Mad Men has never been the kind of show to end with a bang. True to form, the season six finale ended with a much more subtle question of what comes next than most shows are capable of. Even compared to previous seasons of Mad Men, this was a much more subtle ending that usual; the kind that suggests everything can change but it is still possible that nothing could change at all. In case you missed it, Don Draper was fired from his job at Sterling Cooper and Partners after telling a client about how he grew up in a whorehouse and the episode ended with Don standing outside said whorehouse with his kids.
Though the episode ends leaving the viewer to ponder the significance of these events, the implications are huge. For six seasons Don Draper has tried to hide who he really is, eventually having to reveal to Betty and Megan (and, at one point, Faye) that he was really called Dick Whitman and that the real Don Draper died in combat. Never before has Don/Dick been as candid as to come out and tell a client about his past. This wasn’t even an existing client, it was a potential account and the other partners clearly feel that Don’s revelation lost them their business. As Roger put it, he ‘really shit the bed’.
Over the course of the six seasons, the viewers have waited for someone to find out who Don really is. Pete came close in the first season but it seemed like no one really cared or didn’t believe him. The second real threat came in the shape of security clearance for North American Aviation, wherein FBI agents interrogated Betty and Pete was forced to drop the account to protect Don. On both occasions Pete was involved and an outside source came close to revealing Don’s true identity. It is surprising that Don actually broke down and exposed himself and Pete wasn’t even in the boardroom.
This doesn’t seem like a mental breakdown, however. Throughout the episode, Don was pitching to the partners that he should be allowed to move to Los Angeles in order to do creative for Sunkist whist building a new agency from the ground up. The idea was stolen from Stan but his real reason for doing so was that he and Megan could make a new start and be happy again. However, he decides eventually to let Ted go instead (so that Ted can make a new start away from Peggy) and tells the client about his sordid past. The change of heart appears to come after a phone call from Betty who suggests that Sally’s misbehaviour stems from growing up in a broken home. We, the viewers, know that Sally is being petulant because she saw her father cheating on Megan.
Betty’s words seem to cause an epiphany for Don who realises that his unhappiness is to do with Megan or Manhattan but he is unhappy because of his troubled and disjointed past. His method of making amends with this is to take off the mask of Don Draper and wear the face of Dick Whitman. Neither the company nor Megan appears to understand this, as one fires him and the other storms off, but Sally understands. The episode ends with a shared look between the two implying that part of mending their relationship and helping Sally with her feelings is for Don to be honest about his own broken upbringing.
For anyone willing to argue that Don was not actually fired but only put on an indefinite leave of absence, I would direct you to exhibit A: Freddy Rumsen. Freddy first appeared in season one and was let go from the company after he literally pissed himself. No one actually used the word ‘fired’ though, but it was made clear that he had no role in the company. Similarly, Don met his potential replacement as he was heading to the elevator, confirming the suspicion that his place in the company no longer exists.
When most shows end on a cliff-hanger or with certain story threads left it is a clear indication of the avenues the show will explore in the next season, if it gets one. Season one of Lost, for instance, had John Locke and Jack Shepherd staring down into the hatch in the finale, hinting that the contents of the hatch would be explored further in the second season. At the end of the first season of British drama, Luther, the title character’s name was yet to be cleared and the police were closing in on him and his accomplices who had just killed his wife’s murderer. The second season of Luther does not pick up the story immediately after but still deals with consequences of their actions, with the former division having been disbanded and working with Luther being seen as bad for a police officer’s career.
The difference with Mad Men is that there is any number of possibilities that could stem from the season finale. Megan may leave Don completely and move to Los Angeles herself to further her career. Don, without ties to the company, could move to Los Angeles with Megan anyway and possibly start up his own firm with Pete, who also moved out to Los Angeles after Bob Benson humiliated him in front of Chevy. Perhaps Don will get out of the ad business completely. Perhaps his candour will fail to have any impact on Sally, who will continue to rebel, or, and I hope, it could strengthen the relationship between father and daughter. Will the company even be able to survive without Don Draper or will it succeed by becoming the long rumoured all female dominated agency with Joan Harris as Head of Accounts and Petty as Creative Director? And what of Bob Benson? After a full season all we know of him is that we can’t be certain of anything.
It would have been easy for the show to end the season with something ostentatiously shocking. However, it requires more strength and care in writing to create a compelling character drama which will hook people and draw them in for another season, especially when that next season will be their last.