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Is Don Draper right?


My productivity is usually lower on Mondays, as I spend a fair portion of the day reading commentaries on the previous night's episode of "Mad Men." Last night, we had the season finale. And I think a lot of the analyses are missing something. But I'll put what it is after the jump to avoid spoiling the episode for those who haven't seen it.

All of the commentaries are saying pretty much the same thing: It was a symphony of bad, childish choices. But I'm not so sure.

Take Faye, who knows Don's secret, and tells him, before he leaves, that he'll be a happier person if he confronts what's in his past and moves beyond it. That type of intimacy gets her dumped. Megan, who knows nothing about Don, gets told, "I feel like myself when I'm with you, but the way I always wanted to feel." She also gets a ring.

The general theory is that Don is making an awful, immature mistake. But what if he's right, at least for him? The guy's been Don Draper for decades now. Maybe that's really who he is.

But no, you say, this secret is torturing him. Is it? Betty's discovery of his documents and an ill-considered background check threw his life into chaos, at least for a time. But that's because there are consequences if his secrets are revealed. By contrast, there are few if they simply remain hidden. What if Faye didn't represent redemption, but risk? Someone who knew enough to hurt him, whom he could never relax around? Because the reality is, what Dick Whitman did was illegal, and he could face federal prosecution and professional ruin if it emerged. He can make peace with his past, but he can never admit to it. Not publicly, at least. And the easier it is to uphold his lie, the easier it is to protect his life.

We saw a similar story with Joan. As most suspected, and as we now know, she's carrying Roger Sterling's child. She didn't get the abortion. And she's lying to her husband, making him believe the baby is his. It's not a nice thing to do. But in the 1960s, could a third abortion pose a risk to a 35-year-old woman who still wants to have children? The show certainly suggested so. And with Joan's husband in Vietnam, this could have been her last chance at parenthood.

Then there's the choice between Megan and Faye. The show has worked to complicate Megan's character a bit -- she's smart, and ambitious, and worldly -- but the choice was still between the fiercely independent and competent Faye, and the much more maternal and family-oriented Megan. Earlier in the season, Megan bested Faye when Sally fell at the office and needed comforting, and it was her easy serenity amid his children's squabbling that seemed to trigger Don's proposal. Choosing, essentially, a caretaker -- for both him and his kids -- over an equal is offensive to modern sensibilities, but I'm not sure it's wrong. Don's kids do, after all, need care.

Indeed, the show seems to be torturing us by offering dilemmas where the mores of the '60s demand a very different decision than the trends of the Aughts. The psychological and legal context of today could coax Dick Whitman out of the closet, but it's not clear that that's a good idea in 1965. The social and technological options of the late 21st century could ease Joan's concerns, but they're were not available to her. Don's hapless, helpless behavior around his children would elicit contempt today, and his decision to bed and marry his secretary would violate workplace office codes. But as things stand, Don has kids he needs to care for, no idea how to care for them and society's permission to pass that burden off to a nearby woman -- including the one sitting outside his office. Maybe he's doing the responsible thing.

The season finale was called "Tomorrowland." Most have taken that as a reference to the false illusion of an irenic future that Disney offers. But you could see it another way, too: The point of Tomorrowland is that, someday, everything will be different. But you have to go to an amusement park because, well, you live in todayland, and here, everything is exactly the same.

Photo credit: AMC

By Ezra Klein  | October 18, 2010; 4:25 PM ET
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Quit the blog business and move over to the Post Style section! Nice analysis.

Posted by: agoldhammer | October 18, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

haven't read any of the commentary yet.

I think it was all a dream. Begins and ends with Don in bed. And the final music is "I Got You Babe," the Groundhog Day clue that he might be waking up tomorrow, with another chance to make the right decisions, this time.

Posted by: andrewlong | October 18, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

My take on it that Don knows something is seriously wrong with his daughter and his ex-wife, (who has a personality disorder of some kind). When Megan bested Faye, there was something utterly distraught about Sally, and her desperate unhappiness about being returned to her mother. When Betty fired the nanny, Don knew at some level that he had to get the groundwork laid to get the children away from his wife. So, he asks Megan to marry him, since Faye had already demonstrated lack of maternal skills.

Posted by: bgmma50 | October 18, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

What commentators -- other than Ezra, of course -- do folks like, dislike, rely on, etc.?

Posted by: SusanB55 | October 18, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

So anyway,Don's putting his children first. So far so good. The disturbing part is that he doesn't really love Megan, so he's wronging her in doing right by his children. That's not good. And somehow I don't think the writers are going to let him fall in love with Megan and dedicate himself to behaving as a loving husband should.

Posted by: bgmma50 | October 18, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

I'm just waiting for the part when Don Draper gets old and has to play a round of golf against Rodney Dangerfield.

Posted by: bdballard | October 18, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

"...It's not a nice thing to do"

Lying to her husband about the baby is easily the worst thing anyone has done in 4 seasons.

Posted by: MrDo64 | October 18, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Agree that the show's narrative needs won't allow a happily-ever-after. This'll be a bad decision in the way all things need to be bad decisions. But it's not clear to me, given what we know now, that it *was* a bad decision.

Also, I predict Sally comes to live with them next season.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | October 18, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Maybe Don's proposal impulsive, maybe it was pragmatic and impulsive. But look at how Megan, just by being Megan, transformed him and his children. It felt like family, and it felt good.

Posted by: Maezeppa | October 18, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse


It *was* a bad decision. Even without narrative necessity, Megan could turn out to be great or terrible as far as Don knows, because they've never even had an argument. It's a bad decision in the same way that betting your life savings on the Superbowl is a bad decision. Even if you win the bet, it's still a bad decision because it's a huge risk for how little you definitely know. It's a bad decision regardless of who the secretary and boss are.

Posted by: evilado | October 18, 2010 11:57 PM | Report abuse

"Choosing, essentially, a caretaker -- for both him and his kids -- over an equal is offensive to modern sensibilities, but I'm not sure it's wrong. Don's kids do, after all, need care."

Yeagh. Be sure to let any prospective wives/girlfriends read that! I'm sure they'll be happy to learn that wanting an equal is merely a matter of "modern sensibilities" and not always the right thing, especially when there are children that need looking after.

Posted by: Ulium | October 19, 2010 2:43 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, I think your post title should be refined to "Is Don Draper's Choice Right for Don Draper?" And BTW, the point of the last 4 decades of social progress wasn't to replace one set of rigid options with another, it was to give people MORE choices. The other point of the episode which you all seem to miss is whether your whole existence should be tied to work, or should you strive to have a healthy personal life away from work. Look at Cosgrove refusing to pimp his father-in-law to be for business. Don THINKS he WANTS to have meaningful family life apart from his work (like he had, sorta, with Anna). The drama for future seasons will hinge on whether that's true, and whether he can achieve it.

Posted by: rdbacon66 | October 19, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

"So anyway,Don's putting his children first. So far so good. The disturbing part is that he doesn't really love Megan, "

I took the exact opposite view (funny considering how we bicker politically.) I consider Don to be an incredibly self-centered person who fell in love only because there was someone who was solving his immediate problems and making his life easier. As long as Megan continues to be of use to him, doesn't argue, and doesn't ask questions, Don will keep her. That is how he loves.

Posted by: fakedude1 | October 21, 2010 7:45 AM | Report abuse

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