While the line “Is there a doctor in the house?” has been used for comic reasons in many films and in live shows, there are also times when a doctor is needed in real emergencies and one hopes he or she is in the audience. In relation to the series finale of Mad Men coming this Sunday night at 10 p.m. on AMC, it seems medical professionals may be needed both on screen and for the audience watching at home. There definitely will be a need for a box of tissues and a shoulder to cry on if nothing else.
One character we know for certain has already seen a doctor – with devastating results. The fact that Betty Draper Francis (January Jones who seems unappreciated by critics and some fans) has terminal cancer threw a sucker punch at us. Here we were expecting Roger, Pete, or Don to kick the bucket, and along comes news that is both tragic and far-reaching in scope. Betty’s being told that she has nine months to live doesn’t just change her trajectory, but that of Henry (her second husband), her children, and good old Don (Jon Hamm).
All sorts of thoughts about the finale have been running through my head for weeks now, dancing like sugar plums and hand grenades. While I expected dire consequences for certain characters, Betty was not one of them. In fact, when Don looked back on the happy Francis-Draper family as he left the house after a visit, I felt it gave him the incentive to start a journey of no return, knowing that all was okay with them. How wrong I and many other viewers were.
If ever a dramatic TV series were like a novel, Mad Men certainly is the closest thing I have experienced. Series creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner has allowed the story to take its time, meandering here and there perhaps, but always bringing tertiary moments back into the bigger picture in some way. He has been especially brave in development of back stories, particularly Don’s upbringing as Dick Whitman and the explanation for how Dick became Don.
So while other storylines seem resolved – I am not certain, but as far as I am concerned all the other major players are settled in my mind. We know Betty is going to die; Joan is off with her new beau to California; Pete is back with Trudy; Ken got his revenge; Harry got his computers; Megan got a cool million dollar pay-off; Roger accepts his fate (as his dirge-like organ playing clearly demonstrated), and Peggy got perhaps the best curtain call in the history of TV dramas as she strutted into the office with a cigarette dangling from her mouth while carting Bert Cooper’s painting of an octopus pleasuring a woman for all the stuck up male bastards at McCann-Erickson to take note – don’t mess with this woman!
No, for me, the only major character yet to have a resolution is Don. After watching “The Milk and Honey Route,” the penultimate episode of the series, I was struck by how similar it was to “The Granite State” (not in content but in theme,) the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad. Just as Walter White spent this episode not interacting with any of the main characters in a place foreign and far from home, Don is similarly displaced and dealing with people he doesn’t know, but because we know Don we understand his reactions and they all have meaning in this episode directed by Mr. Weiner.
Remember when Jim Hobart dangles the Coca-Cola account to enhance Don’s interest in working for McCann? Well, how funny is it that Don is asked to fix a Coke machine in his modest hotel in Oklahoma? He also is asked to fix a typewriter and has difficulty getting the young motel handyman Andy to smuggle him a bottle of booze. These things seem strange but in essence this is Don’s penance, his opportunity to do some good deeds, and then some. Don goes to the pool for a swim and he sees an attractive woman on a lounge chair. We know the old Don Draper wheels are turning in his head for a few moments, until her noisy kids and husband break the spell. Don should have expected no less here in the middle of nowhere, so he takes off his shirt and dives into the pool – a symbolic baptism similar to season two’s dip in the Pacific Ocean.
Don is not done with penance here though. He gets talked into going to a fund raiser with all the veterans in town after revealing to the motel owner that he himself is a veteran. For those who don’t remember, while serving in Korea as Dick Whitman under Lieutenant Donald Draper, Dick accidentally causes an explosion that kills Draper and burns his body beyond recognition. The wounded Dick exchanges dog tags with the corpse and becomes Don – inheriting not just an identity but the opportunity to go home quickly.
At the fund raiser there is a good deal of drinking. The vets at Don’s table each share war horror stories. One old guy (played deftly by Max Gail of Barney Miller fame) tells of killing Germans in World War Two. The look in his eyes reminds of us of Don’s glare, which always seems to mask the depth of horror and the heft of guilt for crimes better left forgotten. Don’s inspired to tell his story about dropping a cigarette lighter and killing his Commanding Officer, and instead of getting negativity or derision he gets a support group.
This is a crucial moment in Mad Men history because other people know Don used to be Dick Whitman and don’t care (as Bert Cooper once told Pete Campbell), but for Don to admit publicly what he did to his CO is what amounts to being in a confessional. Earlier that day he seemed to be baptized and then he gets a chance to confess his greatest sin – can absolution be far away?
Perhaps not at all. When Andy steals the bag of money from the fund raiser, the vets come to Don’s room and blame him. They beat him with a phone book (talk about letting your fingers do the walking), take his car keys, and warn him that he has to get the money back. While some may see this as more penance for Don – even retribution for the real Draper’s death – it is another wake-up call.
Don gets Andy to return the money, drives him out of town, and then turns over his car keys to him. This seems to be Don’s way of saying grace, of receiving the absolution he most desperately needs and desires at this point by saving another human being’s soul. Andy had all the signs of going the Dick Whitman to Don Draper route, and Don stops him in his tracks and gives him a way out in a sort of symbiotic moment of salvation.
That is why, after the kid drives off in his car, Don sits at the bus stop in the middle of nowhere with a smile on his face. He is carrying all his stuff in a bag from Sears, has no car, and ostensibly no more connections to anything or anyone back home. At this point whoever he is – Dick/Don or Moe, Larry, or Curly, the man is totally free.
The series finale should be “California here I come” for him, a return to the ocean for another cleansing. I pictured this as the last shot of the series – Don diving into the waves, happily accepting a return to being something other – not Dick Whitman but not Don Draper either. I believed he would assume another identity, get a quiet job someplace, and allow regular life to subsume his once high cost lifestyle.
All this would have been well and good until I learned about Betty. Now the most important woman in Don’s life – not Betty but his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) – will need him more than ever. Don’s connection with Sally is deeper and more meaningful than anything in his life, and he not only wants her to be happy but also to know that he cares about her. Sally is the only person Don has probably ever truly loved, and no matter what Sally may say outwardly, she needs Don to be there for her and to be her father.
My feeling is that Weiner wants to end this series like the great novels – in my mind especially as Hemingway ended The Sun Also Rise. Just as Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley were never meant to be happy, neither were Don and Betty; however, I think Don will give up everything to make his daughter happy and to be with Sally and her brothers, even if that means a return to New York and all that entails.
Don living out his days in an ascetic lifestyle in California used to be what I envisioned as the end of the line for Mad Men, but now I think that it will be a slightly warped but earnest version of Make Room for Daddy. At least until Sunday night, as Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Photo credits: AMC
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