Sometimes, being wrong is nice. Last week’s review laid out a worst-case scenario for the finale of Mad Men’s sixth season: more Sylvia Rosen, more Don Draper Meltdown Theater, followed by an inexorable and execrable journey even deeper into the futile gerbil wheel of his narcissism.
“In Care Of” had many surprises, but what stood out the most was just how healthy so much of it was for Don. One hour of positive growth does not quite make up for a season of dilly-dallying, but it was remarkable to see Don so proactively seeking to better himself, whatever the consequences.
It was equally pleasant not to see Sylvia Rosen. With all due respect to Linda Cardellini, who did fine work in her role, that character and that storyline almost derailed this show. What was most frustrating about the character was the total lack of an explanation for why she struck such a cord with Don, why she caused him to take such chances with his family, his career, and his life. She did because she did, and that’s what Don Draper does, because that’s what Don Draper does.
With Sylvia and her story gone, things happened. A lot of things. Things that have been brewing inside Don since the beginning—embracing the reality of who he is, ending the cycle of self-destruction, accepting the consequences of his self-indulgent behavior, stopping all of the damn lying. To see it all happen in one hour was something.
Although what finally derailed Don was his biggest flaw—self-absorption. The Hershey’s pitch meeting turned into his own personal need to be honest with the world, and it was the final straw that got him temporarily pushed out of Sterling, Cooper & Partners.
A lot of other stuff happened. Ted Chaough takes himself out of the picture, pre-empting his transformation into Don because he has the dignity and self-respect to do so. Peggy gets yet another short stick in a season that has been rough for her. Her recrimination to Ted is a big moment for her in realizing even further the limits placed on her in this world.
The most bizarre and interesting plotline this week is easily Pete Campbell. What to make of his mother’s apparent murder at the hands of Manolo, the manservant provided by the now not-so-nice-seeming Bob Benson? And how about Pete’s strangely cavalier attitude about the whole thing? His tete-a-tete with his brother on the pros and cons of having someone kill Manolo? His decision to yell at Benson about what happened, but no more?
And what about Bob Benson? This week showed for certain that he is not the nice guy he appears to be, or at least not always. It also showed that although Benson has been revealed as a kindred spirit to Don in terms of their level of honesty with the world, that does not mean anything will be done with this fact. Apparently, a season of foreshadowing will have almost no immediate payoff. It is also hard to tell exactly what he may have had to do with the disappearance of Pete’s mother, and why he would want anything to happen to her, considering that Pete let him off the hook last week.
Overall, this was not a great season for Mad Men. Too much dancing around the story, too many false starts, gimmicks, and smokescreens, and way, way, way too much Don Draper. This was a season of dull curlicues for Don, going round and round but depicting nothing. With any luck, the place he is at the very end—finally showing his children where he comes from, facing the very real chance of professional ruin, and most likely an at least extended separation from Megan—will continue next season. It will be interesting to see the shape he is in when he returns, and what that means. But next year, it would be nice to let some of the other stories—those of Peggy, Joan, Bob, Roger, Pete—tell themselves a bit more, with the understanding that Don Draper is now just a reference point for a larger story.