The Return of the Real Don Draper
Season five of Mad Men ended just as it began: with a question. "When is everything going to get back to normal?" Roger asks Don in the third episode. The presumptive answer was that order, as they knew it, would never be restored—that the characters would instead have to adapt to a new normal as everything changed around them. Season five's thematic through-line was that adaptation. As each character attempted to move forward, they had to find a way to either avoid obsolescence or capitalize on the changing landscape.
But this is still Don Draper's show. He is the American prototype that creator Matthew Weiner sold us: perfect on the outside and worse than empty on the inside, utterly false at the core. His achievements, built on a nonexistent foundation, are meaningless, and the only way for Don to change is go back to who he used to be.
When the season began, Weiner introduced a changed Don: he was happy and committed to his wife, but he'd lost his bite at the office. His biggest professional coups came when Megan's work saved the day, when he left Michael Ginsberg's work in a cab, and when Joan compromised herself to help the company land Jaguar's business. Bert Cooper chastised him and called his manhood into question throughout the season, and in last week's episode, Don turned ruthless again when he asked Lane Pryce to resign.
The parallels between Pryce's suicide and that of Don's half brother were certainly not lost on Don, as Adam's ghost appeared throughout the finale. Adam represents not just Don's guilt, but also his ascension: he's no longer the brother Adam knew, and he's no longer the Don of the series' beginnings. When Adam appears in the dentist's office just before Don has his tooth pulled, we know that that the rot in Don's life isn't just personal (Megan as "hot tooth") but professional ("wipe the blood from your mouth") and that Don has lost his creative power. Just as he failed to help Peggy land the Heinz pitch, he fails to help sell the Topaz pitch. For Don, sexual power is the only chance he has to reclaim his old self.
Part of the old Don's power was utter selfishness, though, and he hasn't quite let that go. He gave himself two large gifts in the final episode: he absolved himself of any guilt from Lane's suicide and, spurred by Joan's regret at not giving Lane what he wanted, he gave Megan a chance at a career. With the latter, he effectively takes away his wife's agency, and he assures himself that she won't be home waiting for him every night. This, of course, leaves him free to wander into bars and meet willing women. The philandering Don is back, the one with power and intrigue. All he had to do was trade in his genius and his marriage.
Don Draper becomes himself again as the strains of Nancy Sinatra's "You Only Live Twice" plays in the background. Like his colleagues, he ends the season on his own. Roger takes a solo trip on LSD, Peggy spends a night at a Holiday Inn in Richmond, Va., and Pete, his face as punchable as ever, gets what he wanted from the beginning: an apartment in the city where he can escape his wife and a view like Don's. They each end the season separately, concerned with what is on the other side of a plane of glass, able to see something they can't quite reach.
And finally, there's another question for Don from another girl in another bar: "Are you alone?" We only get the hint of answer from Weiner, but we should know by now that it doesn't matter how Don responds to her—it doesn't matter if he refuses her as he would have five episode ago or if he takes her (or her friend, or both) to some seedy hotel. The answer to her question is unequivocally yes.
Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC