“I killed my C.O. We were under fire,” says Dick Whitman, in an ad man’s spin on what actually happened. (Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I believe that the real Don Draper, Dick Whitman’s commanding officer, was killed accidentally after the men lit cigarettes, not realizing that they were surrounded by spilled gasoline. I’ll have to find and rewatch that scene — season 2? — before next Sunday.) This affecting episode, second to the last, brought Don to the heartland (and Pete too, but we’ll get to that), and caused him to revisit something that we haven’t heard about for a while: his military service, and the moment at which he became Don Draper. We saw Don sweaty, afraid to turn his face toward a man who might have known him in Korea; later, having dodged that metaphorical bullet, he gave advice to the young would-be con man. “If you keep [the money],” Don told him, “you have to become somebody else. . . . You think this town is bad now, wait until you can never come back.” The nightmare of the episode’s opening scenes reminded us that Don, so suave on the surface, still lives with deception, and perhaps even now can only truly relax with those (Betty, Anna’s niece, I think Megan?) who know his secret.
Don may have seen a bit of himself in that handsome young man — so charming, yet so desperate — and so handed over his car to him, in the hope of helping the young man start again. This season has seen a systemic stripping away of Don’s possessions: his home, his furniture, his office, now his car. What’s left: a man at a bus stop, wearing cheap clothes purchased at Sears, and carrying a paper bag. (And, also left: a connection to his children; we see, early on, that he’s calling the kids from the road, and lecturing an eye-rolling Sally about financial prudence.) We’ve never seen Don so pared-down; where he’ll go, in the final episode, is anyone’s guess. (But did he fix that metaphor — I mean, that Coke machine, symbolizing the account Don left behind, and owned by a man who didn’t want a shiny new one?)
Which brings us to the unexpected end, surely, of Betty, in a twist that perhaps I should have seen coming; it makes sense that Matthew Weiner can’t resist having at least one of his chain-smoking characters end up with lung cancer. “Mrs. Robinson” (hee) learned of her diagnosis just when life was starting over for her; this happy new student was, like Dick Whitman, beginning again. Henry, devastated, tried to get Sally to convince Betty to enter treatment, but Betty was her usual obstinate self. “I watched my mother die. I won’t do that to you,” she tells Sally, giving her daughter a letter to be opened upon her death. When Sally later reads it, in true Betty fashion, it’s about appearances: how Betty would like to look in her coffin. Both Henry and Betty, in this tragedy, immediately turned to Sally as a grownup, to help them face it; Sally, who I think is barely 15, tried her best to rise to the occasion, hesitantly and gently patting Henry’s back when he sobbed. Kiernan Shipka broke my heart in these scenes; Sally, realizing that she’s about to lose the mother she’s never understood, looked utterly lost and terribly young. Betty, typically, chose not to notice. “Go back to sleep,” she told her daughter.
“Mad Men” plots usually come in threes, and this week’s third, mercifully, was a happier one: Yes, those crazy kids Pete and Trudy look like they just might make a go of it. They’ve always been, among all the “Mad Men” couples, the most suited for each other — they’re both, for example, in love with Pete, both obsessed with appearances and status — and Pete’s plea for the return of their family felt like an ad pitch. “We’re entitled to more!,” he said, wooing Trudy with visions of Wichita, private jets, and the three of them together. “Good morning,” he said lovingly to Trudy, at the end of the scene; it’s a new day, and another “Mad Men” reinvention.
And, as the last episode approaches, I’m already beginning to miss these characters; so carefully crafted over seven seasons. Some of them have changed drastically, particularly the women: Sally has grown up before our eyes; Joan has become a feminist; Peggy became a powerhouse. Others, like Roger, stayed resolutely the same, even as his outward trappings changed. What will be our last look at these people? What last scene are you hoping for? Me, I’d kind of like to see Don in a bar, echoing the original scene of a show, telling some beautiful woman, “Hi, I’m Dick Whitman.” Or, even better, “Hi, I’m Bert Cooper.” We shall see.