Don Draper, in the stunning last scene of the Season 6 finale of "Mad Men," takes his three kids to a crumbling Victorian home in Pennsylvania, barely recognizable from flashbacks as the brothel that was his childhood home. "This," he says, "is where I grew up."
He exchanges glances with his troubled teenage daughter Sally, perhaps more shocked by her father's honesty than by his revelation as Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides, Now" fills the silence.
Don's disclosure and the song, all about the push-and-pull realities of growing up and grappling with the kind of happy illusions ("ice cream castles in the air") he peddled as an ad man, not only proved a haunting ending to the season. The sequence also set the stage for the AMC drama's bisected final season, which arrives Sunday with the promise of finally bringing Don Draper's two lives together.
It's impossible to know, of course, exactly how "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner will end his 1960s-spanning story of a man on a collision course with himself. But it’s always been headed toward Don confronting his dual life: as Dick Whitman, the poor orphaned farm boy son of a prostitute who died in childbirth, and as Don Draper, the hard-living, lady-killer advertising genius for whom touting material comforts offers a fantasy of the happy home life he craved as a boy.
While layers of his life have peeled away over the first six seasons, confronting the truth isn’t about saving Don/Dick’s soul anymore, as much as saving his own children.
Many viewers and critics, for good reason, have seen the story of “Mad Men” as a dual tale of Don and his protégé, Peggy Olson, another master of reinvention who harbors a secret of her own. But we’ve also seen Don’s personality rub off, to different extents on Joan Holloway, the ad firm office manager turned partner, ambitious junior partner Pete Campbell and the mysterious accounts executive Bob Benson, whose full story has yet to be told.
Still, there are indications suggesting the show ultimately will end as the story of Don and Sally, who has good reason to be disillusioned by her dad. She caught him in an inmate moment with a female neighbor last season. When an older African-American woman broke into her father’s apartment, Sally didn’t know whether to believe the burglar’s story that she raised her father. That led Sally to later deliver to her father perhaps the defining line of the series, or at least last season: “I don’t know anything about you.”
With the show presumably moving into 1969, the year of Woodstock, we can expect more father-daughter clashes. Don, now in his early 40s, seems increasingly out of step with the times. But Don’s search for his identity is very much a 1960s journey, even if he favors gray flannel suits over tie-dye.
In his own way, he’s turning on (even if the hard-drinking Don leaves the acid trips to Roger Sterling). He’s tuning in (finally dealing with his past). And he’s dropping out (getting ousted from his firm after an ad pitch for Hershey in which he went from celebrating the chocolate bar as “the childhood symbol of love” to sharing boyhood memories of a prostitute who used to reward him with a Hershey bar for rifling through her johns’ pockets).
Much gets read into the pre-season ads for a show that’s ostensibly about the advertising business. Last season’s primary print campaign – an illustration of two Dons going in opposite directions with police and a cab nearby – suggested escape. This year’s promo photos also focus on transportation, with some of the characters in an airport and others on a plane.
With the final season split into two seven-episode installments set for his year and next, “Mad Men” is far from over. But there’s no escaping that the trip is coming to an end, with the people in Don’s life perhaps taking off in different directions as he gets ready, as Joni Mitchell wrote, to look at life from both sides, now.
As we await the first half of Season 7, check out a preview below:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.