Apologies for the tardiness of this recap, but I’ve been listening to “Both Sides Now” on repeat and weeping bittersweet tears all morning, which can make it surprisingly difficult to type.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I’ll say this: Never underestimate “Mad Men’s” ability to surprise.
After a season that spanned the darkest and most turbulent year in recent American history, and at times played more like a psychological horror film than the brooding period drama we once knew, the series has done something thoroughly unexpected: It’s become hopeful.
“In Care Of” is not only the most exquisitely poignant episode of “Mad Men” since “The Suitcase,” it’s also the most life-affirming the series has ever been, bringing the anxiety and menace of Season 6 to an end with a note of qualified but unmistakable optimism -- for Don and his children, but also for Joan, Roger, Peggy and Pete.
Who knew the image of a man standing with his kids in front of a rundown Victorian house on a trash-strewn street in an unnamed Pennsylvania town could be so moving?
One of the most frequent complaints leveled at this season of “Mad Men” is that Don’s struggles with women and drink had grown wearisome, and that the show itself was in a kind of narrative rut, mining the same thematic material with diminished results. While I agree to some extent with this criticism, it seems apparent that Matthew Weiner had this trajectory in mind all along: Drive us all to the brink of loathing Don, only to have our protagonist redeem himself in the most unexpected, heartrending way imaginable.
Just a week ago Don was a “monster,” rejected by both his one-time protégée and his only daughter. As “In Care Of” begins, things are even worse. He skips out on a meeting with Royal Hawaiian to go on yet another bender, one that lands him in jail for punching a minister (though, to be fair, that guy kind of deserved it). Returning home, he decides more or less on the spot that the only thing that will make him better is a move to California. Megan instantly agrees, thinking that a move out West will be a boon to her career and a balm for her ailing marriage.
What we already know is that California is no longer the magical place it once was for Don, and his urge to start over is just a last-ditch effort to run from his demons. Given the crisis in Sally’s life -- she gets suspended from Miss Porter’s for buying beer with a fake ID -- fleeing to the other side of the country would be a terrible idea for all involved.
It takes a remarkable chain of events for him to come to this realization. First, Ted pleads to go to California in his place; like Don, he’s also trying to save his marriage. Don shuts him down, but Ted responds with weary compassion, urging him to have a drink before the Hershey’s pitch after noticing a tremor in his hand. The subliminal message is that Ted, as the child of an alcoholic, understands what’s really going on.
In the pitch, Don spins a fantastically dishonest yarn about mowing the lawn as a child in exchange for a Hershey bar from his father. The Hershey’s executives are completely wowed, and here we have the essential dilemma of “Mad Men”: The lies that have gotten Don everywhere professionally are also tearing him apart.
“Weren’t you a lucky little boy,” remarks one of the executives. Don, a smile on his face, looks up at Ted, and the lies come crashing down. In a scene that’s every bit as wrenching as last week’s St. Joseph’s pitch was excruciating, Don confesses the real reason why Hershey’s is, for him, “the currency of affection.” Growing up an orphan in a Pennsylvania whorehouse, young Dick Whitman read longingly about the industrial school Milton Hershey started for boys like him. He’d receive a Hershey’s bar as a reward from one of the girls at the brothel every time he was able to steal a dollar from the pockets of a john.
“I’d eat it, alone in my room, with great ceremony, feeling like a normal kid,” he says. “It was the only sweet thing in my life.”
Naturally, the confession leaves everyone stunned. Don leaves the office, almost immediately a changed person, telling Ted he can go to California and even calling Dawn “sweetheart.” If the agency partners hadn’t pulled a Freddy Rumsen on him first, forcing him to take an indefinite leave of absence, it almost seems like Don would have walked away from the corrupt business on his own.
Their decision hurts, of course, especially given how eagerly his one-time nemesis Duck Phillips is looking to fill the vacancy, but it expedites what I can only hope will be a much-needed healing process for Don. Left jobless and with his marriage on the rocks, all Don has left are his children. On Thanksgiving Day, he drives them to his grim Pennsylvania hometown and tells them the truth about his past.
I’ve watched that last scene about six times now, and each time it grows more affecting, particularly the look on Sally’s face, at once profoundly confused and totally comprehending. (There was a lot of talk on Twitter Sunday night that it’s time for Jon Hamm to win an Emmy. While I thoroughly agree, the expression on Kiernan Shipka's face alone is worthy of a thousand Emmys.) With Don filmed from a low angle in his fedora, it calls to mind the closing image of “The Gypsy and the Hobo,” the stunning Season 3 episode in which Betty learned the truth about Dick Whitman -- hardly a coincidence, I think.
Of course Don’s newfound honesty doesn’t mean his demons have been purged forever. We’ve seen him confess in the past -- first to Betty, then Faye, and finally to Megan -- only to succumb once again to familiar habits. If Don is ever able to fully exorcise the past, coming clean to his children seems like an essential step in that process. As Sally herself told Don, the most terrifying thing about Grandma Ida was the realization that she didn’t know a thing about her father. Now, at last, she does.