Anticipating "Mad Men": Don's big move

The time is (almost) right for Draper to get back in the game

Published April 24, 2014 5:30PM (EDT)

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in "Mad Men"                      (AMC/Michael Yarish)
Jon Hamm as Don Draper in "Mad Men" (AMC/Michael Yarish)

After a week perusing the views of the close-watchers – “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men”? Dammit if this isn’t the height of recapping season – I am prepared to make a prediction. Mark my words, “Mad Men” fans, Don Draper is going to make a move. Following Sunday’s circus of feral office politics, the frustrations of TV writers across the spectrum read like bitter tea leaves. First of all, the online grousing over Peggy’s Valentine’s Day meltdown was deafening.

“This week’s episode had her acting like a horrible, bratty child in a way that just felt really frustrating and like it was weakening her as a character.” – Eric Goldman, IGN

“We expect random dudes in offices in 1969 to be heels. Seeing Peggy act just as badly as Lou, if not worse, was a disappointment.” – Willa Paskin, Slate

“I love Peggy, but she has been less and less sympathetic since the first season, when she was at her lowest point. She’s brilliant and vulnerable and temperamental, but she’s also grown to embody privilege in surprising ways.” – Sonia Saraiya, A.V. Club

Just last week, the world seemed to be in Peggy Olson’s corner as she suffered the slack slings and blunted arrows of Lou’s well-aged apathy. Now, a single but powerful instance of bad behavior has driven critics to exhaustion and Nolan Feeney at Time to temporarily renounce feminism: “The creative team’s quips about how she’s not getting laid seemed cruel at first, “ he writes, “but after observing the self-centered temper tantrum Peggy throws in this episode, it’s no wonder she’s the butt of their jokes. Just look at what they have to deal with on a regular basis.”

Don Draper and Peggy Olson are hardly two sides of the same coin. When she’s up, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s down or vice versa. But they are, arguably, “Mad Men’s” most prominent protagonists. Right now, their respective circumstances are both grim, and that is compelling at the moment. But, just from a tonal perspective, it won’t do to have them simultaneously wallowing at rock bottom for too long. Also, as I pointed out last week, it’s quite possible that their mentor-mentee relationship is still very much in play. Don may have to rise in order to pull Peggy up with him.

And how far does Don have to go, anyway? I don’t find Don Draper sitting at home watching television quite as pathetic as most. All that TV includes commercials, his stock and trade; maybe he’s studying, keeping current. On this, I am inclined to agree with Tim Goodman at the Hollywood Reporter: “If Weiner and his writers are trying to scare us into thinking Don won’t be able to get back into the business,” writes Goodman, “(I’m not saying that’s what they’re trying), it’s not working.” We already know from the Rumsen pitch last week that this consummate adman still has his head in the game even if his butt is to the curb. And getting suited up to palm contraband intel off Dawn the double agent is admirably proactive. She’s already doing your dirty work, why can’t she see you in your drawers? More on Dawn in a second.

Auguring “Mad Men” symbolism is an inexact science, but I’m going to say that the cockroach skittering across the floor of Don’s apartment could just as easily represent survival as it could sloth. Don is doing just that, hiding out of sight, but it can’t last. He has to come out into the light at some point. And, in fact, he does. Goldman at IGN suggests Don “may very well have had that lunch with Dave just to chat with someone.” But I think the motivation for his pseudo-business lunch is exactly as he said: He was looking for love. Don’s confidence is shaken. If he’s going to make a move – any move – he needs to know that some within his industry still crave his talents despite his most recent mishap. However casually, he winds up with two suitors on Valentine’s Day – mission accomplished.

As far as self-image is concerned, there exists no bigger hurdle to his recovery than his daughter’s disdain. Though optimists are buzzing over Don and Sally’s honest confab Sunday night, I don’t expect that he will solve all of his family issues at once – or, perhaps, at all. Still, I’ll wager the two have reached just enough equilibrium for Don to contemplate salvaging the remaining damaged sections of his life.

The crux of my theory that Don will quit spinning his wheels and try to retake his place as Manhattan’s preeminent pitchman is Dawn’s own reversal of misfortune. Much has been made, both within the show’s narrative and without, of the similarity between Don’s name and that of his good-natured African-American secretary. Sonia Saraiya writes, “Dawn and Don are almost explicitly doppelgangers—their names are so similar, as everyone comments. They could not be more different, in terms of their identity modifiers. But they’re also meeting somewhat as equals, when she provides him some information and takes his calls.” I don’t know about the equals bit, but if the two are, indeed, entangled particles, Dawn’s fate may be a clue to Don’s.

Dawn’s eruption in Lou’s office was not planned. Like Don’s botched Hershey pitch, her true feelings got the best of her. Though she was momentarily punished, she soon found herself in a better position thanks to greater forces shaping the world around her – Lou, Joan, Peggy, Cutler, Cooper. This is not to say that Don’s big move will not be intentional, but, as was pointed out at lunch, his freedom is greatly restricted by the non-compete agreement with his agency. But while he can't yet go anywhere else, there are tensions tearing SCD&P apart. Holes are appearing just big enough for the right cockroach to scurry in. Soon, it may only be  a matter of Don being sharp enough to seize the opportunity. As Pete’s new girlfriend Bonnie explains, 3,000 miles away, “We’re salesmen, our fortunes are in other people’s hands. We have to take them.”

And now, a caveat: I certainly believe that Don’s big move is imminent. However, in light of the very conspicuous absence of good ol’ Bob Benson, I suspect that this coming Sunday will be the time for a Detroit-centric episode in which Benson and Pete Campbell’s conflict comes to a boil. This may take place away from New York and L.A., and it may very well feel like a departure from the show’s primary threads, but I’m certain that whatever blows up in the Motor City, the impact will be felt on both coasts.

("Mad Men" airs Sunday night on AMC.)

By Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

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