Every week for the sixth season of AMC's acclaimed series Mad Men, our roundtable of Eleanor Barkhorn (Sexes editor, TheAtlantic.com), Ashley Fetters (editorial fellow for TheAtlantic.com's Entertainment and Sexes channels), and Amy Sullivan (National Journal correspondent) will discuss the latest happenings at Sterling Cooper & Partners.
Barkhorn: Mad Men's sixth season ended where it began, in so many ways. This week's episode wrapped up or echoed a remarkable number of plotlines that have barely been touched since the season premiere. These callbacks don't offer neat resolution, though. Instead they highlight a decay, a breakdown, proof that things have gotten much, much worse this season, for nearly all the characters.
Back in the premiere, Roger's daughter, Margaret, asked her dad if he would be willing to invest in her husband's business--something to do with refrigerated trucks that haul food cross-country. This week, Margaret and Brooks finally show up at the agency to pitch Roger on the idea. Roger declines to help, whether because he thinks it's a lousy business plan or because he enjoys having his daughter financially dependent on him, we don't know. Either way, Margaret accuses Roger of "taking food out of our mouths," disinvites him from Thanksgiving, and storms out of the office. This is the second time this season that Margaret has denied Roger access to his family. After he takes his grandson to see Planet of the Apes, she revokes his babysitting privileges.
Another callback also involves Roger. His mother died in the premiere. "She loved me in this totally stupid way, and now she's gone," he told his ex-wife, Mona. In the finale, Pete's mom dies--or more precisely, gets "lost at sea" after marrying Manolo. But as we know, Pete's mother didn't care much for him, and in her death he returns in favor. When Pete and his brother realize it'll be expensive to investigate her death, and that she didn't have that much money in the end, they shrug their shoulders and give up. "She's of the sea," Pete says.
There was also Ted's post-coital suggestion to Peggy that they go to Hawaii for Christmas, which is exactly what Don and Megan were doing in the premiere. He says this to Peggy in an attempt to show that he's serious about her. He doesn't want to sneak around. He wants to tell the truth, to leave his wife, to start a life with Peggy. But it turns out to be a sweet nothing uttered in the afterglow. Of course Ted's not going to leave his wife--part of what Peggy loves about him is that he's virtuous, right? He ends their flirtation a few scenes later, promising her that she'll appreciate his decision one day. "Aren't you lucky? To have decisions," she sneers.
Most crucially, this episode saw the return of the Royal Hawaiian, the campaign that brought Don to Hawaii in the premiere, the one that inspired his eerie "jumping off point" pitch. The Sheraton reps show up at the office for a meeting with Don this episode, presumably hoping he'd come up with something more inspiring to sell their hotel than the image of a suicidal man.
But as with so many of the season-premiere echoes in this episode, the Royal Hawaiian meeting shows how bad things have gotten around SC&P. Because Don, like the man in his ad, isn't there. He's at a bar, so drunk that he ends up in jail for punching a minister who tried to evangelize to him.
At first, it looked like this incident might be the rock-bottom moment that inspires Don to reform his ways. The next morning, he pours all his alcohol down the drain and tells Megan he wants them to move to California. "We were happy there," says Don. "We could be happy again." He later reverses the decision to go to California, but out of apparent kindness--Ted begs him to let him go so he can escape his feelings for Peggy.
To the people around Don, though, ditching the Royal Hawaiian meeting was the beginning of the end. Don later bombs a pitch meeting with Hershey chocolate--ironically, by finally telling the truth to a client about his youth in the whorehouse. This is the last straw for the SC&P partners. They put him on a months-long suspension, with no promise for a return date. Megan's fed up, too. She comforts him after his night in jail and supports him in the decision to move to Los Angeles... but when he changes the plans to move, she walks out.
The season closes with some dark hopefulness. Joan invites Roger to Thanksgiving and says she's going to let him have a relationship with their son, Kevin. Peggy spends the holiday in Don's office--with him on suspension and Ted on his way to California, she's in charge of the New York branch, at least for now. Don picks his kids up for Thanksgiving dinner and drives them to the brothel where he grew up. They stand on the sidewalk, staring at the grand, dilapidated house, and Don and Sally look at each other. It's a look of understanding, possibly--Sally is finally starting to realize just how dark her father's childhood was. And maybe from there a look of forgiveness for the ways he's fallen short as a dad? Maybe.
Despite the happy-ish ending, it's impossible to deny that chaos has taken over Mad Men. The SC&P employees are scattered across the country: New York, Los Angeles, the relentlessly unforgiving city of Detroit. Relationships are in flux: Pete's said goodbye to his daughter, Ted is hoping he can save his family by uprooting it, Megan is AWOL. And, of course, Don doesn't have a job. What will things look like when we return next season? Will Don be a happy, single, stay-at-home Dad? Will Peggy's reign over the New York office be made permanent? Will the Chevy campaign finally materialize? Will Ted and Pete make it in LA? Or has this season been, for everyone, a "jumping off point," a point of no return?
Sullivan: It's striking that for a finale in which so many of our characters went through traumatic events, the episode ended with a feeling of uplift. Maybe that's because Roger's theory of life as spelled out in the season premiere--and the theme that drove much of this season--turns out to be wrong.