The Spectacle Blog

Don Draper as the Imperfect Atonement

By on 6.24.13 | 1:01PM

Mad Men wrapped up its sixth season Sunday night. The final five episodes of this season went an incredibly long way towards redeeming a very sub-par first half. This final episode, “In Care Of” was an incredible pay-off for earlier frustrations. It was chock full of examples of how the Mad Men world is moving on without Don Draper, but still provided enough hope to leave the audience unsure of Matthew Weiner’s final intentions for the character. Ultimately, Don makes a self-sacrificial choice that is the closest he has ever come to being a Christ-like figure, but it goes unrewarded.

The episode opens with SC&P’s new logo smattered everywhere. Don’s ad agency has undergone a rebranding and the D from his name is nowhere to be found. The logo is much more "groovy" than previous iterations. This visible departure from the stoic, sharp past portends bad things for Mr. Draper.

We next find our protagonist in a bar where he witnesses an evangelist trying to save the soul of a drunkard. Of course Draper can’t let this pass, so he engages the minister and accuses "Jesus of having a bad year.” Between the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King’s assassination, and countless other shocks that have roiled the country, it is hard to miss Don’s logic. But here he is, at a bar, asking the very universal question: Why does God allow evil to happen? Draper’s answer is to punch the minister in the face and spend a night in the drunk-tank.

The next morning, Draper is pouring all of his booze down the drain. He is trying to change, but alas, this entire season, with it’s repetitive themes and retread storylines, seems to suggest that people cannot change. We’re left to infer that Don is tilting at windmills. He stumbles upon a solution when Stan mentions his desire to move to California and start a mini-agency on his own. Now Don has an opportunity to do what he does best: run. This is, of course, what he has done his whole life, starting with leaving his past as Dick Whitman behind and assuming the identity of Don Draper during the Korean War. He goes as far as to promise his wife Megan, “We were happy there…We can be happy again."

Meanwhile, Don’s competition, Teddy Chaough, has finally succumbed to his desire to have an affair with Don’s protégé, Peggy. On the surface, Teddy has many striking similarities with Don. They are both creatives, they want to dominate their field, and they are both brilliant. However, it’s Peggy who comes off as the most Draper-esque, as she’s all too willing to think of herself first.

Teddy comes to Don and tells him that he needs to go to California in order to save his family and his relationship with his wife, and asks Don to swap places. At first, Don refuses; everything has already been arranged and Megan has quit her job in New York. But he later relents after he recalls a painful incident in front of a potential client, Hershey Chocolate. Perhaps he realizes that he’s been doomed from the start and it’s no good trying to save himself; he has been predestined to doom. So he gives up California for Teddy and his family.

Here we find Don’s great sacrifice. He has historically been self-absorbed, but he chooses to give up his chance at redemption for a man he doesn’t even seem to like. Unsurprisingly, this is devastating to Megan who had already made plans to move and it effectively ends their marriage. This casts doubt on Don’s sacrifice: Was it simply a way to flee his second marriage? Much like he ran away from his life as Dick Whitman? And as he planned to do in California?

Don’s atonement is insufficient and imperfect. Weiner makes sure to show us how deficient the sacrifice was by having SC&P’s board, even his close friend Roger, force him into taking time off. Teddy is already gone and not worried about Draper or New York. He doesn’t care about Don’s sacrifice. Peggy has already been tapped to step into his shoes.

But it is here that Weiner masterfully gives us hope. The closing scene of the episode is Don showing his children where he grew up, where Dick Whitman grew up. And that was in a broken down house that used to be a home to whores. Sally, his daughter, whose relationship with Don has been completely broken this season, looks at her father and finally sees him for who he is for the first time (as an aside, that camera shot was masterful cinematography from Christopher Manley A.S.C.).

Weiner is telling us that the way to survive this life and its trauma is to stop running, face who you are, and let yourself be truly known by those around you. The question is whether Don can continue to do that or whether he really is unable to change, and will thus face his own demise.

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