Sunday’s finale of Mad Men’s penultimate season showed anti-hero Don Draper commit two of the most evocative acts in the show’s history. He told the truth. Twice. Well, that’s evocative for him anyway. He’s the ultimate liar.
Here are some facts on his dubious nature.
Fact One: His name is Dick Whitman, and he’s gone to great lengths to suppress that truth.
Fact Two: He’s had countless affairs over six seasons, cheating on two different wives. His affairs are well past a cool baker’s dozen by now.
Fact Three: How many promises has he broken to his children? We’re leagues past a baker’s dozen on that front. Remember season one when he was supposed to bring home a cake for Sally’s birthday, but he got drunk and sat in his car under a bridge. Where’s daddy? Who knows, kids?
Fact Four: He lies continually to his colleagues. No wonder there was a coup d’etat at the end of this episode to get Don out of SC&P.
Let’s stop there. I think we hit up the major factions of a man’s life: name, marriage, fatherhood, career. There’s been more con artist trickery in Dick Whitman’s elaborate tapestry of lies. As I’m sure you know.
What I’m interested in is whether or not there is any redemption for this character. The show’s creator Matthew Weiner has done a masterful job creating an anti-hero we love. He has his own version of the Midas Touch, where every life he touches turns to ruin. He’s a monster at times, but he’s so damn suave that we’re like, Yeah, Don! You keep up your cheating ways! You’re the coolest drunk sociopath! Weiner obviously took notes while he was working on The Sopranos. (RIP James Gandolfini.)
Despite all this affection Weiner has garnered for Draper, you have to wonder, is there any real salvation for Don Draper in the world of Mad Men now that he’s started bringing his past into the open air?
At the end of the season finale, “In Care Of,” Don breaks down after giving an all-American-boy pitch to Hershey’s. He reaches into the bowels of his soul, pulls out the truth of his whorehouse upbringing, and sets it on the SC&P table, horrifying his colleagues, bewildering the Hershey men, and shocking the rapt television audience.
There’s your first truth.
In the very last scene of “In Care Of,” Don brings his kids to see the whorehouse he grew up in. He and Sally share a telling look, a look that shows Sally seeing her father as a human being for the first time in her life. Of course, Don does this because Sally walked in on her father balls deep in Mrs. Rosen.
There’s your second truth.
Two truths. Is that enough? What would Don Draper have to do to regain his humanity? Is his past so tragic, so traumatizing that he never had any humanity to begin with? Is someone who has never truly been loved capable of loving someone? Is he even capable of loving himself? What if he only told the truth next season? No lies at all. Would that make him happy enough to become human and get him off his self-annihilating path?
He’s going through his own levels of hell — remember, he was reading Dante’s Inferno in the season opener; of course, it was given to him by his mistress. The big question is, how does Don Draper emerge from all these levels of hell? Does he surface as Dick Whitman? Does Dick Whitman even exist any more?
All of these questions point towards a compelling final season of one of television’s all-time greatest shows.