The Mad Men Season 6 Finale: Dick Whitman's Revenge

Our roundtable discusses the final episode of the sixth season.
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AMC

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.

"Life is supposed to be a path and you go along and these things happen to you and they're supposed to change you, change your direction," Roger told his shrink. "But it turns out that's not true. It turns out the experiences are nothing." We still don't know if Roger has changed in any meaningful way, if he's learned from his multiple failures as a husband or his failure as a father. As we leave him, he's doting on Kevin while celebrating Thanksgiving with Joan (and Bob Benson). But that's because Joan took pity on him, not because Roger did anything to convince her he had changed.

That makes Roger the exception in this episode, which captured the times as a moment of tumult--both good and bad. Pete, who only ever wanted to be a happy family man with a successful career as an accounts man, is moving to California on his own. He's lost his mother, his wife and daughter, his role on the Chevy account--which Bob now improbably has to himself--and even his bachelor pad. He's free, as Trudy points out, and California could be good for him. We know from past seasons that he has good contacts in the growing aerospace industry. Once he no longer has to battle with the likes of Bob Benson and Don Draper, Pete can shine in the California sun.

And who would have guessed that this season would end with Betty and Don actually getting along, working together as somewhat committed co-parents? The tenor of their phone conversations since their one-night stand has changed. It's lighter, with more affection and concern showing through, despite the occasional barb from Betty. When Betty calls Don about Sally's suspension, she's unburdening herself as much as figuring out the logistics of who will pick up their daughter when. He uses his pet name for her--"Birdie, it's not your fault"--which did not go unnoticed by either Betty or Megan. Is it possible these two could manage to be decent parents and exes?

The partners at SC&P also change their ways, finally doing something about their problem named Don instead of continuing to put up with his destructive behavior. Honestly, it would have been unbelievable if they hadn't kicked him out after this episode. Set aside his years of selfish, arrogant behavior punctuated by multiple unexplained absences. And set aside even this season's greatest hits: giving up the Jaguar account, ruining a client dinner with General Motors, kicking off a juvenile intra-office rivalry with Ted, and producing virtually nothing of creative value. In this episode alone, Don blows off a meeting with Sheraton executives, spends the day drinking (and the night in a drunk tank), and then inexplicably kills their chances with Hershey after initially delivering a pretty decent pitch. Several months off was a merciful sentence.

And then there's Don himself. In telling the true story of his upbringing to both the Hershey men and his partners, Don committed the only unpardonable sin of advertising: He admitted that the whole thing is fake, selling overhyped products to make people feel better about screwed-up lives.

But he also violated Don Draper's personal rule of never directly allowing Dick Whitman into his current life. He chose the worst time and place for it. But by making this particular change, Don may have saved the rest of his life. I doubt he'll stop drinking completely, and his relationships with women will always be affected by his past in some way. But he can stop throwing himself into alcohol and sex as a way of dealing with the past and with the constant strain of pretending to be someone he is not.

I don't know whether Don's epiphany really happened in that jail cell or after the call from Betty, when he first realized that he'd not only driven his daughter away but perhaps condemned her to a life of self-medicating as well. It's the most basic parenting step he could take, but actually telling his kids the truth about their dad's childhood is a good place to start.

It looks--hopefully--like Don will be starting over without Megan by his side. It's possible that they will attempt a bicoastal relationship. But given Megan's initial reaction when she walked into their kitchen to see Don pouring all the alcohol down the drain, I'm betting she leaves for good. Before she realized that Don was suggesting they move to California, Megan seemed to think he was acknowledging that their marriage was not worth saving--and she looked relieved.

"How's it going?" asks the ever-chipper Bob. "NOT GREAT, BOB," was Pete's response-for-the-ages.

And finally, we see Peggy, wearing pants in the office for the first time, settled into Don's chair, and considering a potentially new role as SC&P's acting creative director. She's hurt--it was heartbreaking to see how happy she was cuddling with Ted in bed. But Peggy, any man who tells you, "I don't want anyone else to have you" is bad news. I don't care how smart and charming he otherwise can be. Hopefully, she's learned the same lesson Joan did earlier this season, that if the men around you are happy to make decisions that impact you without a thought for your welfare, you had better start making some big decisions yourself.

We leave SC&P in the capable-if-creepy hands of Don Draper 2.0, as Bob Benson continues to prove that being in the right place at the right time--and not above sabotaging your colleague--can pay off. I'm now fairly certain our speculations about Bob's sexuality were wrong, or at least premature. In the last episode, when Pete confronted Bob, he asked who hired him at SC&P. "You did," replied Bob. "You came in and complimented my tie." That comment, along with Pete's established attention to fashion--the fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo have documented the ways in which Pete is always decked out in the most current colors and cuts--may have led Bob to assume that Pete was a closeted gay man. And that would have led Bob to try playing that angle to get close to his boss.

Whatever the truth about Bob, we have him to thank for setting up the episode's best line as Pete rushes into the elevator after learning that his mother has probably perished at sea after falling off a cruise ship she was on with Manolo. "How's it going?" asks the ever-chipper Bob. "NOT GREAT, BOB," was Pete's response-for-the-ages. I'm using that from now on.


Fetters: Oh, boy. Well, that's one way to end a molasses-slow season. Guess we're in for fresh starts all around!

Ted's new start is, in my mind, the most welcome. Even though his about-face from the night spent at Peggy's to the morning in her office prompted a "Jerk move, Ted," to fly out of my mouth as I watched, it's true that he's done the right thing. If 3,000 miles is what it takes, that's what it takes. And as for Pete, it's about as good a time as any to make a move.

Don's fresh start could be a trickier one. To me, it feels like we've already seen the beginning of the end of Don Draper--not the man himself, but the fake identity Don Draper. We've seen the slick veneer chipping away flashback by flashback all season, and I think on some level, whatever remains of Dick Whitman is growing disgusted with what Don Draper has become. It's almost like it's Don Draper who makes the Hershey pitch, but then it's Dick Whitman who emerges afterward, wanting someone, somewhere to know the truth. Same goes for the scene with Bobby and Sally at the end of the episode. It's the revenge of Dick Whitman.

Will Don's downward spiral continue? Potentially. But I saw that last revelation of his childhood home as a good start in the right direction. At the very least, he's taken one step toward being a more honest dad to his kids.

Amy, I agree with you that, despite how much heavy-duty emotion this episode brought, there feeling of "uplift" at the end--and for me, it came from the feeling that the women of Mad Men are finally getting their footing.

Megan's finally coming to terms with the fact that she deserves better than Don, for starters. Joan's letting Roger back into her life on her own terms, and at SC&P, as we saw earlier in the season, she's starting to believe she's got more to offer than anybody knows. In the work setting, especially, Joan and Peggy look ready to take on bigger, meatier roles. Yes, Peggy's sadness over Ted's abrupt decision to move to California is palpable, but with Don, Ted, and Pete clearing out, she's now the highest-ranking creative officer at SC&P's New York office. And if we know Peggy, she'll seize the opportunity. So between Peggy and Joan, two of the characters who have remained the most even-handed and dependable throughout this entire series are poised to take charge at the office as we move into the next season, which means good things for SC&P and good (historic!) things for both women. As we've said before, Mad Men has things to say about gender, and I wouldn't be surprised to discover that, at the end of all this, the story of Mad Men has been a story about women all along.

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