So another great season of Mad Men is in the books. This season has been an interesting ride, with some rather strange twists and turns, and some stuff that almost feels hallucinogenic – which, given the time frame (1968) is apropos. I’m not going to go into details too deeply here, and the spoilers will be light… however, I’ll put the rest under the cut just in case you want to remain spoiler free. But I think the questions raised in this season of Mad Men deserve some consideration and thought, so I’m doing that here. And how is that relevant to the theme of My Ideal Woman? Well, for starters, My Ideal Woman would watch great television like Mad Men and enjoy pondering the meaning, the issues raised, and engage in discussion about what they thought about the episodes. Also, I think this season of Mad Men in particular reflects on a flawed man trying to connect to people – especially his children – and while I’m certainly not nearly as fucked up as Don Draper, I can relate to some extent not only as a father trying to raise his children well but also as the son of a fucked up father.
I think Season 6 in a lot of ways is about Don Draper hitting rock bottom. Alcohol has gotten the upper hand on him, and his latest affair has cost him – not his marriage, from which he is obviously ready to eject from if need be – but in the relationship he has with his daughter. Not that he’s had much of a relationship with his children, but there’s been at least a little bit of something there, something he can rely on. But when Sally sees what she sees midway through the season, and is justifiably mortified, it’s a wake-up call for Don. So much of his life is built around deceit and lies, and the willingness to run away… but Don is really Dick Whitman, a boy who was left alone by his own parents, and raised in a pretty fucked up situation. I think deep down he doesn’t want to inflict that sort of fate on his own children. Their mother Betty isn’t exactly well-equipped to handle her own role, much less shouldering parental duties solo. Don can’t run from his kids without risking that they’ll suffer some of what he did as a kid, and I think that may give him a measure of strength to reject that instinct to run.
As the false life that Don has created comes crashing down around him due to his actions, inactions, and alcoholism, I think he suddenly realizes that the only thing real he has is his children. For better or worse, he is a part of them no matter what name he goes by.
Several episodes back something happens in the apartment while Sally and the boys are there alone, and afterwards Sally admonishes Don that she doesn’t know anything about him. She doesn’t know where he comes from, or who he really is. This season’s finale is chock full of brilliant writing and big changes for quite a few characters, but the big moment for Don is the very last scene. His world has blown up in his face, and yet rather than run or losing himself in a bottle or in bed with a woman, he finds his comfort by taking his children to show them where he comes from. It’s the very first step in trying to build a real connection with his kids, with his eldest Sally really, to let her know that yes, he’s fucked up, but there are reasons why he’s fucked up, and what’s important is that he cares for her and wants to make things right. And the first step is to let her begin to see the real him.
The look on her face after she sees what he shows them, and turns to him… that look was the payoff for the entire season. It might have been the payoff for the entire series so far. It was the look of a child seeing her father for the first time, and seeing a truth about him, not as a daughter looking at her father, but as one human being looking at another human being and realizing there is a history and a journey that person has been on that hasn’t been pleasant or pretty. Kiernan Shipka constantly impresses as a young actress, and her work this season was particularly stellar.
After my father passed last summer, I ran across a journal of his that he kept for 4 out of 5 years in his young life, starting from the summer after he graduated and through the year that I was born. He didn’t write much for each entry, mostly just a quick note of what happened that day, peppered with quick thoughts on what he was thinking or feeling. My dad was a deeply flawed and fucked-up human being, but reading that journal helped shed a little light on some pivotal years in his life and gave me a little insight into some events that shaped who he became. I wished that I’d been able to read that journal while he was alive, and was able to ask him questions to better understand.
That final scene in Mad Men is like Don handing the first page of his “journal” to Sally, shedding a glimmer of light into his past. I’ve several friends and have read reviewers who have thrown the towel in on Don Draper; they’ve said his despicable behavior and the hurt he’s inflicted to the people in his life have been too much and they can no longer get behind him as a protagonist for the show. I have to admit I was wavering a bit on Don this season myself, but the final scene of the season has me firmly back on board pulling for Don Draper to get his act together. Not for his sake, but for the sake of his children. To give them the peace of understanding what makes their old man tick, to see the wounds and scars that have made him act the way he does, and perhaps give them a glimpse of the hurt child inside the man who needs their love. By understanding their father, they can better understand themselves and the people they love in their lives going forward.
Children are amazing. They are smarter than you think, and more resilient than you think… but they are also quite impressionable. Part of the terror of being a parent is the worry that you’re going to screw up your kids… but part of dealing with that terror is realizing that yes, you are going to screw up your kids because you’re only human and you’re going to make mistakes. It’s in our DNA. The best we can do is try and minimize the screw ups, soothe their hurts with love, strength, and support, and do everything you can to help them become the best humans they can be. I hope that one day I can help my own kids understand me and what makes me tick, possibly through reading my blogs and asking me questions, so that they can better understand themselves and where they come from, and take that wisdom with them into the world to better understand the people they love in their lives going forward.
Mad Men episodes often end with a song from the era that punctuates the episode, and the finale hit it out the park with Judy Collins singing the Joni Mitchell song Both Sides Now, which is just beautiful, wistful and apropos of the themes. Mad Men is truly amazing television that makes you think and ponder the big questions in life.