It’s always so traumatic when another excellent Mad Men season ends. I loved that finale so much, I knew I’d have to obsessively re-watch the whole season all week just to figure out how great it was. I’ve viewed that “Both Sides Now” scene dozens of times in the past few days, and it still hasn’t stopped ripping me to shreds. Season Six still seems back-loaded, with too many weak episodes in the first half. But Matthew Weiner really nailed those brilliant final four episodes, capping a bleak, baffling year for the Mad Men crew. As the doorman Louie used to say, back when he was Little Carmine on The Sopranos, this season Don Draper got stuck in a stagmire – and now he’s at the precipice of an enormous crossroads.
This was basically an improved remake of Season Two, another meandering slog redeemed by a strong finish. Peggy spends both seasons getting chased by a creepy Irish guy, except instead of Father Twitchy McEyebrows, this time it was Ted Turtle O’Neck from the County Douche and his bad Kennedy imitation. (“Ask not what your country can douche for you – ask what you can douche for your country.”) And as in Season Two, Don gets tangled up with a married couple, who just aren’t fascinating enough to hold so much screen time. This husband was a surgeon instead of a comedian, but while their hippie son knows how to work a pair of bell-bottoms, the Arnold-and-Sylvia subplot got tired fast.
As for Don himself – poor Dick Wheezus keeps trying to roll out that same old razzle-dazzle kabuki that used to wow the clients, but he’s the last to realize he’s lost his touch. He hit bottom in the Hershey meeting, where he melted down like a Kit Kat in a glove compartment. A truly wrenching scene – it evoked that song by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers: “I go to bakeries all day long / There’s a lack of sweetness in my life.” (Maybe Don can use that line next season in a Hostess meeting?)
When Don told Megan his latest going-to-California fantasy, I recalled the wise words of the great Rachel Menken back in Season One, when he tried to sell her on the exact same scheme: “What are you, 15 years old?” But that was eight years earlier, and this time Nixon’s won the White House instead of Kennedy, Rachel Menken is now Mrs. Tilden Katz, the actress who played her is kicking ass on Sons of Anarchy and Don still has trouble talking long-necked brunettes into falling for his California trip.
Since the Jewish queenpin understood her goy toy Don as well as anyone has, he should have heeded her words, but he didn’t. He still only likes the beginnings of things, no matter how many times he plays out this pattern of escaping to a West Coast Tomorrowland, then going back to New York City when he believes he’s had enough. During the finale, it was hard not to think of Warren Beatty in Shampoo, set in L.A. amid the 1968 election. No way could Don get over in L.A. – he’s neither Warren Beatty enough nor Jack Warden enough.
The Sixties figure Don resembles now is Brian Epstein, the doomed Beatles manager. Another self-made man in a suit, a master at shaping people’s dreams and fantasies – not to mention a self-destructive alcoholic with guilty secrets. Like Epstein, Don’s a golden boy of the early 1960s, but when the Beatles change the conversation with Revolver, he’s behind the times with no clue how to update his old-school show-biz tricks. By 1968, Epstein was dead from all the booze and pills; who knows how long Dick Baby-You’re-a-Whitman can outlive him. (And the finale takes place the week the Beatles released The White Album, just in time for Thanksgiving 1968 – their first post-Epstein record. That week began with The White Album and ended with Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.)
Sally, who got the brains in the family and hopefully not a damn thing else, finally saw her father at his worst, catching him in bed with Mitchell’s mom. Sorry Don, but no way was she going to go Tommy on this shit (“You didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it”) and turn into the deaf-dumb-and-blind pinball wizard of Miss Porter’s School. Sally has always been the one character who will tell Don he’s full of crap. (“You say things and you don’t mean them and you can’t just do that!”) But he still said, “I know you think you saw something” – a line that gets more repulsive every time I watch. In a way, those words must have been an even more painful betrayal for Sally. It must have been how the young Don felt watching his father cheat the hobo.
Yet Don needs his daughter more than ever, since it looks like he’s trashed another marriage. For a year or so there, back in her “It’s just a milkshake” heyday, my girl Megan was Mad Men‘s smartest cookie. Then she turned into Lobotomegan. How many scripts have the stage direction, “Megan walks out of bedroom and watches Don watch TV”? The Megandroid got more feisty moments in the finale than she had all season. (Though I love my colleague Sarene Leeds’ prediction that Megan turns into Mary Tyler Moore – she’s gonna make it after all! I bet Joan ends up on Alice, waitressing at Mel’s Diner, while Ginsberg becomes The Jeffersons‘ doorman and Roger Sterling takes over from Furley on Three’s Company.)
Bert Cooper, sad to say, barely appeared all season. But he was great in that climactic sitdown, when he finally woke up and got tough. Me, I would gladly watch an entire Bert Cooper spin-off, maybe one where he retires to that cattle ranch in Montana with his bad-ass lesbian sister and terrorizes the local farmers. Next season on AMC: Did You Wash Your Hands?
It’s still hard to see how Sterling Cooper remains open for business, since they haven’t sold an idea all year. But Ted and Don, who dreamed up this cockamamie merger, get cut out of the action, as does Pete Campbell. (Who apparently finds it hard to concentrate on driving when he isn’t sitting near a high school girl going to third base.) Ted Chaough-Not-Shaw, as always, is as greedy and grasping as Don, but nowhere near as competent, so even Peggy is over his bull-chaought. Let’s just say if Peggy kept that broomstick harpoon of hers around the office, no jury would convict. (“Your honor, the dead man told the defendant someday she’d be glad he made this decision. Can we wrap this up by lunch?”)
With all these disasters in his life, what’s left for Don to do? Nothing except hit the road and show his daughter the whorehouse where he grew up. That final shot of their two faces was truly hardcore. Sally’s arched eyebrow at the end – a flicker of compassion? Skepticism? Curiosity? Whatever it is, she might be the only person who hasn’t given up on him.
The season ends with one of Mad Men‘s craftiest music moments: “Both Sides Now.” It was a song particularly beloved by Jimmy Page, a guy who knew a thing or two about going-to-California fantasies. In his 1975 Rolling Stone cover story, Page raved to Cameron Crowe about how Joni Mitchell wrote his life with that song. “She brings tears to my eyes, what more can I say? It’s bloody eerie. I can relate so much to what she says. ‘Now old friends are acting strange/They shake their heads/They say I’ve changed.’ I’d like to know how many of the original friends any well-known musician has got. You’d be surprised. They think – particularly that thing of change – they all assume that you’ve changed. For the worse.”
But Don Draper has changed, and definitely for the worse, which is only one of the reasons he has so few friends left. Don has driven away Megan, the girl of his own “Going to California” dreams. (“Find a queen without a king, she plays guitar and cries and sings: Zou bisou bisou.”) Jimmy Page might have advised Don not to lose Megan. But then Jimmy Page, unlike Don, was a shrewd businessman who understood the value of assets. Hey, maybe Led Zeppelin will meet Megan in L.A. at the Rainbow and write “Living Loving Maid” about her.
Both sides now? Don doesn’t belong on either side of the country and he knows it. Even though he just coined the term “bicoastal,” he’s blown his chance at any kind of home, burning his bridges. (How can you be in two places at once, when you’re not anywhere at all?) Like Rachel Menken said, part of him really is 15 years old, but his only shot at moving forward is the 15-year-old girl standing next to him on a street corner in Pennsylvania, raising an eyebrow at this dad she barely knows. She’s confused. So is he. And that’s where Mad Men leaves us for now: Don and Sally by the side of the road. Just kids.