“Who is Don Draper?” People have been wondering that for years, not excluding Don himself, but no one has expected such a straightforward answer as the journalist from Advertising Age looking for material for his article on Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s superstar creative director. Like many before him who have asked in one way or another, he doesn’t get an answer. Don is not only still guarded and reluctant to hand out details, but seems genuinely mystified why anyone would care about him apart from his work. But Don’s life and work has changed over the past year, and this episode of his life is about him learning to understand what’s happened and how to change with it.
Last year, in the face of another buyout and a forced move to another agency none of them wanted to work at, the higher-ups at Sterling Cooper went rogue and began a new agency, bringing their most valuable SC employees along with them. The glow of being the “scrappy upstart,” plus Don’s innovative and successful Glo-Coat campaign, has carried the fledgling agency to sparkling new offices, but the pressure of scrambling for accounts - both winning fresh ones and keeping those they already have - is starting to wear on them and make them consider ploys they would have otherwise considered at the best unnecessary and at worse, beneath them.
Peggy Olson has seemingly lived a lifetime since four years ago when she started her career at Sterling Cooper as a stammering, uncertain secretary. The smaller staff and startup atmosphere at SCDP has given her even more freedom to flex her muscles and show what she can do. She’s coolly confident, casually authoritative, and is rising to the challenge to match her creativity to the agency’s increasingly desperate need for more profits. She even hatches a plot to stage a PR stunt to bolster Sugarberry’s ham sales for the holidays, and decides to go through with it without Don’s knowledge. When the plan develops unforeseen consequences, which she goes to Don to fix, she does it with a steely resolve and open admittance of where she went wrong - plus the courage to point out that, in the end, she did boost sales and convinced the company to increase their media budget.
Honestly, seeing how Peggy handles being wrong is much more an affirmation of how far she’s come than seeing her being right. When she can’t solve the problem without Don’s help, she goes to him and admits what happened and what she needs him to do. (A nice aside to this incident is her male companion explaining himself to Don as her fiance, and she later upbraids him for promoting himself.) She also handles Don’s angry reaction with humility and strength. When he reads her the riot act back in the office, she allows him his points, but also reminds him the stunt worked, and, since no one knows it happened, it’s he who is still the most influential factor in determining SCDP’s image. Don keeps the balance by telling her she won’t be in an upcoming client meeting because “they won’t want to see a girl there.” It’s a subtle dressing down that has less to do with Don falling in line with the sexist business standards of the day and more to do with him maintaining their father-daughter dynamic. He specifically doesn’t say “woman,” but “girl.” And Peggy, who acknowledged she made a mistake and expected his reprimand, accepts this. Not only does she accept it, she emphasizes it with her parting words: “We’re all here because of you. All we want to do is please you.”
Peggy’s comments point to the central issue with which Don is struggling - what people expect from him, and what he needs from people in return. It’s unlikely he’s ever honestly confronted that before, and he is, truly, struggling. His relationship with Betty, now his ex-wife and wife of Henry Francis, is brittle and bitter, although he appears to be trying harder than she to keep it positive. Betty, for her part, does not seem to matured much in her divorce and new marriage. She’s rude to Don and still hasn’t bothered to move out of their house over a month after the agreed-on departure date. She’s disliked by her in-laws and her children, particularly Sally, appear unhappy. Despite certain moments with Henry, she doesn’t look all that happy herself, and the more seen of Henry, the more he seems to realize he has put himself in a possibly impossible situation. Where Betty wanted and expected to be petted and taken care of, as a divorced mother she has more responsibilities than she’s feels capable or desirous of carrying, and Henry might be starting to understand her earlier problems went deeper than just being married to Don.
Essentially, Don and Betty had the same problem - they had pursued a fiction of who they thought they should be, and, in the wreckage of that, they are floundering to figure out the truth. But while Betty is looking to her new husband to give her a new definition, Don is all alone. His apartment is dark and claustrophobic, and he falls asleep on the couch in front of the TV without eating the meals prepared by his housekeeper. He goes on a date with a friend of Mrs. Roger Sterling, at Roger’s insistence, and he might as well be having dinner with a slightly more bubbly version of young model Betty, which doesn’t exactly bode well for their future. His most stable relationship at the moment is a hooker who regularly shows up to slap him around. She is a fairly obvious dark side representation of almost all of the women Don previously had affairs with - independent, strong-minded brunettes, also all of whom are stark contrasts with icy, blonde, fragile Betty. When his kids are over, they watch TV while he works.
But work - that’s the one thing Don can latch onto and use. When his reticence in the Advertising Age interview results in an unflattering portrait that triggers the departure of one of their flightiest, but most valuable, clients, Bert Cooper lays out the problem at hand: “Turning creative success into business is your work. And you failed.” Don realizes that his role as the agency’s star involves more than creating ad campaigns, and that he has the obligation to live up to her persona - but, most importantly, that along with obligation, there’s an opportunity to create that new persona. The moment of decision happens unexpectedly, in the meeting with Janzen Swimwear about a racy new campaign. Janzen shys away from the suggestive ad and insists they’re a “family company.” Don tells them bluntly that that characterization is going to get them nowhere and makes it clear that making advertisements pandering to prudery is not the business in which he considers himself. When they resist, he kicks them out of the office. Then, he makes an appointment for an interview with The Wall Street Journal. And that interview is the rockstar myth-making he didn’t know why or how to give before.
If there’s anything Don Draper knows how to do, it’s recreate himself. Now that he understands how that goes hand-in-hand with his work, he’s figured out his image. Whether he’s figured out what underneath the image remains to be seen, but it seems, with the energy he has at the close of this chapter, he might be on the right track.