The conspiracy theories began to swirl soon after Mad Men’s sixth season opened with a shot from the perspective of a dying man being rescued. The sight, just moments later, of a healthy Don Draper reading Dante’s Inferno on the beach only seemed to confirm it: He’s died and gone to Hell.
In fairness, not every viewer thought this was really the case, but the line of thinking is indicative of a broader misunderstanding, one that Alan Jacobs has recently criticized among readers of Dante:
In fact, Dante is not at all interested in placing persons (or as he would see them, ex-persons) in their proper places in the afterlife, nor is he interested in speculating on the precise nature of the sufferings of the damned: he is, rather, interested in exploring the nature of sin. The topic of the Inferno is not Hell but sin, for the Pilgrim must understand what sin is so he can renounce it, and thereby begin to find a way out of that dark, dark wood.
Don Draper and Mad Men are, like Dante, less concerned with Hell than with sin. Though the imagery was ratcheted up in this most recent season, questions of sin’s reality or applicability have been present since the show’s beginning. And not only with Don: The second-season character arc for Peggy Olsen, Don’s protege, is dominated by her conservative Catholic mother and a liberal priest both trying to confront her with the reality of sin and steer her off its path.
Whether or not Peggy still believes in sin’s reality, Don does—and knows himself to be a sinner. Lying in bed with his neighbor, he shies away from the sight of the crucifix on her neck and ultimately pushes it from sight as they make love. (Her name, Sylvia, is etymologically related to the “dark wood”—selva—into which Don’s voiceover announces he has stumbled.) As much as Don’s flashbacks are dominated by scenes as a child in a whorehouse, they are equally dominated by discussions of sin, purity, penance, and redemption. His memories aren’t dominated by sex, that is, but by the connection between sex and his self-identification as a sinner.
When Don sucker-punches a minister in a barroom, it is because he has come to think of himself as incapable of being anything other than a sinner. The man he thinks he’s hitting isn’t the man trying to save him from drink, but a preacher from many years before, who angrily told him that the only sin from which there is no redemption is the rejection of God’s love—of believing oneself a sinner who cannot be changed or redeemed.
Is Don Draper beyond redemption? Much of the season would seem to point in that direction. On an earlier trip to California, he stood in the ocean and received a kind of baptismal rebirth.
On his sixth-season visit, however, he jumps into a swimming pool and nearly drowns. Ted Chaough’s warning toward the end of the finale—“You can’t just stop like that”—also appears to indicate this. It leads Don to recognize that Ted is more capable (and more needful) of the opportunity for penance and change a move to California will offer. But just as easily as this could demonstrate that Don has given up on the possibility of all redemption, it could be read as a first step toward his own: stepping aside so that another can remake himself after recognizing that his own path to change lies elsewhere.
Whether or not he is ultimately beyond redemption, he pulls back, at almost the last moment, from the belief that he is. The season ends with him, forced aside from his career, showing his children the home he grew up in—and achieving some small moment of understanding with his previously estranged daughter. It ends, that is, where the fourth season ended: with Don shoring up fragments of his family and his self against the ruins of his life.