"It is never too late to be what you might have been." -George Eliot
Mad Men wrapped its sixth season with an episode that teased us again with the notion that Don Draper might change his ways and become the man its audience largely hoped he always would.
Just one week after I declared that Don Draper had become a villain with no redeeming qualities, like Walter White on Breaking Bad, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner and his writing team presented us with a season finale that reminded us of why Don might be worth rooting for after all.
"In Care Of", the final episode of Mad Men's penultimate season, saw Don Draper seemingly bottom out after a year of failing in virtually every aspect of his life.
We saw his marriage to Megan reach a breaking point. Although no resolution was offered as to whether or not their legal union is over, it sure seems as though there will be another ex-Mrs. Draper when we pick up with these characters next year. We saw Don's drinking land him in jail for a night after he punched a well-meaning, if tone-deaf minister that he engaged in conversation in a bar. And in a season where Don's only successful pitch happened off-screen, with Chevy, we saw him crash and burn professionally in a meeting with Hershey's, which was the final nail in his Sterling, Cooper & Partners coffin, at least for now.
It was in that failed meeting with Hershey's, though, where he chose the worst possible moment to be absolutely honest about his upbringing, that we saw the Don Draper that we shouldn't give up on after all.
That scene, which gave Jon Hamm an opportunity to showcase his understated brilliance as an actor, reminded us, and gave us a new glimpse of, the hopeless childhood that Don had and how it helped create the monster that he has become.
While not an original thought, and perhaps even one that I have subconsciously lifted from someone or somewhere I've long forgotten, I always say that we never know exactly what baggage people are carrying around with them. Here, we got just a taste of what Don has been lugging around with him since childhood: a deep, lonely sadness and a longing to feel wanted, needed and loved.
The freedom he felt after pouring out his heart to strangers who just wanted to sell some chocolate led Don to do one of the few selfless things we have ever seen from him.
After confessing his love to Peggy and promising to leave his wife for her, Ted got cold feet and begged Don to let him move to California to start anew, both with his wife and kids and with Sterling Cooper's new office there. Don turned him down, at first. Megan quit her job in New York and had meetings lined up in Hollywood, after all. And Don has seemingly always thought of California as his escape hatch.
But after the Hershey's meeting, Don decided to give Ted the new beginning that he asked for, the one that Don had planned to keep for himself. Why? Maybe Don thinks that it's too late for him, but that he can give Ted a new life, the one that the real Don Draper unwittingly gave him.
Or, perhaps this newfound honesty runs deeper than that.
The closing scene of the season saw Don take his kids to the neighborhood he grew up in. He showed them what used to be the whorehouse that he grew up in, and told his children something about him that they had never known. His kids, if you'll recall, knew so little about him that they let a burglar who claimed to be his mother into his apartment this season.
Pete's storyline in the Season 6 finale saw his mother die, perhaps at the hands of the caretaker that Bob Benson arranged for her. The death of Pete's mom was played for laughs in this episode, and provided some of the more memorable Pete Campbell one-liners of all time. A sample:
Pete: "Are you kidding me? They got married? What the hell was he even doing there?"
Pete: "Well, you tell those Panamanian criminals they should put Manolo under house arrest, or ship's arrest, or whatever it's called... Fine. The brig."
Bob: "How are you?"
Pete: "Not great, Bob."
Bob: "What's wrong?"
Pete: "What's wrong? Don't play dumb. You don't know that your boyfriend Manolo kidnapped my mother, married her at gunpoint, then threw her off a ship?"
Pete: "It's 1968. Surely you're not telling me there's still some international oceanic limbo where murder is smiled upon?"
(After Pete and his brother, Bud, are told that searching for their mother and bringing her killer to justice could be a costly endeavor)
Bud: "When you think about it, it won't bring her back. She's in the water. With Father."
Pete: "She loved the sea."
Whether or not people are capable of change is the biggest question that Mad Men has asked its audience for six seasons. In its final thirteen episodes, we'll likely get the show's take on whether Don is finally a changed man.
We'll also see what happens to Ted, the budding dysfunctional family unit of Joan/Kevin/Roger/Bob, and Pete, who will move to California as well, to work alongside Ted.
We'll also learn what happens to Peggy, who we saw literally sit in Don's chair as acting creative director after he was placed on indefinite leave. Peggy had her heart broken, both by Abe and Ted this year, and also saw her professional growth stunted by the man she thought of as a mentor. Maybe she will find a way to have it all in Mad Men's final season.
"Where there is life, there is hope."