Lost in the Movies: Mad Men - "In Care Of" (season 6, episode 13)

Mad Men - "In Care Of" (season 6, episode 13)

Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad Men. Every Monday I will review another episode of the series. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers. UPDATE: I now plan to continue this viewing diary through the series finale on the same schedule, continuing with the season seven premiere next Monday. Initialy I planned to wait until summer 2022 to resume.

Story (aired on June 23, 2013/written by Carly Wray and Matthew Weiner; directed by Matthew Weiner): "Going down?" the man from Dancer Fitzgerald asks, with just the faintest smirk. The answer is the same in most of the episode's storylines, but let's start with the good news. Roger's daughter disinvites him from Thanksgiving after he declines to further invest in her husband's enterprise ("What do I have to do to get on the list of girls you give money to?" she sneers). That itself isn't the good news, of course, but it does open the opportunity for Joan to provide a minor redemption. Roger's secretary Caroline nudges her in the right direction (she'd have him over to her house but "Ralph stopped drinking and you know Little Ralphie's spastic" she tells Joan by way of explanation). And so finally Mr. Sterling gets to brighten the Harris doorway, even if he has to share this space with Bob cheerfully carving the turkey. "What's he doing here?" he snipes, to which Joan responds, "I'm letting you back into Kevin's life. Not mine." But that's enough for now: Roger finally finds another door he's happy to open.

Bob being Bob, he's also intertwined with less happy - which isn't to say unhumorous - material. What is the status of Pete's plan to neutralize the Benson threat, handle his mother's demented romance, and lock himself down as Chevy's man at Sterling Cooper & Partners? "Not great, Bob!!!" Pete's victory parade into Detroit turns into a roundtrip route when Bob manipulates him into driving a stick shift backwards through the showroom. "I like a man with gasoline in his veins," one of the reps tells Pete, and that's that. Meanwhile Mrs. Campbell's whirlwind romance ends with a plunge off a cruise ship and Manolo on the lam in Central America; faced with the costs of a manhunt for their not-exactly-beloved parent's potential killer, Pete and Bud let it - and her - rest. And, somehow - I checked over the episode a second time and still couldn't figure out where it happened - Pete is headed for California. Sunkist wants a man on the spot and Pete, it seems, will be part of the team. (Or is he merely taking a temporary trip out west to help open the new outpost? It wasn't entirely clear to me.)

Who is going to lead that team? Right away, Don receives an unusual request from an atypically suited-up Stan who wants to "turn a desk into a business," comparing the West Coast to the advertising frontier. When Don says, "That's not how I see it," Stan pushes back: "That's not how you see me. But I'm going to change that." It's a good pitch, so good in fact that Don steals it for himself, much like Megan once took her friend's idea about asking Don for a spot in an SCDP commercial. He obviously needs a fresh start. Going on a bender after a particularly acerbic phone call with Sally, who's already been suspended from Miss Porter's for drinking, Don gets into a bar fight with a minister (spurring a flashback to Mack kicking a similar proselytizer out of the bordello, which we see in wide shot looming over its circa 1938 street corner). After waking up in the drunk tank, Don dumps all his liquor out in front of his wife and races through all the rationales for re-locating to Los Angeles: his career, her career, a change of scenery, finally hitting upon the most important: "We were happy there once. We could be happy again." Megan breaks into sobs and says yes, just as she did when he proposed.

Of course, a major wrinkle arises; how could it not? After Peggy shows off her figure for Ted before a big date with someone else, he materializes in front of her apartment door later that evening, just as Pete did so long ago. The two finally make love, and although Ted wants to spend the night - "No more sneaking around" - Peggy encourages him to go home and break it off with his wife more gradually. So Ted returns to Nan and immediately, predictably, loses his resolve. The next day he pleads with Don to send him to California so that he can save his family ("three thousand miles between me and her or my life is over"). Yet again, Don has to tell Ted he can't help him. Yet again, he has impeccable excuses. But this time something cracks. Don is excited to learn early on in "In Care Of" that Hershey is putting out feelers among the top thirty agencies, willing to advertise for the first time in its storied history. He delivers a flawless pitch, rhapsodizing about how his beloved father would take him to the corner store to buy a Hershey bar after he mowed the lawn, how the taste of chocolate merged with his dad ruffling his hair, how just the sight of the beautiful simple wrapper conveyed a feeling of love.

That last part, and only that last part, is true. That's no surprise; the surprise is in what Don does next. Before the meeting, a frustrated Ted told him to take a drink because you can't just quit cold turkey: "My dad was...well, never mind." Now, as the Hershey reps bask in the warm glow of Don's own fatherly tale, the storyteller glimpses his hand shaking beneath the table. That tremor might as well be an earthquake. And so begins his testimonial:
I was an orphan. I grew up in Pennsylvania in a whorehouse. I read about Milton Hershey and his school in Coronet magazine or some other crap the girls left by the toilet. And I read that some orphans had a different life there. I could picture it. I dreamt of it. Of being wanted. Because the woman who was forced to raise me would look at me every day like she hoped I would disappear. Closest I got to feeling wanted was from a girl who made me go through her john's pockets while they screwed. If I collected more than a dollar, she'd buy me a Hershey bar. And I would eat it alone in my room with great ceremony, feeling like a normal kid. It said "sweet" on the package. It was the only sweet thing in my life.
With that, Don detonates fifteen years of hard, desperate work to sell that dream to others while the lie gnawed away inside of him. Ted is going to California after all. Peggy is alone again. Megan is walking out the door, perhaps for good. And Don is, well, going down.

After a meeting that plays more like an execution than a consultation, the partners (save Ted) unanimously punish Don for his recent erratic behavior - the Hershey meeting most egregiously, although in retrospect his bizarre, unprofessional actions towards clients and colleagues have presented for a problem for a while. On the other hand, the firm only exists in the first place because of Don's ingenuity, both in its foundation and the recent merger, but no one - not even Roger - blinks when Bert tells Don that he's no longer welcome, at least for the next few months, and they won't even give him a return date. On the way out Don runs into Duck and Lou Avery (Allan Harvey), his replacement. For six seasons Don's silhouetted figure has fallen to the floor of Madison Avenue and now, symbolically at least, that descent begins even if it's an elevator rather than a window ledge which sends him plummeting.

But the episode doesn't end there, concluding instead with one of the most oddly hopeful final scenes Mad Men has offered since Don and Betty were tentatively reunited amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis resolution. After picking up his kids, Don makes a stop in a run-down New Jersey neighborhood. Standing in front of an initially unseen site, craning their necks, the children are told that this rundown Victorian, now surrounded by litter and brick blocks of public housing, is where their father grew up. As Judy Collins croons "Both Sides Now," father and daughter exchange a glance that comes the closest to what Don has been seeking all year, usually unwilling to give what he needed in order to get it: an understanding.

My Response: All around him (as well as in places he isn't even looking), Don can see people repeating his mistakes. In most cases - even when those mistakes also touch on other Draperesque qualities like drinking or cheating - they have to do with losing family. Pete's fond farewell to his slumbering daughter, as Trudy gazes forlornly from the bedroom door, echoes that famous last shot of Don in the pilot (but with a twist). This is far from a "welcome home" visit; Pete is about to embark on his own version of Don's season four. Roger is trying to form new familial bonds after his failures as a husband, father, father-in-law, and grandfather. So is Joan, in a way (with both Bob and, from a distance mediated by Kevin, Roger). Ted is trying to avoid the others' mistakes though I have to question his reasoning: if you must flee across the country to avoid temptation, won't you just find it in a new guise? One thinks of the fable about a peasant traveling to the city to escape the reaper he's glimpsed in his village, only for Death to reveal that the city is where their preordained rendezvous was scheduled all along.

As for Peggy, her post-Ted fate is an interesting one. When Stan, clad in his fringe jacket and flashing the peace sign, says goodnight she's lingering in Don's office all alone. Isn't this really what Don wanted for her the whole time? Not possession exactly, but a kind of reproduction of himself (or at least his work persona): someone he can regard with admiring pride, while still feeling a sense of authority. She relates to him as an heir (usually male) would, rather than any more traditional female archetype. Without entailing romance, this gets to the crux of one of Don's complexes: when he chooses a wife, he's often looking for someone who can make him feel like a paternal benefactor, but when he chooses a mistress he's seeking a mother figure who can offer him comfort (the split is not always so neat, of course - Megan's motherly qualities were part of her attraction for him and as his power games with Sylvia demonstrated, he can veer wildly between domineering and submissive).

Peggy, one of the few important women in Don's life who is not also a lover, still brings out that first, authoritarian quality in him. He has, after all, been her boss for most of the time they've known each other and Ted is a threat precisely because he upsets that balance (getting rid of him is a complicated power play as well as a favor). Occasionally, however, Peggy exposes Don's vulnerability too, and it's no coincidence that this quality came out most forcefully in "The Suitcase" halfway through the series, an episode anchored by Anna's death. Anna is the only woman who ever truly achieved parity and mature affection with Don, perhaps because she was the only one who ever really held immense power over him while also treating him with generosity and respect.

And what of Don's actual heir apparent? Sally has gradually grown in importance throughout the seasons (especially as this sixties show's only significant boomer representation) but it's arguably only in season six, maybe the last few episodes, that she ascends from supporting status to central player. Certainly, aside from Sylvia herself, Sally is the only one who knows Don's biggest remaining secret. She's now someone capable of achieving a kind of equality with her elusive father, even though she's ostensibly the one he has the most authority over (children are often able to slip out of their parents' control in a way that actual adults in those parents' orbits - colleagues, friends, older family members - can't or won't). The final moment on that decrepit street corner is key for Don and Sally especially, even though he's showing all of his children his roots, because when he lived there he was the same age that Sally is now. Across thirty years (and a vast gap in socioeconomic status), two generations are finding common ground, tapping into a well of universal adolescent angst that one has tried to repress and the other is currently experiencing. This is the first time that Dick Whitman has been a father.

The only antecedent to this event took place in California, when Don brought the kids to Anna's home, allowing them a much smaller glimpse into hidden past. Significantly, it was on that same trip that he proposed to Megan. Poor Megan. The sixth season has not been kind to a character whose staying power we may have been skeptical of during her season four debut, but who surprised us with her depth and complexity in season five. In comparison to that last season, when Megan's decisions and reactions helped drive the plot (honestly serving as more of a narrative motor than anything Don did or said), she has lately been sidelined both on and offscreen, reduced to the thankless role of neglected spouse. There are a few, mostly tangential moments to serve as exceptions (like her comical attempt to bond with her horny boss), but it's hard not to feel that Don's growing, guilty disinterest in Megan reflects the attitudes of the show's own writers. Megan's status at season's end is ambiguous (in that, at least, she retains the upper hand) and I hope she continues to play a part in the last set of episodes. But for now at least, the relationship that began with a bang is going out with a whimper.

With all but one season out of the way, it's hard for me to immediately place this most recent stretch among the rest (in some ways, I resist the impulse to rank - each season offers different qualities, combinations, and point of emphasis that you would not want to remove or reduce). The fifth season may be my favorite so far with some of the highest highs and an impressive level of consistency despite a few minor slumps. The fourth season, which frustrated me at the time, may be something of a sleeper, growing in memory the more I reflect back upon it, allowing its subsequent branches to blossom. The early seasons, wallowing in a more specific, targeted aesthetic and anchored by the first Draper marriage, have an undeniable concentration to them which necessarily dissipates as both Don's situation and the era around him evolves. Season six was a little lumpier than five at times; just like the increasingly erratic Don, it often appeared to lose its way only to sticking the landing again and again.

And it has been an absolute marvel to watch Mad Men weave the most crucial year of the decade through its characters' lives, never allowing outside forces to overwhelm and drown out the internal dynamics of ensembles or individuals. Each beat is hit with just enough variation, spaced out with just the right sense of timing, creating room to breathe while still feeling the weight of this zeitgeist. And now, with a whole month left in '68, there's already a sense of post-climax; one era has transitioned fully into another, even if the form that transition takes is an attempted return to normalcy. "Nixon's the president," Don grumbles in the dim, dismal barroom. "Everything's back where Jesus wants it." Of course, the discontent, cynicism, and chaos of the Nixon years to come will be a far cry from the pleasant, prosperous thrum of the Eisenhower administration in which Nixon served as VP (and staged his first presidential run with the help of Sterling Cooper itself). From the vantage point of fifty years later - indeed, as early as the mid-seventies - it was clear that the tumult of the sixties had already passed its absolute apex by the onset of the decade's last full winter; 1969 would be the very subtle beginning of a coming-down.

However, descents from an apex are usually still buoyant, coasting on the thrill of reaching the top, and '69 is no exception. The year of Woodstock and Altamont, the Manson murders and the moon landing, the mainstream Moratorium and the fringe birth of the Weathermen didn't feel like a gradual decline at the time, but rather an ascension to new heights (or a descent into new lows, depending on the incident and the vantage point). I hope that the seventh season, which is split into two parts, will allow us to experience at least some of this milieu before plunging us into the onset of the seventies. On the other hand, there would be a dash of poetry in skipping right to 1970, allowing us to sink into the melancholy sensation that we arrived just a little bit too late to experience the party, a missed opportunity that will never return (don't many of those born in the sixties or the decades immediately after already exprience this sensation, while looking at their parents' or older siblings' faded snapshots?).

Whatever year it is, Don will find himself in a similar state of confusion, simultaneously learning how to make peace with his past while facing the loss of everything he's gained in the present. Pete's hilarious outcry to Bob in the elevator is certainly the episode's most enduring meme, while Betty's "She's from a broken home" may have the most quietly devastating delivery, completely unwinding the thread that barely began to loosen in that Douglas Sirk-worthy final shot of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." But the most striking line of all is offered by the Depression-era preacher, calling up those steps to teenage Dick, the one person left to hear him: "The only unpardonable sin is to believe that God cannot forgive you." It's telling that Don's most redemptive moment in the series thus far precipitates a professional downfall. We have fourteen episodes left to find out how much further Don's disbelief in his own deliverance can be shaken...or if we'll ever be able to know.

Next: (season 7 premiere) "Time Zones" will be published at 8am on December 5 (UPDATED FROM THE INITIAL PLAN TO RESUME ON JUNE 6, 2022)Previous: "The Quality of Mercy"

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