Spoilers! for Mad Men Season 5 up to Episode 11!
Mad Men’s central character, Don Draper, used to be the coolest guy in the room. That may still be the case for the most part, but Season 5 has painted Don in a new light: the out-of-touch, middle-aged businessman. The generational gap has been a major running theme this season, embodied most clearly in the age gap between Don and his new wife, Megan. But while this theme has been played in the forefront, in the background we’ve seen a more subtle change in Don which came to a head in last night’s episode, “The Other Woman”.
In the past, Don Draper has been defined by his relationships with women. Specifically, Don has been the great philanderer. His approach to the women in his life has been primarily one of domineering, almost always sexually. Don controls the women in his life, or at least, he used to. The first break in this trend was marrying Megan. Not only are they far apart in age, but Megan represents the opposite of his previous wife, Betty. Where Betty was quiet and obedient, Megan is loud and upfront. Both characters often act like petulant children, but Betty usually displays this trait by being cold selfish. Megan is more primal, prone to lashing out in fits of rage. Don could control Betty. He can’t control Megan, and he doesn’t totally seem to want to. Part of what seems to appeal to him about their marriage is Megan’s unpredictability. She adds spice and vigor to his otherwise dry life. It’s not just Megan, though.
Peggy has always shown signs of independence, but her timidity kept her down. It was always Don who handed her opportunities. In Season 4’s “The Suitcase” this came to a head with Peggy and Don yelling at each other. Even then, Peggy tried to step up and Don shot her right back down. In this episode we see a new Peggy. A Peggy the show has been hinting at all season. Not only has she felt undervalued by the company and by Don, she has increasingly stepped up to be Don’s equal. She’s been talking to him as though they’re on the same level, forgetting her place, and he’s allowed it. Don has been in a creative slump all season and has essentially given up control over Peggy. Peggy’s decision to leave Sterling Cooper Draper Price was a long time coming and a sign that her relationship with Don has come to its logical breaking point, not in a fight, but in a realization that she’s an independent woman who need not stand in Don’s shadow for her entire career.
The other woman who figures into the episode is Joan. Oh, Joan. Sad, beautiful, wonderful Joan. Don and Joan have always had an interesting relationship. There’s a chemistry between them that would indicate a possible romantic connection, but both characters have apparently resisted any urges. In a way, Joan has always been Don’s equal, and maybe this explains why they’ve never had an affair. But as much as they may be equals, Don, during the series, has always been her superior. Joan is the greatest secretary of all time, but Don is a man rising to the top of the business. He hasn’t necessarily ever needed to control Joan, per se, but his assumption was that he could influence her through friendship. He tried this approach in the newest episode, taking a principled stand against her prostitution for the sake of the Jaguar account. What we learn is that even before he tells her not to go through with it, she already has. When Don discovers this after winning the account he is crushed.
Seriously crushed. He put himself out there, trying to protect this woman, this person, he cares for deeply, only to learn he couldn’t protect her at all. Joan is her own woman, able to make her own decisions and mistakes, and Don realizes he has no control over her even when it would do her good. It’s fitting, then, that in this moment of crushing realization Peggy comes to resign. She is leaving, and not just for reasons of money. Her time being mentored by Don has been tremendously important, but it’s time to move on and make it on her own. Don gets this. He puts up a bit of a fight, but when he sees the purity of her reasons he reluctantly lets her go.
It’s a terribly sad scene. Peggy sees he’s upset but doesn’t know or understand the full extent of his sadness. Don is losing the two women left who have effectively been his rock. They have filled this role for a long time, but it’s been especially true since Ann Draper’s death in Season 4. Joan is still there, but she can no longer be deified. She is broken and Don doesn’t know how to come to terms with it. Peggy is gone, too. Megan no longer works at the office, so even that welcome distraction is unavailable. Now all he’s got is Megan, the aspiring actress. The wife who throws a fit at the drop of a hat. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a different mode for Don. The coolest guy in the room, the man capable of playing women like a fiddle, has lost his touch and found himself impotent. It’s a new Don; a more respectable Don, but also a less confident Don. With two more episodes left this season, I can’t wait to see where this new Don goes.