Let’s face it, Mad Men is a show with a built-in boobytrap, especially as it continues over multiple seasons. And that boobytrap is named Don Draper. There has been plenty of garment-rending over the amount of screen time Megan received in S5 over the other characters, whether Jessica Paré was the right woman for the job, and so on. But lost in the din is the fact that her husband, around whom this show is built, is himself becoming much less compelling to watch, and not just because he’s married to Megan. And the double whammy is that, as the show has moved in time from early 1960 to early 1967, it’s pretty much inevitable that a guy like Don has to stop being the hippest, coolest, most desirable guy in the room. A guy who was king of the 1950s, by definition, can’t be king of the 1960s, especially for the time period the show is moving into now. It’s un-possible. And yet, scene after scene must be built around Don Draper. Because he’s the star.
I’ll reiterate: Don didn’t get boring because he married Megan. In fact, I’d argue that the opposite is true; Don really had no place else to go, story-wise, but into a “good” marriage, regardless of who it was with. Maybe it was too fast, but he’d have wound up there eventually. We had three seasons of him screwing around and lying to Betty, and one season of him trying to be single and almost winding up a human pickle before he pulled himself out of the drink and found himself a new drug of choice: Megan. Now, see, that right there is the beginning of a potentially dramatic story, one we really didn’t get to see. What is the potential damage to the partner who is under pressure to keep the other one high on love at all costs? How long can you really stay high off another person, and what happens when the drug starts to wear off? Is there anything left to build on?
Maybe the writers on this show have punched up the Don/Megan story with histrionic, destructive fights because they’re convinced that the pursuit of healthy love has to be dull, which is why we don’t see a lot of the relatively un-neurotic Ken and Cynthia. But pursuing healthy love doesn’t have to mean no conflicts — and by conflicts, I don’t mean tantrums over surprise parties and Megan not liking orange sherbet. I mean the drama involved in someone like Don actually learning how to love instead of just seeking out host bodies, which he’s never had to do before. During Don’s Betty period, it was enough for him to show his gorgeous mug and fling his wallet around for women (Betty included) to be begging for more, more, more of him. Now, in his Megan period, that’s not enough; if he wants a happy wife (i.e. no more divorces), he has to listen to her, respect her needs, not just assume she’s going to roll over and play dead for him because he has the checkbook. And that goes against every instinct Don has, even if he knows intellectually it’s the right thing. It’s a nice surprise that Don wanted Megan to go to work with him and be his combination office-sex-puppet and watchdog; I would never have guessed that Don wouldn’t have gotten Megan barefoot and pregnant as quickly as possible.
The problem is, these scenes are so Don-centric that we see the entire marriage playing out through Don’s eyes only; Megan’s point of view is barely touched upon. In fact, other than a brief glimpse of Megan on the balcony after the party, we don’t get any scenes with Megan on her own until Codfish Ball, the seventh episode, where she had scenes with her dysfunctional parents that told us a lot about why Megan was drawn to a man like Don. All we see until the infamous orange sherbet scene in Far Away Places, already the sixth episode, is Megan handling Don with easy-breezy insouciance. She even likes having her hair pulled before sex! She’s perfect for him! Up until then, there’s no hint of how she might feel stifled by his constant need for her attention — and even then, we only get his reaction to his abandoning her in a parking lot all the way upstate, not hers, although she must have feared for her very life. And since she appears to forgive him so easily, even after he chases her around the apartment like a slasher-movie villain, we don’t really get a sense of what’s really at stake for Don, whether he really could “lose” Megan if he doesn’t get it together. Since we don’t know how she’s really feeling, we assume, like he does, that everything’s fine between them. This has the effect of making Don seem rather smug, and smug is not what you want Don Draper to be, unless it’s demonstrably false smugness.
Contrast this with the depiction of Don’s marriage to Betty, in which Betty, from Ladies’ Room on, was given numerous opportunities to demonstrate the toll Don’s behavior has taken on her, by giving her scenes on her own — alone, with friends, with her children, and so on — in every episode she appeared in. Don floated from bed to bed like it was his birthright, but we knew the Rat Pack cool was a coverup for a very, very anxious man with a lot to lose if he blew his cover, and the Betty scenes showed what was really going on in his home life, which contrasted sharply with the narrative he fed himself and others. Now he’s determined to do it right in his new marriage, but shouldn’t Megan be there to show us whether he is or not? If Megan is going to get that much screen time, it shouldn’t just be from Don’s pedestal view. Especially not when there are no less than three female characters on the show living cutting-edge lives — Joan, Peggy, and the criminally underutilized Dawn — whose stories have been pushed aside in favor of Megan’s. Her story of what’s happening in the marriage should be hers too, not just Don’s, or his story doesn’t work.
To be sure, Megan leaving SCDP to pursue a long-buried dream of acting could well be the screw undone from the bridge, to put it in the terms of Ken’s sci-fi story — not for SCDP, but for the Draper 2.0 marriage. Don thought he was marrying someone who shared his passion for advertising (nope), who adored children (sure, in small doses), and who would put his needs first (steeeerike three). It’s not likely Megan meant to deceive him; it’s more probable that she loved him and wanted to try to be what he wanted. But could Don’s clinginess have been a factor driving her away from advertising? Could she simply have burned out on it, the way she wouldn’t have if she’d simply been an employee? Again, it’s all very opaque. We’re shown how disappointed Don is in her decision, but not much about how he might have had a hand in it. Maybe we’ll see that come to light later on.
It’s tempting to think that Don lost his creative mojo because he got too happy, and to blame Megan for sucking the life out of him. But he was attracted to Megan in part because he figured someone close to the Beatles’ ages would do a better job helping him keep up with youth culture than a contemporary of his like Faye. And now he’s rejecting the help she’s giving him — she turns him on to Revolver and experimental theatre, and he sticks his fingers in his ears and mumbles get-off-my-lawn-isms. It’s Sinatra-Farrow, although the age difference isn’t quite as pronounced. Meanwhile, young guns like Michael Ginsberg are whizzing right past him, and it’s all he can do to put out a foot to trip them up, because it’s his only hope of making up ground.
How do you build a show around a man with his fingers in his ears? By showing what’s at stake if he doesn’t take them out. And what does Don actually have to lose if he never comes up with another great idea again? He’s a partner. He can’t be fired, no matter how much he annoys Bert, and he won’t go broke any time soon. At worst, he’ll be a manager of younger, hipper creatives like Ginsberg, and their glory will be reflected on to him, and people will praise him as being an inspiration. Does that feel like a more dramatically tense story than Peggy balancing a turbo-powered career and nontraditional domestic partnership? Or Joan navigating working single motherhood and turning the tables on sexual harassment? Or Dawn breaking the color barrier for professional employment at her agency? Or Pete slowly but surely losing his marbles? Or Michael doing all the grunt creative work and getting none of the credit? Or even Roger leaving Jane and having a late-in-life fling with mind-expanding drugs? Not right now, it doesn’t, and to be honest, it’s those stories (along with the saga of poor Lane) that have kept me watching, not Don’s. What could Don lose, really lose, in a way that would be truly costly to him? That could potentially make him have to start all over again?
There’s a hint at the end of The Phantom that his finally taking Megan’s needs seriously could mean the end of their marriage, at least as we’ve known it. Would either of them have wanted to marry the other, if both of them had known from the beginning who she really was? It’s potentially interesting that now the shoe is on the other foot, that for once it’s Don figuratively leaning over Megan in bed and whispering, “Who’s in there?” Him becoming the Betty in the relationship would, of course, be karmic justice. But from his position of relative security and independence, is that even possible? Or is there somewhere else they could take him, somewhere that would be equally promising? If they don’t find out soon, maybe it’s time to make this The Peggy Show rather than The Don Show.