The truth shall set you free, even on Mad Men

December 6, 2013

A look of understanding between Don and his daughter, Sally.

I’m late to the party, but I started watching Mad Men last summer and reached the end of the latest episode, the Season 6 finale, a couple of days ago. I’ve joked with friends that while I’ve found the series compelling, I’m not sure I’ve liked it. It has been unrelentingly bleak—and life isn’t like that. For one thing, not counting the sociopaths among us, people are often troubled by guilty consciences when they do bad things. Most of the characters on the show, by contrast, cheat and lie constantly, and only feel guilty when they get caught.

That’s certainly been true of protagonist Don Draper, double-life leader, serial adulterer, alcoholic, and liar-in-chief at his Madison Avenue ad agency.

But something changed in the last episode. In a sales pitch to Hershey’s, a potential client, Don at first spins a Norman Rockwell-esque childhood reminiscence of sharing a Hershey bar with his father. The Hershey’s executives look pleased. The story, however, is a lie: Don was an orphan whose mother—a prostitute—died during the delivery. He was raised in poverty—in a whorehouse—by abusive foster parents. He went to Korea and literally traded identities with his commanding officer, who was killed at his side. He isn’t Don Draper at all; he’s Dick Whitman, a secret he’s kept from nearly everyone, including his children.

Nevertheless, in the most extreme version of “talking past the close” imaginable, Don asks to say something else to the Hershey’s people. He then tells them the grim truth about his childhood, and how the Hershey bar was the “only sweet thing” in his life and the only thing that made him “feel like a normal kid.”

The Hershey’s people are stunned—as are his business partners, who suspend Don indefinitely.

The following is the last scene of the episode. Don drives his children to his childhood home in Pennsylvania. This ramshackle house represents the unvarnished truth about himself, which he has never allowed himself to face up to.

Look at the expression on his face. Look at the knowing look he exchanges with Sally, his teenaged daughter, from whom he has been estranged.

This is what repentance—beautiful, liberating repentance—looks like. In the earlier scene with Hershey’s, he praised the candy bar for its wrapper, which “looked like what was inside.” Likewise, Don wants to be a man of integrity and look like what’s inside: no more falseness, no more facades. In his weakness and vulnerability, Don has never been stronger or more courageous.

It makes me weep.

[Please note: In the actual episode, the credits roll shortly after the song begins. The shots of Don drinking and getting on the elevator are from earlier. Oh well… you take what you can get on YouTube.]

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