A while back, I realized that Don had not said “What do you want me to say?” once in Season 4. Not once.
Part of re-watching Season 4 was actually to confirm that, and also to see what Don has come up with as a substitute. I noticed towards the end of the season that there seemed to be a lot of variations on “It doesn’t matter,” and I wondered if that was his new theme. Kind of bleak.
Instead, I see a lot of instances where Don says exactly what he wants to say, in moments where, in the past, he’d have used his catchphrase “What do you want me to say?” I also see the bleakness creeping in side-by-side with a new sort of assertiveness, a tension played out, in a weird way, in the Faye/Megan tension.
Let’s dig in deeper:
This one’s bleak, and yet also the beginning of assertion. In regard to the Ad Age interview, Don says “I don’t know what I could have done differently,” and then “It’s done,” and then “Who gives a crap what I say anyway?”
It’s really different for him, if you compare it to his speech patterns of the previous three years.
The Good News
Stephanie: What are you doing?
Don: I don’t know.
There’s an interesting dialogue between Don and Joan:
Joan: Would you be open to Allison returning in a couple of days?
Don: If that’s what she wants.
That’s Don dialing back on “What do you want me to say?” First it’s acquiescing to what Allison wants, then it’s no. That’s what I mean by a new sort of assertion.
In response to winning the Clio, Don says he feels “About the same I suppose, it doesn’t make the work any better.”
Faye: Award or no award, you’re still Don Draper.
Don: Whatever that means.
Back to bleakness and fatalism.
Roger pressing Don to come to dinner is exactly where he’d have said “what do you want me to say?” in the past. Instead, he decisively says “no.”
The Summer Man
In the cab with Faye, Don again expresses exactly what he wants, and this again reads to me like a situation where he might once have said “What do you want me to say?” It would have been accompanied by an excuse, or a shrug, but he doesn’t go there at all.
The Beautiful Girls
Again, in a scene with Faye (at the end, when she’s angry with him), he’s clear and doesn’t equivocate. I think it’s so important that the language shift happens here with a girlfriend; it’s an instance where he’s trying not to make her do all the work of the relationship.
First he says “I’m sorry” to Faye—a moment when he could easily have said “what do you want me to say?” Then he says “It doesn’t matter.” She is about to protest. He says “I mean it.”
Hands and Knees
“What am I supposed to do?” he asks Pete about the Defense issue, but he immediately says “Get rid of it;” he’s not waiting for an answer. He also says “I’ll do what I have to,” which is a pretty intense affirmation that he doesn’t care what someone else wants him to do or say.
Midge: Think my work’s any good?
Don: Does it matter?
This is Don talking about his own work; Don losing Lucky Strike, Don throwing the Clio.
Don telling Faye he’s engaged:
Faye: Who is she?
Don: What’s the difference?
It was this, on the heels of what he said to Midge, that got me reviewing episodes and taking notes. The twin feelings of being a Self! and of being defeated travel throughout the season. I feel that the proposal to Megan is a defeat; he wants her to make him feel good rather than asserting his Self. Especially because some of his most positive assertive language was with Faye. But we’ll see what we see.