At its essence, Season 6 of "Mad Men" was a morality play about choice – a journey through Madison Avenue's "Inferno."
This being "Mad Men," of course, the writers dressed the drama up in the flashy couture of 1968 – including that year's many historical convulsions – while skillfully interweaving its characters' intricate private and shared lives.
But the season revolved around a core decision for Don: continue his descent into his own private hell or re-discover his authentic self and get a second chance.
This fundamental choice was laid out clearly in the preview posters.
The poster has received renewed attention since Sunday's season finale now that viewers can deconstruct its symbolism in hindsight. (Although, to complicate the matter, AMC appeared to have produced several versions: notice not just the change of perspective, but the moving airplane, cops, and taxis).
Yet, the core concept of the season is laid out in their common street signage. Don can go one "One Way" or he can "Stop" and change directions.
To the left, where the black-clad Don gazes (the color suggesting Don in an inferno), is Madison Avenue. It portends obvious peril. The police, for instance, ominously represent the growing presence of crime throughout the season – the sirens that often drown out Megan's voice, the Chicago riots and the intrusion of Grandma Ida. The poster's taxis, were also a bad omen. Sally takes a cab home before walking in on Don and Sylvia. Don takes a taxi to the house party in California where he nearly drowns.
To the right, the grey-clad Don (Don in purgatory, I take it) sees a more serene scene. There is a possible reference to Megan (the brunette) but there also appears to be the presence of genuine connection (a woman walks arm-in-arm looking at another Don-like figure). And past the stop sign likely lies this season's other major theme: family.
Once Don stops his destructive behavior, he can take this road to recovery and reconnect with his children.
The dichotomy between these two paths is mirrored in the season's sharply contrasting opening and closing scenes.
Season 6's opening scene – besides the cryptic resuscitation of who we later discover to be the Draper's doorman – begins with Don reading opening lines of Dante's "Inferno" to himself: "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road, and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood."
As he reads those lines, the sounds of the ocean (which symbolizes death throughout the season – more on that later) play in the background and the camera fixates on this shot of Megan's midsection.
The deliberate connection between these lines and Megan's womb has the obvious implication that by choosing Megan, Don has gone astray. And, indeed, the opening episodes hammer this point home by making Megan's womb itself a symbol of Don becoming lost. For instance, she later hides joints in her bikini before they have sex.
Tragically, of course, she also later suffers a miscarriage.
As for Don and Megan, their first glance at each other is concealed not just by their sunglasses, a waiter's arm also separates them and conceals Megan's face with a drink.
The repeated linking of Megan with alcohol and drugs is not accidental, of course; Don's womanizing has always been intimately linked with his other addictions.
In contrast, the end of the season closes with a very different interaction between Don and Sally. Instead of staring into the abyss of the ocean, Don takes his children to see his childhood home – and thereby reveals part of his authentic self. The result is that he and Sally share an understanding glance based on this revelation.
By this point, Don is not in fact "going down" as he is tauntingly told while leaving the firm for potentially the last time. After revealing his true past in the Hershey meeting, and reconnecting with his children (earlier in this scene it's implied that he has given Bobby a Hershey bar, much like his invented father did in his first pitch), he is leaving the inferno for something more hopeful.