Despite his act of magnanimity last week, Pete still fell afoul of Bob’s scheming, and lost his peppy smile as quickly as he lost that short-lived role at Chevy. As Campbell put it this week though, he has far bigger problems, not least his life turning into a daytime soap opera.

The demise of Dotty Campbell has to sit next to that ride-on lawnmower accident as one of Mad Men’s wackier moments. Lost at sea after being pushed off a cruise ship by her former nurse and now gold-digging husband is an ending worthy of Megan’s To Have and To Hold. (One wonders if Corinne and Colette will be written out with anything like as much high camp.) After losing his father to a plane crash and his mother on a cruise ship, Pete is now a luxury travel orphan.

We were discouraged from feeling too much pity for Pete however, thanks to that comically nasty scene in which the Campbell boys abandoned their mother in shark-infested waters and let her murderer run free so as to escape paying the bill. “She loved the sea”, said Pete, washing his hands of old mater, and toddling off to join Ted in California. No parents, no wife, no child, no accounts to speak of, Pete is finally free, Trudy told him. What was it Janis Joplin sang though? Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

The family message continued as Ted Chaough chose his kids over Peggy, leading to her spitting out her line of the season, “Well aren’t you lucky, to have decisions”. Season six has seen Peggy’s agency seriously curtailed – her choices about where to work, live, and love were all overruled by the men in her life – but that closing shot of her in the trouser-suit assuming not only Don’s throne, but his characteristic back-to-the-camera pose, tells us that’s all about to change.

Speaking of chairs, it can’t be a coincidence that Ted sat in the same one as Lane Pryce did last season in desperation to ask Don for help. This time around, Don eventually offered it, and showed growth even from the beginning of the episode when he rode roughshod over Stan’s dream. With that preacher’s words about repentance, forgiveness and salvation ringing in his ears, Don took his escape route, and gave it up to help someone else. You see what I mean about this finale being uncharacteristically cheering?

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Like season five’s The Phantom with its rotten tooth metaphor though, In Care Of also had its heavy-handed moments. Many of the episode’s lines were unnaturally weighty for the context, from Betty’s ominous “the good is not beating the bad” to Ted’s concern about getting “lost in the chaos”.

There were wonderfully deft lines too though, from Don’s “Jesus had a bad year” and Sally’s deadpan “my calendar is full”, to Roger’s gag about Detroit. We also answered the question of where Dick Whitman picked up his way with words from Uncle Mac’s little beauty, “I’d say go to hell but I never want to see you again”.

We’ve established in previous weeks that season six has been characterised by circularity, and this finale was no different. Ted’s suggestion, for instance, that he and Peggy spend Christmas in Hawaii took us all the way from the end right back to The Doorway again. It has to be an endorsement of this past series that I’m itching to follow its lead and go straight from here back to the premiere for a second ride on the season six carousel.

Read Frances’ review of the previous episode, The Quality of Mercy, here.

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