Even when Mad Men is at its worst, it's very, very good. The dialogue is sharp, the acting is stellar, it's gorgeous to look at, and there are endless fascinating details to analyze. And at the end of a season that often felt rudderless, tonight's "In Care Of" was a strong finish — a fast-moving, riveting hour of television that heralds all kinds of new and interesting directions Mad Men could take when it premieres its seventh (and almost certainly final) season next year.
But "In Care Of" doesn't exist in a bubble, either. It's the 78th episode of a TV show that has felt, at times, like it's beginning to do an impression of itself, turning over the same questions about identity and self-improvement that it's been asking from the very beginning. Six years is a long time for any serialized drama to run (of its top-tier cable counterparts, the only one to last longer is The Sopranos). And as powerful as parts of "In Care Of" turned out to be, Mad Men is starting to feel a little like Don Draper: A lot of style and wordplay used to sandpaper over how it's been stuck in a rut.
"In Care Of" was an uncharacteristically busy episode of Mad Men, though its rapid-fire plot developments would have landed harder if they'd been parceled out over more than an hour of television. Within a single episode, Sterling, Cooper & Partners decided to open a satellite office in Los Angeles and sent Ted to run it; Ted and Peggy finally consummated their attraction, and Ted almost immediately ended their affair; Don drunkenly punched a minister, slept it off on jail, and decided to quit drinking again; Bob Benson got Pete off the Chevy account and onto a flight to Los Angeles; Megan finally left Don (possibly for good); the partners finally acknowledged that Don is a trainwreck and forced him out (possibly for good). Even Don's beautifully delivered Hershey Bar confessional felt oddly rushed; Hershey had never been discussed as a client before tonight, and none of this year's interminable flashbacks of young Don in the whorehouse showed him eating a Hershey Bar.
As well as they played tonight, those storylines are all symptoms of the sixth season's real problem: For the first time I can remember, Mad Men felt unplanned. The season was full of strange, fruitless detours that felt like storylines the show's creative team decided to kill midstream. Betty suddenly re-emerged thin and blonde in "The Crash" just weeks after the show had made a huge deal about her weight and her brown hair in "The Doorway." Joan gave Don's secretary Dawn more responsibilities in the office in "To Have and To Hold," which led to Dawn spending the rest of the season in the background. Joan took a risk by circumventing Pete in an attempt to land the Avon account, but the show never actually circled back to reveal whether or not she'd been successful. Remember when we found out Megan had a miscarriage? I'd forgotten entirely until I looked over my notes from the season — but that's only because Mad Men seemed to forget about it too.
Mad Men passed over exploring these storylines in more depth in favor of its usual laser focus on Don Draper, whose psyche has been so thoroughly explored that there's nothing new to say. The first 12 episodes of this season didn't reveal anything about Don that wasn't already clear in the brilliant, five-second shot at the end of the fifth season, when Don cast his predatory gaze on another potential conquest. All the things we've seen since then — from his doomed relationship with Sylvia to his professional inconsistency to his backslide into alcoholism — have been a variation on a very familiar theme.
To its great credit, "In Care Of" made some bold strides toward shaking up Mad Men's foundation. The show's options are still open, but for now, Don Draper is on a permanent leave of absence from Sterling, Cooper & Partners, and estranged from Megan, who quit her soap opera and prepared to move her career to the west coast, where Don hoped they could be "happy again" together. Don's decision to introduce his children to the now-abandoned whorehouse where he grew up was a new and surprisingly honest one; it certainly seemed to mend a bridge with Sally, and point toward a grander arc in the show's final season.
But here's the thing: I'd be a lot more excited for Don's theoretically redemptive seventh season if we hadn't already seen Don's theoretical redemption in season five — a test we already saw him fail. The show has so many interesting characters that have gone untapped for far too long, and if Don can't evolve, I'd rather see the show shift its focus to someone who can. (Fortunately, "In Care Of" has some promising signs on that front: That final shot of Peggy as she sat in Don's chair, which mirrors the silhouette of Don in the show's opening credits, is the perfect way to indicate just how much the times are a-changin' at the firm Don helped build.)
By the show's own heightened standards, the sixth season has been a bit of a disappointment — but looking beyond all the good and bad of the year, it seems to me that Mad Men is in a trickier place than ever with its leading man. At this point, I'd have a hard time buying Don's redemption, but I also don't have any interest in spending yet another season in the gutter with him. With its seventh season less than a year away, it's time for Mad Men to decide, once and for all, the kind of man Don Draper really is — and by association, the overall statement that the series wants to make. "This is where I grew up," says Don in the final scene of the sixth season. With any luck, it's also where he'll keep growing — and where the show will grow along with him.
Read more Mad Men recaps:
* Mad Men recap: 'The Quality of Mercy'
* Mad Men recap: 'Favors'
* Mad Men recap: 'A Tale of Two Cities'
* Mad Men recap 'The Better Half'
* Mad Men recap: 'The Crash'
* Mad Men recap: Fifty Shades of Draper
* Mad Men recap: 'For Immediate Release'
* Mad Men recap: 'The Flood'
* Mad Men recap: To have and to hold
* Mad Men recap: Sex, lies, and a ketchup account
* Mad Men premiere recap: Death and 'The Doorway'