Some things you just can’t lie about. Like Hershey’s chocolate.
Leading up to the thirtieth episode of the penultimate season of Mad Men, there was a lot of wild speculation. A lot. Theorizing on whether or not Bob Benson was a serial killer (or, perhaps, Draper’s long lost son), speculating on Megan’s possible murder by the Manson family (resulting from a very particular wardrobe choice), and even talk of corporate espionage ran rampant amongst fans and message-boards.
This was all a little disappointing to me. Man Men isn’t a show that supports that much melodrama. Breaking Bad can combine the absurd and the tragic effortlessly, but only because of it’s near-surreal atmosphere. Man Men is too rooted in an every-day type of drama: being caught cheating by your daughter, partnering with your rival to form a new agency, ect. That is the sort of drama Mad Men trades in, not serial killers, spies and murderous cults. When Lane committed suicide in the second-to-last episode of season five, that was as melodramatic as Mad Men could go – at least without alienating this viewer.
That said, I hardly blame anyone for noticing a pattern…
Don’s obsession with death was amplified this season, expressed episode after episode. The opening-shot of season six was a brief first-person snippet from a dying man’s POV (that we were expected to mistake for Don’s). That cryptic opening-shot transitioned into Don reading Dante’s Inferno on a beach, looking to the side occasionally, where Megan is spread-out on the Hawaiian sands, sun-tanning. She looks like a Goddess. The crystal blue water, the golden sand, the pale, yet vibrant sky; these are colours you’d see in depiction of paradise; or rather, a Corona ad. Everything is just so immaculately gorgeous. Then, Don raises his watch to his ear and hears nothing (*cough* death metaphor *cough*). “You must have got it wet”, Megan explains. Now, the waves are fluctuating in the sound-mix, dipping down and fading up, in a very The Seventh Seal-esque way, casting a surrealness of this short sequence. That fact that Don goes the first five or so minutes of this episode without speaking doesn’t help dispel the notion that he is dead. Oh, shit… Wait… Don’s in Heaven, right?
Well, yes: the imagery certainly suggests so, but the passage from Dante’s Inferno (which is about a man who loses his way mid-life, only to find himself waking alone in a dark wood) is a strong contradiction. Don’s in Hell, I think; or, at least, on the door-mat to Hell. Through the course of the sixth season, Don’s descent into darkness is followed at a slow and steady pace, gathering more speed after Sally sees him and Silvia in bed, then ultimately accumulating in Don punching a minister out cold. With only one season left of Mad Men to go, it is safe to assume this will be Don’s absolute low-point.
He’s hit rock-bottom, folks.
Now, back to that shit I was saying about Don dying this season. In a thematic and symbolic way, he very much did. I highly, highly doubt we will ever see the same scotch-drinking, cigarette-smoking anti-hero that had propelled Mad Men thus-far. Everything that has defined the Don Draper persona has been stripped away, reduced to nothing. From here on out in the show, I think our main character is Dick Whitman.
And how strange it was to see the catalyst for such a massive transformation end up being a chocolate bar. Not the discovery of his affair (and Sally’s resulting cold shoulder), not his misguided attempt to partner with Ted, not even Meghan’s departure (from the marriage, turned out she wasn’t killed by the Manson Family). It was a Hershey’s bar.
Before Don is told about Hershey’s interest in the agency, he is asked to “name a chocolate”. “What, like Hershey’s?” he replies, smiling. “I love Hershey’s.” Upon first viewing, I was surprised by Don’s genuine enthusiasm. His casual smile seemed out of place in a season so full of misery (particularly in these last few episodes). I mistook Don’s expression for enthusiasm in a potential account, when really, it was nostalgia. For a second, the old Dick Whitman managed to show through Don Draper’s facade.
In the meeting the following day between the partners and the high-up’s from Hershey’s, Don’s facade collapses. After delivering a pitch-perfect speech (a lie about how his father would reward him for a chore well done by buying him a Hershey’s bar), Don looks to Ted. Amongst the rest of the partners, who are all grinning to themselves, Ted’s horribly sad puppy-dog face stands out. Don looks down at his hands. They are trembling. The, Don interrupts the banter and confesses his real emotional attachment to Hersey’s. As a child, living in a whore-house with his mother, Don discovered an idol in a magazine: Mr. Hershey. While he had never really received a Hershey’s bar as a reward for a job well done, he had received one as payment for going through the Don’s pockets while he was otherwise occupied. “I’d eat that bar alone in my room. Like it was some great ceremony.” Don gazes down, avoiding eye-contact with the partners. Roger is looking at the real Don Draper for the first time and you can see he isn’t sure what to make of him. Ted still looks on the threshold of tears.
Some things just can’t be lied about – at least, not forever. For Don, that something is his childhood. We’ve seen Don escape the guilt he felt over abandoning the war in Korea, we’ve seen him push-aside the guilt he felt over Lane’s suicide (and his bother’s, for that matter), and justify affair after affair. He lies to his partners, his clients, and the people who view his ads. But it seems the shame of his childhood can not be concealed forever without inflicting a mortal wound. Don has hit the depths of his deceit and has no room to go lower, so he bounces back up, unleashing an unbelievably raw confession. Relate it to his speech in the previous season about the Carousel. It had a seed of truth in it (Don’s bitter-sweet feelings about Megan becoming an actress), but was mostly fabricated. The pitch to the Hershey’s people starts of the very same way, but then Don snaps. I couldn’t tell you exactly what made Don decide to sabotage his job in the pursuit of having an honest moment, but I suspect Ted had a lot to do with it.
Absurdly, the Hershey’s people respond with: “You want us to advertise that?”