Mad Men 6×13 ‘In Care Of’: Truth and redemption

Mad Men 6x13 Cover

Up to now, this season has worked well to dive into the chaos and delusion that comes from people lying to themselves.  Whether it be the drug-induced chaos in “The Crash” or the existential crises in “The Doorway”, Don and company have been consistently damaged by their own delusion, spiraling downward because of their inability to cope with the truth.  Relationships have frayed or shattered because of delusion and lies, everybody isolating themselves because they’ve quarantined the truth in a place that nobody can touch.  In any other television show, this season finale would be apocalyptic, lives being shredded, characters drowning in a bed of sorrow and emptiness that they made for themselves.  It’s the way that I, in my “infinite wisdom”, expected the season to play out.

Well, consider me fooled.

Mad Men 6x13 Don2

Source: AMC

Mad Men has a habit of using its first twelve episodes to misdirect its viewers before using the season finale as a gut-punch to drive everything home, and it’s a habit I kept on forgetting as I watched this season.  Take “Meditations on an Emergency”, Season 2’s finale, which ended a Cuban Missle Crisis-centric finale in an anti-climactic manner, gun pointed at the head of the status quo without the trigger being pulled.  Or take “Shut the Door.  Have a Seat.”, which had Sterling Cooper morphing into SCDP, pushing ahead into the unknown.  This episode operates much like those, but with more of a sense of finality to it.  It ended up spiraling downward and upward at the same time, all while looping back around to shades of the first season that express the eventual passing of time.  Mad Men is a show obsessed with the passage of time, identity, and delusion, and “In Care of” uses Don as a central vehicle to comment on what happens when clarity finally rears its head and tries to wipe away the delusion.

Don’s always been a liar.  It’s the only way to keep his “Don Draper” identity afloat, considering how much delusion is necessary to keep “Dick Whitman” from surfacing and tearing everything down.  But Don Draper isn’t a good man.  He’s a cheating, selfish, awful human being who does what he has to in order to stay on top.  That’s not to say that he’s not a decent person sometimes, but his worst impulses always get the best of him, just like Betty says about Sally after she was suspended from school.  It’s easy to get angry like Pete did about Manolo and his likely-dead mother, flexing and exerting control in a way to counter what life will never let you control.  But, after a while, it’s just exhausting.  It’s a grind, constantly trying to keep up with the lies, constantly trying to gratify yourself only to find that there’s no way to completely feed that desire (something that was heavily emphasized in Season 5).

And so the episode asks us: What happens when you finally stop lying?

Mad Men 6x13 Joan

Source: AMC

The episode opens with Stan telling Don about an opportunity to go to Los Angeles and open a local branch there in order to deal with Sunkist’s high demands.  Don sees it as an escape, a way to distance himself from the lies and the deceit, a way to start again.  But so does Ted Chaough.  He’s so madly in love with Peggy that he sleeps with her, their pillow talk consisting of whispers and promises to end their current lives and start again.  But Ted just can’t do that.  He goes home to his wife and realizes that he has a wife and kids who need his love, love that he’s willing and able to give.  So, after Ted begs Don for the opportunity to go to Los Angeles, after Don turns him down to save himself, there’s finally that moment of clarity in Don’s eyes, the one that gets him to shed the lies.  He lets Ted take the position in Los Angeles; he (in a pivotal, brutally honest scene) tells the Hershey executives the truth behind his fabricated story about Hershey candy bars.  And it feels good to finally let go, to be able to be honest.  Pete and Ted also come to these points of clarity, Ted when he decides that life with Peggy is just another lie and Pete when he decides to shed his anger at Manolo and just move on.  It truly feels cathartic, to watch the weight vanish from their shoulders, pathways opening up to new horizons.

But truth comes with a price.  It comes with the shedding of the old life that the lies have built.  For Ted, it’s the love he had with Peggy.  For Pete, it’s his own anger and the life he’s built with Trudy.  And for Don, it’s his job and his marriage with Megan.  In one of two heartbreaking scenes of the episode, Don (after finally achieving a level of clarity) tells Megan that Los Angeles isn’t an option anymore, even after she gets rid of her job in New York and gets auditions in Los Angeles.  She’s fed up with him, grabs her things, and just leaves.  It doesn’t feel absolutely final, but it still feels like loss, like he’s lost one of the only good parts of his “Don Draper” life.  And then, if it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, he loses his job, his position filled by his old nemesis Duck.  It’s brutal to watch Don lose what good his lies have built, but they have to go in order for the truth to mean anything.  Sure, maybe there’s a way to incorporate some of those elements into the new and truthful life, but that’s only if they’re compatible.  And it’s only after losing them first.

Mad Men 6x13 Bert

Source: AMC

This is all done under several important contexts, such as the sin and forgiveness that the preacher preaches to Don before being punched in the face.  “The only sin is to believe that you’re beyond God’s forgiveness”, he says, and it’s something that Don doesn’t want to hear.  Chaos is comforting.  It’s familiar.  It’s cozy when you get used to it.  Shedding his failures as a father, as a husband, allowing himself to be forgiven…now that’s terrifying.  The truth is absolutely terrifying, and its embrace comes with loss.  This season has also taken great care to examine Don’s roots, flashing back to life as Dick Whitman or infusing into the narrative symbolism like Rosemary’s Baby or Don in the fetal position at the end of “The Quality of Mercy”.  Birth, life, rebirth.  When Don takes his children to the old whorehouse where he grew up, he’s finally coming to terms with who he is.  And we see the hope in that when Sally finally looks at him with a wonder we haven’t seen in ages.  She sees, for the first time, the truth in her father.  It’s a truly touching moment, as we see the first roots of his new life taking hold, new relationships being forged already.

Season 6 of Mad Men is a powerhouse of a season, a brilliant meditation on what happens when your life is ruled by lies and what happens when you finally decide to shed those lies.  Truth brings freedom, but first it brings loss.  The life that Don has constructed for himself has to come to an end in order for Dick Whitman to take center stage.  And it’s scary, to watch your life come crashing down, to see everything that you’ve built coming down with it, but there’s hope on the other side.  There’s a new life ready to be forged.

And with 1969 on the horizon, with one year left until the 70s take hold, maybe there is indeed hope for Dick Whitman to redeem himself and live a happy life.

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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