“When are things going to go back to normal?” Roger Sterling posed this question early in Mad Men’s 5th season in response to the upended reality he now finds himself living in, but it could just as easily apply to the response Mad Men fans have been having all season long. From the departure of the usual pacing to the aura of gloom presiding over the season, the changes have been enough for viewers to take notice, and they don’t like it. The most interesting change, however, is in everyone’s favorite anti-hero, Don Draper.
The Don that everyone grew to love over the first four seasons of the show was a ruthless, ambitious cad who threw himself into his work and his affairs as a way to avoid the despair creeping around the edges of his life; this manufactured life, designed to bring him the joy his real life never could and what it might mean that it has so failed in that intent. In season 4, without the façade of his perfect suburban life the despair hit Don with full force and the results were not pretty. His season four tail spin left me with the same complaints most people seem to hurtling towards Don this season; where is the old Don?
And it seemed this season answered that question in no uncertain terms. He’s gone. This season there has been no philandering, no despair, but there has also been a disregard for his business, a lack of creative flair and while that used to define him, he didn’t even notice his new priorities until they were pointed out to him by Bert Cooper. “Love leave” is how Cooper described it and its 100% accurate. This drastic change in Don is a result in his finally being happy.
The overall tone of this season has been dark. From the subtle remarks about mass killings and snipers to the over arcing themes on suicide and prostitution, the gloom presiding over this season has been obvious from the beginning. But I think what makes it all the more obvious is that it wasn’t obvious at all to our main character. He was blissfully unaware of the melancholia around him because for once he wasn’t a part of it. Even after Cooper’s admonishment broke his reverie, his return to the fight was lackluster at best. The Jaguar pitch, while brilliant, was a ghost of the Carousel pitch (Draper magic at its best) and most importantly it wasn’t his.
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is thriving, just the way Don predicted they would, thanks in part to the Jaguar account and Lane’s life insurance money, but it looks as though this is the moment Don has chosen to stop being New, Happy Don. Thanks to the consecutive blows of Megan rejecting the advertising world (i.e. Don), learning what actually landed them Jaguar, Peggy moving on to bigger and better things, and the guilt over Lane’s suicide, the darkness that once threatened Don is back again.
Isn’t it? Isn’t that what that rakish gaze, leading to the inevitable wolfish smile we haven’t seen in far too long, directed at two beautiful young women, meant? As the theme to “You Only Live Twice” built in the last thirty seconds of season five it seemed like all signs pointed to viewers getting Old Don back. Or could this be another New Don entirely?
For the first time in five seasons Don has put the happiness of someone else before his own; and a woman no less. While Don has changed significantly this season, his attitude towards the women in his life has not altered. Megan has certainly made him happy, but she was making him happiest when he thought she found joy where he did; in advertising. Her rejection of the industry directly correlates to the discord creeping back into Don’s life and he therefore fought it. Hard. It was easy to feign support of Megan’s classes and auditions, but the support died away when faced with the actual possibility that she wouldn’t be there when he got home; whenever that might be. He could have taken his mother-in-law’s advice; he could have dressed the wounds of Megan’s bruised ego and “have the life [he] desire[s]”, but he didn’t. Instead, he watched her reel, for the first time taking an interest in what his wife has been pursuing all her life. And what he saw, I think, was not only that the camera adores her face and she could certainly have a career given the right break, but that she was truly passionate about being an actress. It’s not about art versus commercial, but about being successful at something you enjoy. That is the true definition of happiness. And although giving Megan the commercial would mean ending the fantasy that had been keeping him happy this past year, he still did it.
So what did that devilish smile mean? Is Old Don really back or has the king of reinvention turned yet another leaf? Like the song says, “You only live twice, or so it seems/One life for yourself and one for your dreams”. Don is already on life number two and as Lane has shown him, starting over isn’t always an option. So is this dog going back to his old tricks or will this growth spark a New, New Don who will be able to find happiness within the life he already leads?
One thing that hopefully holds true will be unhappiness inspiring Don to genius levels of creativity because he’s going to have to be back to fighting weight to take on Peggy once she becomes the force behind Virginia Slims (and I think we all know that’s what’s on her horizon). Or perhaps this growth will continue to Don finding happiness through his student’s success. Perhaps that’s the twist; only one of them is going to be successful, but both can be happy. “This dream is for you, so pay the price/Make one dream come true, you only live twice.”
– Devin Mainville