As sophomore lit classes have taught us for decades, the way you end a great American narrative is to head west—to make for the territories. (Nick Carraway goes home to the Midwest at the end of Gatsby, for example.) And for a moment it seemed that such a move would cap this season, that Don would try to reinvent himself in Los Angeles, as Megan took auditions. Of course it was literally a stolen vision—lifted whole from Stan Rizzo, sold to Megan like she was a client. And then Ted decides he wants to move out. He asks Don for the vision. It’s a complex moment: Don, just barely on the wagon, has the shakes. Ted appeals to his better nature, but Don refuses; Ted then invokes a memory of his own alcoholic father and tells Don to have a drink: “You can’t stop cold like that.”
I wonder if this is why Ted has been so obsessed with Don all season, so insistent on getting his juice, to cite just one prominent example of their competitiveness. Does Ted see Don as his father? It would explain a certain simpering quality, the fact that Ted as played can’t quite get a handle on his own pettiness and desires. He knew exactly what he was doing by giving Don permission to drink. Was he trying to help? Or did he set Don up? In either case, as Hanna rightly notes, what follows is one of the greatest office scenes in Mad Men history.
Back to that scene in a moment. First, an observation: Of all the things we learned in the scenes that followed, it surprised me most to find out that Roger had no idea about Don’s past. In prior episodes Don has mentioned growing up in the Depression, and when he first met Roger he was hardly flush; he was selling Roger a fur to give to Joan. But the full scope of Don’s early life—orphan, whorehouse, stealing from johns—shocked Roger. His deception has been that thorough, over the years. He’s done everything he could—paid off his brother, and later Pete, to keep his secrets, made all manner of moves to hide his true identity.
And yet his secret identity is hardly a secret. Pete, Bert, Megan, Betty, and the audience all know. We’ve gotten used to it. Such a secret is not even that unusual in the cosmology of this show; there’s another character with a secret identity in the same office. Bob Benson is faking his blue blood; he’s actually from West Virginia.
It may be normal to have a whole fake history on Mad Men, but to the wealthy and sophisticated people around them there’s still a certain horror. Don and Bob are adult changelings. They walk right, talk right, and yet they are uncanny creatures. Manolo is another. They walk among us.
There’s been a very uneasy peace between the changeling class and the upper crust on this show. And now it’s broken down. Bob has humiliated Pete; Manolo has, possibly, killed Pete’s mom. And now Don, who has committed an unbelievable variety of sins, has done the unthinkable, which is to reveal himself fully: Not only did he account for his true past—as unsavory a past for this character as verisimilitude could allow—but he did it in front of a client, one of the most wholesome clients possible, Hershey’s.
It started so well. Fortified by booze he told Hershey’s executives: “Hershey’s is the currency of affection. It’s the childhood symbol of love.” And he goes on to tell a snuggly Draperesque story of childhood chocolate joy. The client says, “Well weren’t you a lucky little boy.” And while Don is many things, he’s not actually lucky. His childhood was the absolute opposite of lucky. Brute force, lies, and hair cream have made his luck. And somehow he can’t bear to pretend in front of Hershey’s. He has to tell them the truth.
So he tells the executives the story of his childhood, willingly, openly. He confesses that he would fantasize about attending the Hershey-funded orphanage, dream of being welcomed and treated with kindness. “A different life,” Don says. But then he says the truly unsayable: “If I had my way you would never advertise. You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is. He already knows.”
As it happens, I graduated from Milton Hershey School in 1992. Back when Don would have attended it was called Hershey Industrial School. In that era it took in boy orphans and raised them, and taught them trades. Later it expanded its mission to “social orphans”—poor kids, basically, girls and boys. Although there were still orphans there.
Consider his dream. If he had attended Don would have been class of 1944. Milton Hershey himself would have still been alive. Don would have done farm work, learned a trade. He would have lived in a student home with house-parents whose job was to watch over him. There were a lot of chores, a lot of cows to milk (and that went on for decades—I arrived right after mandatory milking was canceled).
I remember going to a lunch my senior year of high school and meeting the men who were boys in that era, who told us about their memories of riding along with Milton Hershey himself in his very large automobile—big, paunchy, kindly guys. The stories they told were universally ones of luck, of feeling blessed, of being grateful. No matter how sad their lives before the school had been. There was a lot of religion, a lot of discipline, and everything smelled like burnt chocolate.
Hershey and his wife Kitty started the orphanage because they couldn’t have children. The story is of course more complicated: Kitty might have been infertile due to syphilis. Milton Hershey was not a perfect human being by any stretch. The school is not a perfect institution. That said, over the last century thousands of kids have finished high school in good health, warmly dressed, and went into the world with a suitcase of clothing and money in their pocket, because of the school.
This has been a slow season, and perhaps I’m biased for the reasons above. But I loved that moment when Don confessed to the Hershey executives. Look, he was saying, this is what your product really means. This is why it exists.
Of course, he didn’t go to their school. It was an acceptance denied. And in telling them he squashed all chance of getting the account. He even told them he didn’t want them to advertise. And then he lost his job. In hitting bottom, he is making it impossible for people to do anything but reject him. California, Megan, advertising—forget it. He’s been looking for acceptance, love, a sense of home, and he keeps throwing his chances to attain those things away.
But he also told the truth. Not the truth varnished to sell more Kodak products. He told them what the candy bar actually meant to him: A “ceremony.” An experience of comfort and safety that transcended advertising.
All that he has at the end is his family. Of all the holidays, it’s Thanksgiving. A man whose religion involves slugging ministers, whose spiritual acts involve Hershey bars, standing with his children in front of the decrepit old whorehouse where he grew up. Sally looks at him. Don looks at Sally. Count your blessings.
I’d tell you to go to hell, but I never want to see you again,