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.
But what did Don traverse across to reach this new beginning?
Much like in Dante, Don literally goes through every outlet imaginable until he stops and reaches this "true path" – also hinted at in the poster.
Among the most obvious outlets that Don goes through are women. The unseen woman (aside from her nightgown-covered arm) that Don is grasping in the poster may be Megan or Betty or even Sylvia. But the obscured identity highlights that for Don women have been interchangeable commodities — in fact, in the closing episode, both Betty and Megan wear nightgowns reminiscent of the poster.
Don also tries escaping through drinking – at least, until he attempts to give it up after knocking out the preacher in the final episode.
The preacher scene is pivotal, however, in that it is not only about drinking. It implicitly groups all of Don's addictions together. In it the ballad "Band of Gold" plays in the background just as it does in the opening scene of "Mad Men's" pilot. In that scene, Don has a conversation with an African-American server that on its surface is about smoking. Don smokes Lucky Strikes while the server smokes Old Golds. But in reality that conversation – by linking the server's Old Golds to a wedding ring (the song's so-called"band of gold") – is about their relationship to women and, indeed, all of life. The server's perspective – much like the preacher's – stands for stability. Don, however, is a "Lucky Strike" man in every sense of the word: in his relationship with women, drinking and life itself.
Indeed, the series pilot explicitly connects Don's addictions to what the firm's psychologist calls the "Death Wish:" the desire to seek death that is repeatedly symbolized in "Mad Men" by smoking.
And sure enough, at the close of this season, Don experiences his own version of the "Death Wish."
The show's writers leave little doubt what Don's desire to move to California ultimately represents. Listen to Don tell it to Megan: "…I realized, it's gotten out of control. I've gotten out of control…But I've realized something else too, I don't want to be here anymore." (Italics added.)
To her question of "What would you do out there?" Don retorts: "…It would be a chance to open my own shop. Small team, desk, windows, and sunlight…the ocean."
So that the meaning of "the ocean" is clear. This scene immediately follows Pete Campbell learning that his mother was lost at sea.
To further drive home the point, the hotel that Don stayed at in Los Angeles was the "Vista Del Mar." When Don almost drowns in the pool, he is saved by Roger Sterling, in a Navy-style coat yelling "man overboard".
(And indeed, while underwater, Don of course, pauses for a smoke with his alter ego from the season opener, Private Dinkins. There's that "Death Wish" again).
Just look at how Don imagines the Pacific in his suicide-tinged ad for Sheraton.
But as Private Dinkins tells Don, "Dying doesn't make you whole." And Don ultimately chooses not to "escape" to the Pacific.
So what does start to make Don whole?
The season seems to throw out the possibility that it's Jesus. Jesus, in fact, is an ever-present figure in this season, from the opening shot of Megan's torso, which is very evocative of Christ on the Crucifixion.
Peggy, later on, stabs her boyfriend Abe in his side with a spear (very Roman soldier-y of her), to which he yells, "Jesus".
And yet, as Don tells the preacher, "Studies show that Jesus had a bad year." More than that, Don is unwilling to stomach hypocrisy in the preacher who tells him, among other things, that Martin Luther King wasn't a true believer.
At the end, it isn't conventional religion that saves Don, it's a different kind of father-son relationship.
Ultimately, the road to recovery for Don has less to do with anything external. It comes back to what is authentic to him: his real past and a future represented by his children.
In telling the truth about his childhood, Don begins to move away from the world represented by the season poster, with its multiple, conflicting, and overlapping Dons, to a world where – to steal from his Hershey pitch – "the wrapper looks like what is inside."
Listen to what Don says about Bobby in what is his strongest moment of clarity before the final episode:
"I don't think I ever wanted to be the man who loves children, but from the moment they're born, that baby comes out and you act proud and excited… But you don't feel anything, especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them but you don't. And the fact that you're faking that feeling, it makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem. Then one day they get older, and you see them do something. And you feel, that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode."
Nearly all the male characters – Ted, Pete, Roger, even Duck – conclude the season by attempting to cling to their children as a source of stability in their own lives.
As Ted says about his family, "I have to hold on to them or I will get lost in the chaos".
Their choices are still tainted by all the personal and social injustices that have accumulated over the years.
As Peggy reminds Ted –and implicitly them all – of their privileged positions: "Well aren't you lucky. To have decisions".
But at least, as he leaves the inferno for purgatory, Don appears to have finally stopped and made his.
Ari Ratner is a Washington, D.C.- based writer. He was formally a political appointee in the Obama Administration's State Department. You can follow him on Twitter @amratner.