Mad Men: Don Draper’s New Relationship With Women

May 28, 2012 — 10 Comments

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.

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10 responses to Mad Men: Don Draper’s New Relationship With Women

  1. 

    This was such a powerful episode. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up during that final Don and Peggy scene.

    • 

      Oh it definitely got a little dusty. So much going on in that scene. So much character growth and so many things not said. Really beautiful, and beautifully acted. Apparently the bit with Don kissing Peggy’s hand for so long was not told to Elisabeth Moss ahead of time. Made the reaction from her more real when it happened.

  2. 

    Nice writeup, Corey! I’d add that the parallel of Megan’s seeming choice to leave and Peggy’s is well handled. With Joan, I initially misread his scene at her apartment. It had seemed to me that he realized he was already too late, but said his piece anyways, but then at the end we saw this wasn’t the case. I hope he realized that after the fact, that his gesture *was* meaningful and that perhaps if he’d gotten to speak to her in time, she would have made a different choice. I have a feeling we won’t find out either way though.

    • 

      It’s funny that you misread it that way since it ended up being true. I think the gesture of it is important. I can tell you that I don’t want to see Don and Joan become a couple in any way, but that gesture of kindness says a lot about him. I think if he had come earlier she might have decided differently. For all her feelings toward Roger or even Lane, Don seems to be the one she has the most respect for, and seeing that he respects her in return might have been enough to dissuade her.

  3. 
    Mario in Philly May 28, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    Nice write up! So do you think Don would have won the Jaguar account without Joan’s “input?” It seemed as though he would have. And I thought Joan doing this only for her job but could she also have been thinking about the welfare of her and her baby’s future?

    • 

      Thanks! It’s possible that SCDP would have gotten the account either way. The pitch was too damn good. But one thing’s for sure: Joan’s action made sure they got the dealers’ vote. I don’t really think Joan was doing it for her job or her family. I think she just came to a point where everyone around her seemed to say she should do it. That devaluation made it as though she might as well go through with it and take the financial benefits. If she’s not worth anything to anybody, including Roger, why should she value herself? Unfortunately, Don came too late 😦

  4. 

    I’ve resigned from jobs before and I’ve always strived for the balance of grace and power that Peggy found in that scene when she tells Don that this is it. She doesn’t need to be loud or funny about it, just matter of factly happy that she was here and happier that she’s going to be somewhere else next week.

    I see your theory of “The Other Women” in Don’s life. But hasn’t that been it for the entire season? He’s handing off all this work and just like Roger he’s starting to see his uselessness. He’s beginning to find himself as a puppet that’s there as someone to make the pitches go better because people want to see him as opposed to realize that all the brilliance is now outsourced from the likes of Peggy and Ginsberg. All of the senior partners (i.e. not Pete) are coming to terms with their uselessness in the firm. The only one who doesn’t is Cooper, who we see kind of come into frame for the first time in a while a couple weeks ago correcting Don’s creative dept work after a calamitously poor piece of managing an account.

    I honestly could see another coup d’état taking place in the office at the end of the season.

    • 

      I see the connection between Don and Roger, but I think there’s a crucial difference. Whereas in the past, Don has lacked all empathy, cared only about himself and his own advancement and pleasure, this season he has begun to come out of that. Had Peggy come to him to resign last season I suspect he’d have yelled at her and forced her into staying. In this episode he was particularly beat down, but during that scene he clearly understood where she was coming from. He understood that she needed to go for her own reasons and that he had to let it happen. It wasn’t the Roger approach of feeling defeated in life (though he does feels defeated because of what happened with Joan) but rather one of empathy and understanding that made him give up. Remember, Roger had no problem with selling Joan off to the piggish dealer.

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