Starting Over – Mad Men Season 6 (Spoilers)

“We were happy there.  We can be happy again.”

As Don Draper notes when he tells Meg about his decision to pick up and go to California, they were happy once.  Indeed, California has been where he has been happiest, when he can just be Dick Whitman and not have to carry the burden and the shame which he has loaded himself up with.  Certainly things have not been going well with his life now – through forces of his own making, and perhaps just some things where agency hardly matters.

The pull of starting over is seductive of course.  Hell, it even makes me think about moving to Atlanta, and a feeling to start anew and just not suck at life like the awkward 25 year old I was.  I mean, I was just someone who had never really left home, risked anything or did anything remotely “on my own”.  The idea of a new situation, new way to establish yourself, all of that was attractive.  Certainly Atlanta was a marvelous experience – but the reinvention never happened.  Sadly, the awkward dork was still there, just with a little extra growing up (and a little bit of a proclivity to say “y’all”).

The common trait with your experiences is well, you.  But nobody seems to realize it at the time (and I am certainly not excepting myself here).  Indeed so much of this saddest, deepest, sixth season of Mad Men we see our beloved characters yearning for escape.  We have grown accustomed to Don Draper running from his past, but he is clearly not the only one.  This sixth season ends indeed with all sorts of attempts to escape, either wallowing in the replaying of old tapes, or with actual escape – with a position at Sunkist eventually turning into a very serious deal.

Sunkist becomes an orienting construct for this season’s final episode – one of the show’s very best episodes and the episode where the entire season suddenly made sense.  First it’s Stan Rizzo wanting to go.  This is pretty straightforward – young guy, wants to build his own legacy blah blah blah.  However, when Don hears Stan’s pitch he (of course) picks it up for himself.  He sees California as an escape – like he always has in a sense.  But what is he escaping?  We have a lot of evidence from throughout the season – his detachment from his wife, his affair, his drifting relationship with his children, his own lack of interest in his own job.  (how else do you explain the pitches he keeps intentionally mangling).

But a-ha, he is not alone with a fresh start.  Ted Chaough, who Don brought in when Sterling-Cooper merged to win Chevrolet, is determined to start in Caifornia.  Of course, his reasons are much seamier.  In the merger, he brought with him Peggy Olson, and then becomes more than her boss – and then decides he must leave her to save his own family.  The speech he gives her about his regret is a triumph of true scumbag hubris.  Peggy thinks Don is a bad man (certainly he is a sociopath), but Ted is basically the same with a more nebbish front.

Peggy herself only ended up with Ted as a fresh start after her life with Abe, the counterculture warrior started to fade.  Gentrification looks nice for people like her in theory more than practice, and when she took the police’s side when Abe got stabbed, you can see that they come from different worlds.  She sees Ted as a more kindred spirit, and a fresh start, and the reunion with Don as a bit of a world she wanted to escape clearly.  However, Ted proved, she is not a good judge of this sort of thing.

Even Roger, bless his heart, can’t get out of his own way.  He wants a second chance at getting parenthood right after messing up his first attempts – and perhaps rekindle with Joan, but is unable to establish himself.  Pete Campbell with his own divorce is having his own issues, including with the odd new guy Bob Benson.  Frankly only Joan is moving forward, the rock of the season – as she goes after Avon in one of the season’s loveliest moments.

All of this shifting takes place under the backdrop of 1968.  We see Abbie Hoffman, RFK and MLK’s deaths and the Chicago DNC riots in the backdrop.  We know that the world is changing and the spectre of the Vietnam War.  The styles are changing with it – witness even total squares like Harry Crane growing the sideburns out.  But these characters only see the superficial aspects of it – or at least limousine liberal world – but they are not fully engaged by its implications.  How do THESE people change and move forward is a much more intimate question, and the show has succeeded so well by staying on this human level.

Indeed, when Don reaches his fate at the firm at the end of the season – and really how could he stay at this point after all the wreckage he caused – he seems to have made some reconciliation and some commitment.  When he stands in front of where he grew up with his kids, there is some hope.  It’s a draining season, but a satisfying one.

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