As Don Draper looked at Sally, standing in front of the Pennsylvania whore house of his formative years, I thought to myself, has he changed? Is he capable of it?
That’s always been the big question of the series. We’ve seen Don be virtually the same person for six seasons. He drinks. He cheats. He drinks some more. He’s never happy and emotionally uneasy. Rinse and repeat. He’s lived by the Hobo Code his whole life; when things get difficult, run away from your problems.
[Spoilers ahead, in case you've still yet to see Sunday's episode.] This time he arguably has more problems than ever. His wife is furious and seems set on leaving him, his career is in jeopardy, and his daughter, the one person whose opinion he cares about, thinks he’s a monster. Hell, his drinking even got him thrown in the drunk tank for a night.
Instead of running away, he picks up his children like he told Betty he would and takes them to see his childhood home. This comes on the heels of his heartfelt admission to the Hershey representatives that the pitch he had just given about his father buying him a Hershey bar as a child was a lie, and he had actually grown up in a whore house where the only way he’d get a chocolate bar would be to pick enough John’s pockets. It’s the first admission of his past to someone outside his family since Pete found out about Dick Whitman in season one. It blows any chance the firm has of landing Hershey, but is one of the biggest moments of his life.
For five seasons and 12 episodes I thought things would end badly for Don. Then the season finale happened, and I was reminded of a quote from show runner Matthew Weiner in Alan Sepinwall’s brilliant book The Revolution Was Televised. Weiner was arguing with network executive Christina Wayne about how the first season finale should end. He wanted a happy ending where Don is greeted by his family. She wanted the opposite, to keep viewers coming back. After much arguing, Weiner relented, and explained his original rationale by saying “I just wanted my characters to be happy. I love them so much.” Miraculously, Don just might be.
Some other thoughts about characters in season six:
Another character who has seen a shift in perception is Pete Campbell. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still a creep, but he became more sympathetic as the season progressed. He lost his wife for good reason, but didn’t deserve all that went on with his mother, including her untimely death. He seemingly gets a fresh start in LA with Ted, two men who each need to get away for different reasons.
Speaking of Ted, he was a welcomed addition to the main cast this season. We’ve seen the series through Don’s point of view for so long that we haven’t had a chance to see many people in another light. Ted is smarter and more compelling than we ever thought. He has his flaws like everyone on the show, but Ted is a good man who actually takes action to save his family instead of tearing it apart like Don.
The only character on the show who has shown any upward mobility is Peggy. She wasn’t pleased to be dragged back into a working relationship with Don, but with him suspended and Ted in L.A. she’s the new de facto head of the creative department. Not too bad for a woman in 1968.
The Internet’s infatuation with Bob Benson was fascinating. Like Don Draper, he has a secret, one that we haven’t seen the last of yet. He’s better at selling himself than selling anything, but sometimes in the advertising game that’s all you need. James Wolk played the hell out of a still-confusing character.
And Stan’s beard is the best thing the show has ever done. Period.