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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Mad Men, In Care Of

Season 6, Episode 13
Grade: B
Verdict: Season Six comes to a close with an episode that closes off a few circles that have existed in the series underlying fabric since its early days, and in some ways it could have been a series conclusion, but the way it gets there is a little too convenient and produces a number of moments that felt specifically manufactured for this episode's purposes alone. An episode that has massive ramifications, even if the way it gets to them are generally unsatisfying.

There's power in the truth. Don Draper's entire existence since he began adulthood was structured around the idea that he would build a new life around a lie, which is appropriate as some would say the advertising industry is just professional lying at its basest level. The series major conflicts have occurred due to someone lying or deceiving in some manner, and it would be unsurprising to say that for the most part Don is often leading the charge there. While everything Don holds dear in his life is a result of the veneer of falsehood that he built around himself, his lowest points are also attributable to that same moral fallacy. Whenever Don is forced to confront the truth about himself to another, generally speaking bad things are quickly to follow due to the level of his deceit. Thusly, it's been the rarest of occasions when Don has revealed his deepest secrets, and the two most notable times being when he's been pressured to do so. So what happens when Don finally decides to let go and show the true Dick Whitman to everyone?

"In Care Of" is the culmination of Don finally realizing that the truth will basically "set him free". At the beginning of the episode, he hits his lowest point, having to spend the night in jail after getting too drunk at a bar and punching a pastor who insulted Kennedy and King. This prompts realizations in Don, that he's an alcoholic and secondly, that he no longer wants to live in a city where his demons could haunt him at any moment. He wants to leave New York for California and uproot his and Megan's lives. The choice to want to move to California makes sense for Don, not only because it's where he and Megan initially kindled their romance but because of his connection there with Anna, the one woman who "truly knew who he was". Don wants to return to the one place where he feels the happiest at what is his "rock bottom". I utilize quotes there because it seemed awfully convenient that he would hit this moment in the season finale. Sure, he's had some building issues regarding his daughter since the big blowup two episodes ago, but there's a near unearned quality to the events that lead to Don finally outing himself to everyone in the midst of the Hershey's presentation. Alcoholism is a serious thing, and all viewers know that Don, and many of the other characters struggle with the bottle. Yet, the way in which its inserted into the plot as a driving force feels more like mechanism of plot rather than a true moment of character realization. That's not to say the end result isn't satisfying dramatically. 

Don's presentation turned confessional to the Hershey's executives will likely go down as one of my favorite Don Draper moments ever. The sudden realization that he no longer wants to be a prisoner of his own lies and that he's finally willing to allow his partners and everyone else to meet Dick Whitman (to an extent) was a masterstroke of acting on Jon Hamm's part, and may secure him an Emmy provided Bryan Cranston doesn't get there first. We're at the point that Don wants to be free, and perhaps the implication was that it took being arrested to realize that he wanted to break out of a similar metaphorical prison of his own creation. By the end of the episode, Don has torpedoed his career and possibly his marriage to Megan, not that the latter wasn't headed to an end anyway, but he can now be his own man, rather than the fictional one, as evidenced by his taking Sally, Bobby, and Gene to the house in which he grew up. The look of realization on Sally's face basically says it all, her father is no longer just this flawed paternal figure that she holds resentment for, but an actual living breathing human being who was once a child himself and grew up in conditions that Sally couldn't imagine. I can't say all is forgiven between them, but there's a new sense of understanding for the quickly growing up Sally that will likely hold sway over her for the rest of her life.

Ted plays a large part in Don's eventual coming out party, and to be fair, I had alot of issues with the California relocation as the big turning point that drives everyone to where Matthew Weiner wanted the characters to go. In short, Ted sleeps with Peggy being unable to control himself around her, and while in the middle of the act he states he'll leave his wife, he realizes quickly that this is easier said than done. When he approaches Don about wanting to be the one to move to California in order to be as far away from Peggy as possible and saving his family, I may have audibly groaned. Much like the alcoholism angle, this was another plot point introduced only to serve the ends of this very episode. When Don steals Stan's idea about going to California, literally lifting his "one desk" verbiage, it makes sense for someone who has strong emotional ties to the area. When Ted pleads with Don about needing to be the one to move there, it just comes across as fake, this could only happen in television, tension. But, much like the fallout from Don's confession, the aftermath of Ted revealing the truth of his plans to Peggy is handled well.

Peggy all season has been someone who has somewhat been held hostage to the whims of other people, which is ironic after her stroke of independence when she left SCDP last season. Yet throughout the preceding episodes she's been a bit of a cypher, moving from Point A to Point B to Point C based on the choices others make around her. These range from being Abe moving her into their bohemian building, his breaking up with her, Ted kissing her, and her job changing underneath her feet due to the merger. When she lashes out at Ted, "Good for you for having decisions!", it marks the first moment this season of Peggy outwardly speaking for herself and being less of a mouthpiece for Ted, as it is arguable she was when under his spell. What's of interest now, with Don potentially out of the picture permanently, is Peggy perhaps taking over as defacto Creative Director? I noted at the beginning of the season that Peggy was quietly morphing into another version of Don, and the imagery of Peggy behind the desk returns with a vengeance here including a shot of Peggy from behind that resembles a version of the Mad Men logo. It's a little, or maybe alot, on the nose, but its a signifier of the complete evolution of Peggy into this role. I look forward to seeing how "Peggy as the boss" will play if things continue to go in that direction. 

Then there's Pete. His on-going plot is where "In Care Of" does the best handling of character growth at its most natural rate. In terms of Pete's discovery of the truth, there are two facets of note, one is his discovery of Mahnolo's true nature when he most likely murdered Pete's mother on the cruise she was going on via throwing her over the boat; the other discovery is his own self-actualization when Bob comes through on his threat of "you should watch what you say to people". The former produces a tremendous internet gif moment when Pete responds to Bob's polite "how are things going?" with an emphatic "NOT GREAT, BOB!!" but his threats to follow that exclamation are what build to the latter. Bob gives Pete perhaps his ultimate comeuppance when Pete is forced to display his lack of driving skill in front of the brusque Chevy executives. This leads to Pete's dreams of taking over the firm's biggest account falling to the wayside as he's quickly dismissed. Yet, instead of seeking out retribution against Bob, Pete drops his battle on all fronts fulfilling his promise of setting aside his antagonism with Bob even to the point that he and his brother opt to not pursuing the missing Mahnolo for the death of their mother. While there was likely a financial consideration in that last decision, the sense of resignation that Pete displays when he intimates that their mother is now with their father speaks volumes for just how ready Pete is to fully move on with his life.

When he sees Trudy again, he's getting ready to move to California with Ted, as apparently the West Coast operation is growing larger than initially expected. Trudy expresses to Pete the idea that he's finally free, free of his mother, his marriage, and his family. Pete can finally start over now that he's no longer lying to himself about what makes his happiest, he too can become his own man with a fresh start. There had been much online discussion about who or what Bob Benson actually was, a serial killer, a time traveler, a closeted gay man, a government spy, a corporate saboteur. While we still don't really have a straight answer about Bob, any of these could still technically be true, the one thing he certainly represented and this has been confirmed by Matt Weiner is that he is the impetus for Pete's own inner growth. Pete can now become a fully functioning adult, and create his own path, rather than be tied to his family history and his own past mistakes thanks to the final push from Bob (and in a more literal sense, Mahnolo). Much like next season may give us the real Dick Whitman and the next step in Peggy's professional evolution, this new start for Pete is the third leg of what I look forward to next season. Rather than the awkward, somewhat robotic "going through the motions to try and be like Don" Pete that we've gotten for perhaps the entire series, what will the newly freed Pete Campbell look like?

Sidenote, I was really loving the Bob as a time traveler theory, just as it represented an off-the-rails line of thinking and mystery that was a complete stranger to this series. I hope to never get a definitive answer to the question surrounding his motives and background, and that may very well be the case with James Wolk being on a CBS program next fall. Bob, if you're returning to your home planet next year, mission accomplished sir!

Season Six of Mad Men throughout its run grew more and more as a reflection of the earliest seasons of the series, particularly its initial one. The purpose of these clear call-backs being their ability to highlight just how powerful the catharsis of each of the key characters is when that moment comes. 1968 was a year of chaos and change for the American populace and that sense of uncertainty was palpable throughout this run of episodes. Even by the close of "In Care Of", we're left with hanging questions, "What will Don do next? Will Megan stay with him? (does anyone care?) How will Peggy handle taking over what's clear to be a bigger role at the agency? Will Roger be able to be a better father to Kevin and raise a child that differs from his parasitic first daughter? Will Pete be able to acclimate to California and just what will the West Coast Sterling Cooper look like? I don't think Mad Men has ever had a finale with so many hanging threads, I look forward to pulling on them next season as we get ever closer to 1970.

Season Grade: A-

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