Mad Men: “In Care Of”
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Mad Men: “In Care Of”

Don Draper lies. It’s what he does. Sometimes, he lies for good reasons, and sometimes, he lies to protect himself, and sometimes, he just lies because he’s good at it. But he gave up one life to assume another, and at some point, he realized that if he was going to tell one lie effectively, he’d have to back it up with a whole host of smaller lies, some of which would hurt people and some of which would be little white lies but all of which would be completely untrue. It helped, of course, that he worked in a business that primarily sold lies to people, trying to convince them that the happiness they craved lay in some object or another, but he was primarily a liar because that was what he did. And he was amazing at it, a premium merchant of bullshit who kept wrapping chocolate in candy and calling it the only answer one would ever need.

I found “In Care Of” somewhat emotionally overwhelming, and that was because Don Draper chose to stop lying. Granted, he did so in a manner that wasn’t entirely convincing, and he did so in a way that blows up the fundamental premise of the show, but he did so in a way that also allowed him the freedom Trudy talked about with her estranged husband. Losing everything also means having the freedom of getting to choose what comes next without the crushing weight of expectations. Mad Men has frequently been about how everybody around Don Draper seems capable of change, even if he himself doesn’t, but “In Care Of” shows a man who’s gotten tired of being himself and tries any number of methods to overcome the fundamental realities of his life. He pours his alcohol down the sink. He promises his wife a new life via change of location. He, himself, steals another man’s idea so that he might attempt to outrun the demons that have taken up residence in New York. And finally, he starts being honest—with his coworkers, with two representatives of the Hershey Corporation, with his children, and maybe even with himself. The truth sets him free. It also kicks his ass.

The most common thing I’m seeing fans of the show say on Twitter and in assorted comments sections is that “In Care Of” feels like a series finale. I don’t think that’s really the case—I imagine when Matt Weiner sits down to write the final adventures of these characters sometime late this year or early next year, it will have much more finality to it than this episode did—but I can understand why someone would feel that way. With its numerous callbacks to the show’s first season (and even the pilot) and with its numerous storylines that end with characters pitching themselves over the edge and into the unknown—or being pushed—the whole thing has this grand sense of chaos coming to dominate the order we associate with the show. It’s possible that when the series returns, everything neatly reverses itself, and if this were the finale of season two or three, I’d expect that to be the case. But it’s not. It’s the last finale before the final season of the show. Like the country he lives in, Don Draper has stepped out into the great unknown.

Weirdly, I keep coming back to a seemingly insignificant storyline when thinking about this episode: the death of Pete’s mother. The cruise line that owns the ship that she died on believes her to have simply fallen overboard, to have forgotten where she was or have had an unfortunate accident and slid into the sea. Pete and his brother are convinced it was Manohlo—revealed to be living under a pseudonym—who married her and pushed her overboard because he wanted her money, only to find out she didn’t have all that much. If you’re asking me what happened, I don’t know (though I find Pete’s narrative of events much more compelling), but I think there’s something to this idea of being pushed or taking the leap. It’s sort of what happens to all of the characters in this episode, and the ratio of “push” to “jump” is different for every single one of them. Don, for instance, is pushed out of the company (for the time being, but we all know how well that worked for Freddie Rumsen) by his fellow partners, but he’s also the one who pulled the ripcord by indulging in one self-destructive moment too many. For Peggy, it’s almost 100 percent getting pushed. She has absolutely no agency in what happens to her. And so on.

Which might be what those “feels like a series finale” people are talking about: This episode is shot through with an intense sense of catharsis, particularly when it comes to its protagonists. There are moments in this episode as moving as anything we’ve ever seen from Don Draper, and they come at the end of a season that examined as completely as possible just why he was a monster. That Hershey’s pitch—a long, completely true story about how he used to buy a Hershey bar with money given to him by one of the prostitutes in the whorehouse he grew up in after he stole out of the pockets of johns—is at once incredibly audacious and achingly real. (I didn’t quite buy that Don would go this far, this quickly, but the episode certainly brought him enough of the way to the brink that this was ultimately a very, very minor quibble.) But in some ways, that moment feels a little too easy as the emotional capper. I was just as moved by that shot of him walking away from Roger, having called Dawn “sweetheart” and surely become aware that his days were numbered (even if only on a subconscious level). And I was even more blown away by Don and Sally sharing that little look outside the “house” where he grew up. That moment of intense connection has been a long time in coming between those two. The rest of the series will hinge on whether Don can keep up with this newfound ability for self-reflection, this newfound ability to change. (Interestingly, the final arc of The Sopranos also hinged on this.)

Early in the episode, Betty calls Don to tell him that Sally has been suspended from school. (She literally gives him a wake-up call with this news, which would be too on-the-nose if I hadn’t just realized it, thus making it, by definition, subtly handled, if only for me.) Sally has been drinking beer she snuck in after purchasing it with a fake ID. She’s gotten other kids drunk, too, and she’s fortunate the school didn’t kick her out. Betty frets that because Sally’s from a broken home, she’ll always be like this. (Don, overcome with shame, knows there’s another reason Sally is acting out.) The good will never outweigh the bad, Betty says. Sally will constantly be defined by her own baser impulses, what is worst about her winning out over what is best. Don knows this isn’t true, and it’s one of many smaller jolts that adds up to the earthquake that ends the episode.

But what makes it untrue isn’t that Sally is really working out her anger over seeing her dad sleep with Sylvia or anything like that. What makes it untrue is that what both Don and Sally are working out is the separation between the truth and between the lie. We’re not talking about something relatively simple here, like Sally realizing that her dad lied about his childhood (though that’s complex in and of itself). We’re talking about the central lie behind everything, the idea parents try to sell their children as long as possible that things will be okay. Parents, in this way, function somewhat like the advertising industry, and they function like Richard Nixon did to the American public in 1968. Everything is going to be all right. Daddy’s back, and the bad man can’t hurt you anymore. But the truth of the matter is that parents aren’t all powerful. The advertising industry is mostly selling you needless bullshit. And Richard Nixon was very nearly kicked out of office before he was forced to resign (events that, one assumes, will not be covered during the run of Mad Men, unless we get a fun sequel series about the adventures of Sally Draper, teen girl detective). Sally has realized her father is a human being, with his very own failings and strengths, just like anybody else. And when Don relates to her at the end of the episode, it’s not as a parent but as a fellow human being. “This is who I really am,” he says. “Can you still love me?”

This is an episode capping a season full of people revealing their true selves—advertently and inadvertently—to each other. This trend began with Pete’s infidelities becoming known to his wife, so it seems fitting that Pete will also be pushed out into a greater embrace of who he truly is. Pete, who just landed the Chevy account two weeks ago, subjects Bob to one humiliation too many, and Bob, knowing the truth about Pete’s driving skills, forces that truth to be embarrassingly displayed in front of the Chevy executives. Pete is promptly on his way to California to work in “Siberia” with Ted (who heads there because he wants to save his marriage), but Trudy informs him that he’s finally free. He has no mother. He has no wife. He has no ties. He doesn’t yet realize what that feels like, but he’s going to, very soon. And it might start to feel good.

The show has been using Peggy and Pete as mirrors for each other’s experiences for a long time, so it’s fitting that Peggy would find herself the most constrained of any character in this episode, the least free. She’s had essentially no choice in anything that’s happened to her this season, with her employment situation being decided for her, her boyfriend breaking up with her, and her lover deciding to split after just one sexual encounter because he realizes that he needs to cleave ever more heavily to his family. (The finale is also full of people who have families drawing nearer to them, from Roger and Kevin to Pete being with his child for the first time onscreen this season, right before he must leave her.) And yet at the end of all of this, Peggy ends up as the de facto creative director of Sterling Cooper & Partners. She’s gotten to an amazingly high pinnacle, yet she’s gotten here by being manipulated and bruised at every turn. Or, as she says to Ted, it must be nice to have decisions.

Perhaps prompted by the line from the man who would take Don’s job (“Going down”), I started thinking again about how this season opened with The Divine Comedy, quoting its opening lines as Don read them on a Hawaiian beach. It seemed somehow appropriate in an episode that invoked both Jesus Christ and God’s forgiveness, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it gibed with the episode’s overall thrust about the bracing clarity that comes in the moment after the truth is revealed. The truth can ruin your life. It can ruin many lives. But only once you’ve owned up to it and to who you really are can you begin to understand what it will take to change your life, to begin the journey to being a more whole, fuller, happier human being. Advertising aims to get in the way of that, but it can never stave off these elemental needs for long. When honesty arrives, it’s terrifying, but it’s also freeing (as anyone who’s ever come out of the closet or confessed to a terrible misdeed or admitted a betrayal to a friend can tell you).

The beginning of The Divine Comedy relates the story of a middle-aged man who finds himself lost while wandering through a wood, about to be taken on a journey into the deepest reaches of Hell, into the numbness of Purgatory, and, finally, into the beauties of Heaven itself. The line that concludes the poem—“the love that moves the sun and the other stars”—is one that has always stuck with me, both for the beauty of the image and for the concept behind it, the idea that no matter our petty concerns, there is something greater animating that which is around us. In the Christian tradition, that love stems from God, but it also stems from the perfect truth that comes with admitting that one is a sinner, that one must finally let go of the fallibility of the self and embrace the infallibility of that which is beyond us. (Well, in theory; in practice, of course, it rarely works out, because we are always fallible.) The only sin, the random preacher tells young Don, is to believe that one is beyond God’s forgiveness, beyond that all-animating love. Don may have lost everything, but he is finally capable of grasping the purity that comes in the moment of truth. He’s been in Purgatory long enough. Maybe, finally, with one year of the ’60s and this show left ahead of him, he can step forward into light.

Finale grade: A
Season grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • It’s been a weird, convoluted season of this show, but I’ve come to really, really like it, and I suspect I’ll like it even more on rewatch. In some ways, the season has embraced the chaos of 1968, and I think that made it all the more involving, even if it sometimes seemed like it was completely falling apart.
  • A lot of reviews have spent a lot of time focusing on Megan leaving Don, but I can honestly say that I assume the two will at least try to make the bicoastal thing work. Hell, Don might even move to California. I didn’t see her leaving the apartment as a period on their relationship, more like a semicolon. (That said, the fact that I’m burying this in the stray observations may indicate just how little thought I’ve given Megan all season, which may indicate that I wouldn’t care one way or another.)
  • Two big season one callbacks: The night that lands Don in the drunk tank is scored to “Band Of Gold,” which played during the first scene of the pilot. Look at how far he’s fallen! Also, the first season finale is similarly set at Thanksgiving. There, Don misses his family when he rushes home to join them after a big, emotional pitch that wins over everybody in the room. Here, he shits the bed in the pitch, but he also gets to see his kids. (In general, this season has been full of links to the first season, which I hope to itemize in my upcoming TV Club Classic reviews of season one if I have time to rewatch this season.)
  • James Wolk is on a CBS series that debuts this fall, and I somehow sense that network will be less willing to play ball with AMC than NBC has been with Alison Brie. But I hope Bob Benson returns for a bit in season six. I’ve come to like him a lot.
  • I love the way the show has come to use Bert Cooper. He’s in the show rarely, but when he appears, he carries such weight to his pronouncements, as he does in the scene where Don is removed here. Don doesn’t even question it. Obviously, most of that is him realizing that he’s fucked up, but I like to think at least some of it is the way Bert intones that the verdict has been decided.
  • Maybe I spoke too soon about Roger drawing closer to family: He cuts his son-in-law off, then gets reamed out by his daughter for it, leaving him nowhere to go for Thanksgiving.
  • Sally’s school doesn’t take Thanksgiving vacation. I had no idea there were schools that even did that.
  • It’s been a hilariously bad season for Harry—in that he has revealed just what a cretin he is—but even I laughed at the weirdness of “vixen by night” as said by Rich Sommer. I can’t wait to see what the final season has in store for him.
  • Doesn’t Tammy kind of look dead when Pete first sits down next to her? Well, I thought she did.
  • Thanks again for another fantastic season of Mad Men, everyone. I look forward to seeing you all next spring for the final (gulp) season of this show, and I do hope you’ll join me this fall when I look at the show’s very first season in TV Club Classic form.
Filed Under: TV, Mad Men

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