In the seventh episode of its first season, Mad Men offered up what I still believe to be one of its finest hours. “Red In The Face” featured Roger Sterling making the long trek out to the Draper homestead, where he told World War II stories and flirted with Betty (who seemed interested). Don, interrupting the two of them, quietly sat back and plotted his revenge, which he undertook the next day when the Sterling Cooper executives met with the Richard M. Nixon campaign about creating its ads. At lunch the next day, he drove the older Roger to drink too much, to eat too much seafood. And then the two returned to the offices with the Nixon campaign heads, where they had to climb the stairs up to Sterling Cooper, rather than taking the elevator. Roger, woozy and out of shape, threw up, right in front of the clients, and Don won the day. It was treated as a bit of heroism on his part, how he got one over on his friend through cleverness, rather than brute strength.
Don does basically the same thing in “Man With A Plan,” and he’s treated more or less like a villain.
Season six, at least so far, is filled with these little resonances and echoes of season one. It’s not going so far as to weave them into every episode as a motif or something, but the series definitely has one eye on where it all began. Perhaps that’s just on my mind because in the show’s universe, Nixon is running for president again, with another Kennedy bidding to face off against him as the Democratic nominee. But the more the show echoes season one’s adventures, the more intentional I think it is. These people have come a long way, but they haven’t changed all that much. And the longer the show goes on, the more that inability to change seems slightly off, as if Don Draper is a rock plopped in the middle of a rushing torrent, unaware that the water will just find a way around him.
One of Don Draper’s overriding character traits is his quest for power and freedom. His whole thing about how if you don’t like what’s being said, you should change the conversation, that’s just a micro-level example of how Don will reinvent himself at the drop of a hat. (I don’t think Peggy, his most obvious apprentice, bringing that up in her pitch to Heinz was at all accidental.) But as we saw last week, that can be horribly wearing on the people around him, who are forced to reinvent themselves as well because he has more power than them. It’s all fun and games for Don, but what it ultimately comes down to is that he wouldn’t mind all that much if everybody around him were a little game piece he could move around the board. He makes Sylvia stay in a hotel room because he likes the sexual reverie. He drinks Ted Chaough under the table because he needs to feel dominant over him. He subtly pushes Peggy into the old role she chafed against, and he probably doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.
On Twitter, Slate’s June Thomas, an excellent TV critic you all should be reading, christened him “Dom Draper,” and while that’s a great joke, it’s also true of who this person has been throughout the series. He always has to be the man alone, seated on that couch, arm stretched out beside him to accentuate the void at his side. People flit in and out of his life, but he never really connects with them. For instance, look at all of the two-shots in tonight’s episode where two characters (inevitably one of them Don) were talking about the same thing or even focused on the same thing, but they were looking in completely opposite directions. I can think of two in particular. Consider, for instance, the shot around the episode’s midpoint, where Don and Ted are talking about margarine, and they’re each facing each other, but neither is looking at the other (episode director John Slattery accentuates this by filming Don in close-up but keeping Ted in focus in the background). Another comes at the end, as Don stares offscreen while his wife tearfully watches the news of Robert Kennedy’s assassination on TV. He’s pushed back into this life he once so optimistically made for himself, and he’s feeling increasingly isolated. But she can’t even see that. Granted, she’s distracted by big, important things, but the disconnect is there, and it’s growing.
At so many junctures of his life, Don’s greatest failing has been not understanding that the people around him are just that: people with their own drives and motivations and goals. Of course, this is largely true of everybody on the show. Look, for instance, at how Peggy half suspects that the merger of Cutler Gleason Chaough with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was all about getting her back under the same roof as her former boss, or at how Pete is always half convinced that any bad news that drops into his lap—like his mother, in the midst of some sort of dementia, having to move into his apartment with him—is caused by people plotting against him. We spend most of our lives convinced we’re the protagonist of the story, but we rarely realize that we’re just supporting characters in everybody else’s story. Nobody thinks about you as much as you do.
Now, to pull this out to a metatextual level, Don actually is the protagonist of this story, the man who’s capable of pushing the story forward by snapping his fingers. Yet his shift into a figure the show views with ambivalence, at best, and with antipathy, at worst, is something that has happened so gradually a lot of viewers of the show—both critics and fans—either seem conflicted by it or wish it hadn’t happened. (I’m not trying to say that this viewing of the show is wrong. It’s fine to not like these changes to its foundation, but it’s also very clearly something Matt Weiner and company are aware they’re doing, not an accident or something that was overlooked.) To me, the presence of these elements has been there since the very first episode, hell, from the very first scene, where Don turns an African-American waiter into a subject of his advertising musings, but the show has steadily begun ramping up the “Don Draper is an asshole!” subtext into outright text, and it’s been fun to watch the series play around with this idea on such an overt level.
The thing about Don is that he doesn’t seem to realize he’s a part of something larger than just himself. When Peggy asked him back in “The Suitcase” for just a little credit and he said, “That’s what the money is for!” that was completely awesome, but it also exemplified Don’s approach to life. He cannot fail; he can only be failed, and he’ll gladly take credit for a whole team’s work, because that’s how he operates and how he’s always operated. Yet all around him, the world is shifting to this more team-based approach, as we see when Ted sits down with the creatives for a little “rap session” about margarine. In a real way, Don expects everybody in his life to be like Sylvia, waiting for him to come in the room and liven things up, then drop in the perfect idea. He can get away with that because he’s an advertising genius, but he’s also in a world where people don’t necessarily feel the need to wait for him forever.
The Don and Sylvia affair has been likely the most troublesome element of the season, a storyline that repeated several points the show has made before and never seemed to attain any traction—or give its female lead a sense that she was a separate person, instead of a plot complication. Yet the end of that affair is unexpectedly beautiful. It’s as if Sylvia dreams of a world where Don dies in that plane Ted takes him upstate in (in a wonderfully low-tech fake plane ride). Her dream doesn’t have the sorts of surreal elements we might associate with a dream. It’s about a man dying, and then his wife is sad, and then Sylvia goes to her husband to tell him she’s been away, but she’s home now. Don says she just dreamed it because she missed him—what was that about people making everything about themselves?—but it’s clear the experience had a profound effect on her. Despite the screaming matches and the trips to Minneapolis, Arnold is a touchstone for Sylvia, someone she can return to again and again, the sort of comfort that can only be attained in a long-running marriage where one—maybe both—partners dally but understand the beauty of having a place to come home to once the dalliance is over.
Don, wrapped up in all his alpha male bullshit, can’t see this. And it struck me in this episode more forcefully than ever before: He doesn’t have a home, because he approaches his personal life like he approaches his professional life, constantly changing the conversation. Where Peggy is attempting to build a life with Abe or where Pete forever tries to get back into Trudy’s good graces or where Joan simply tries to make the best life possible for her son, Don has trouble seeing the value in that kind of human connection because the second things turn in a way he doesn’t like, he’s headed for the exit. Is it any wonder Don and Betty split in the same episode he formed a new advertising agency?
There are other ways of living life, of doing business. I may be forced to eat these words—okay, it’s almost 100 percent certain I will have to eat these words—but I’m coming to like Bob Benson. Even if his kindness toward Joan—who goes to the hospital and learns she has an ovarian cyst causing her pain in her left side (and I couldn’t have dealt with it being cancer or something)—is entirely motivated by his knowledge that the company is downsizing redundant personnel in the wake of its merger, it’s still a kindness. Ultimate motivation doesn’t change the benefit an act provides, and Joan, won over perhaps slightly by her mother’s words, preserves his job in that meeting among the partners. Kindness isn’t weakness, even if it’s entirely motivated by the need to preserve the self. Kindness can be a safety net, a kind of web that you construct to catch yourself when you start to fall. (Now watch Bob turn out to be a serial killer and this turn out to be the most inaccurate paragraph I’ve written in my life—and there’s stiff competition for that role.)
Or, to bring things back around to the start of this piece, let’s look back at “Red In The Face” and Don’s attempts to intimidate his colleagues via his prodigious ability to put away alcohol. Don doesn’t really plot a professional humiliation of Ted. It’s more like he toys with the other guy like a cat with a mouse. Yet Ted has the support of friends and a respect that comes from his colleagues not from fear but from camaraderie. Peggy, who, let’s not forget, is nursing a crush on the man, tells Don that she wishes Ted had rubbed off on Don, rather than the other way around, and this episode seems to go out of its way to paint Ted as a long-suffering guy who just wants to do good work and get ahead, while painting Don as a man who likes to put the people in his life into little boxes—very nearly literally, in the case of Sylvia—then insist that they abandon free will in the face of his desires.
Life doesn’t work like that. Even Don Draper must realize this on some level, but he always seems so crestfallen when he’s upbraided by Peggy or when Sylvia breaks off their affair or when he goes back to Megan, and it’s just the same as it ever was. Don Draper is a “Man With A Plan,” to be sure, but his plans too often involve everybody behaving just so. When he humiliates Ted, that’s supposed to be the end of the story, but Ted, with the help of Gleason, realizes that he just has to stay in the fight until Don has exhausted himself, just has to pull a rope-a-dope. And then, as the two characters ascend (shades of “Red In The Face” again), Ted has his revenge. Don Draper may be the cool guy in the room, and he may be the person so many men around him want to be, but he’ll never be the guy who flew the plane to that meeting. Stuck on an island of his own making, Don can’t make the climb. He can only rely on others to do it for him.
- I resolved to not focus on Don so much in this year’s reviews, having found last year’s to be too Don-centric. And I think I’ve done an okay job (if not an amazing job) of that so far, but this episode simply boasted too much Don Draper character stuff to not comment on, and I hope you’ll forgive me the indulgence.
- I have basically no idea how to grade this show anymore. I still enjoy it as much as ever, but I also feel as if this season has yet to blow me away like previous seasons did on a near weekly basis. So I will keep giving it B+'s and A-'s until it does something really egregious or really extraordinary. And you will like it.
- I’m really enjoying Pete’s storyline this season. I don’t know what’s going to come of him having to live with his mother—other than his continued further regression into childishness—but it makes for a lot of fun in this episode, particularly when he’s so cruelly and casually dickish as to trick his mother into staying in the apartment by saying it’s St. Patrick’s Day.
- Here’s another chance to take a whack at the “important historical event occurs” story point, as the RFK assassination happens in the episode’s waning moments and the after-effects will likely be mostly over by next week’s episode. I also found the blend of the news report on the assassination with “Reach Out Of The Darkness” by Friend & Lover to be really terrific and eerie.
- Roger’s meeting with Burt Peterson is hilarious. I love how your mind thinks, “Is Burt getting fired again?” and then he is. It’s too bad about Michael Gaston, though, who’s an actor I really like that keeps getting written out of TV shows. Roger seems so permanently amused by the circumstances of his life that it’s hard to see him as villainous in these moments, and the “nobody spoke up for you” bit perfectly sets up the later moment when someone does speak up for Bob Benson.
- Slattery has become one of my favorite regular directors on the show, and, as always, he shows his mastery of visual gags and perfectly balanced long shots. I get why he can’t do more than one episode per season, but boy, I wish he could do more.
- I like how Peggy and Joan aren’t friends, precisely, but they really do try to be friendly toward each other. Sometimes, that’s all human interaction is.
- It’s inevitable that Harry Crane will complain about his office getting worse, no matter what happens.
- The book Sylvia reads that Don takes—which seems to be a step too far, finally—is Larry McMurtry’s Last Picture Show, which is a hell of a read, if you’ve never checked it out. (The movie’s sublime, too.)
- Next week on Mad Men: Don has to rub his temples furiously.