On Don Draper’s unlucky star, and what becomes of the broken-hearted

Don and Roger in Detroit. (Michael Yarish/AMC)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Starlee Kine

Follow: feed

“For a dying man it is not a difficult decision because he knows he is at the end. If a lion chases you to the bank of river filled with crocodiles, you will leap into the water, convinced you have a chance to swim to the other side.”

– Christiaan Barnard, surgeon who performed the first human heart transplant.

“The future is something you haven’t even thought of yet,” says Don to his rival Ted, a moment before he comes up with the idea for them to merge into one.

It’s Don’s third attempt to convince us that what we don’t see is more important than what we do. First he didn’t want to show us luxury hotels, then ketchup and now cars. A picture of the American dream is beginning to emerge, composed of empty space. The same man who asked his doorman what death looked like is trying to sell us on the excitement of the unknown: “People’s faces, all kinds, teenagers, dads, moms, different expressions of wonder. What could this possibly be?”

There’s a scene in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Jim Carrey’s memories are getting erased. He relives each one in his head right before it vanishes forever. There’s this is one memory of Elijah Wood hitting on Kate Winslet at the bookstore where they both work. In the real moment, Jim Carrey only saw Elijah Wood from behind and so when he tries to spin him around in the memory to get a look at his face, all he sees is still just the back of his head. He can’t remember a face that he never saw. Just like in Peggy’s fantasy, in which she imagines Ted reading Something by Ralph Waldo Emerson. She can’t conjure up a title she never knew.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

“I don’t like change,” she says, “I want everything to stay the way it was.” The poop on the stairs, the kids playing their music, the unemployed boyfriend who makes her feel weird for loving Bobby Kennedy, it’s all too much. Sitting on the bed with Abe, she forgets how far she’s come and can only imagine an immediate future. The curtains her mom gave her hung on the windows. The neighbor upstairs evicted. A worst case scenario that involves Kennedy winning, not dying in the same way that his brother did. She can no more predict what the Upper West Side is going to look like in 40 years than she can imagine that Don’s going to end up coming back as her boss. The future isn’t just full of things that are new. It’s the stuff that gets repeated that can really shake you up.

The legend Chevrolet promulgated about its famous logo is that it was inspired by the wallpaper in a French hotel room where the company’s co-founder, William Durant, was staying. The pattern reminded him of infinity and he tore off a piece. (Some research has since cast doubt on that story.) Last week Bobby Draper tried to peel away the veneer of suburban life but it wasn’t until he took a trip to the city that the notion of a world worth destroying presented itself. Ted wooed Peggy over to his team by quoting Emerson, who preached about individualism and the “infinitude of the private man.” Joan wants to hear Don say “we” when it comes to his partners but instead he joins forces, in a burst of self-preservation, with his competitor.

Pete conspires in private about going public and then goes to a public place to do private things. He gets caught in a brothel on Mother’s Day by his wife’s dad. The father-in-law, Tom, presses the button and proves Ken’s theory about mutually assured destruction wrong. It’s only Pete’s world that blows up, at least right away. He has to commute all the way home in order to describe to Trudy what kind of prostitutes her father prefers. “He wanted it this way,” he says, “I had no other choice.” “You had lots of choices,” she says before telling him to pack his bags for good, the same reason she kicked him out in the first place. Pete Campbell has never done well when presented with options.

Trudy’s dad can’t stand to see his princess passed over for a whore while Megan’s mom tells her daughter to spread her legs wider for her husband. Megan wears a short dress to dinner but it’s Don’s firing of Herb that makes him again notice the wife who is doing exactly what she wants. “Don’t you feel three hundred pounds lighter,” he later asks Joan, failing to grasp the differences in their situations. The Jaguar account articulated Joan’s worth while stripping Don of his. He played no role in landing the account; the pitch he was so proud of was irrelevant compared to her role. More than any other campaign, Jaguar laid bare the reality of his profession, that he tells people lies they want to hear in exchange for money.

After Don put out that anti-tobacco ad, Ted prank-called him pretending to be Bobby Kennedy. Now Peggy has a crush on both of them. Pete’s father-in-law looks in the mirror and only sees his daughter’s husband dishonoring her. When Roger looked in the mirror last season, he saw a man who was both young and old at the same time. That’s the Roger we already have. His actual alter ego turns out to just be a more leering version of himself with worse breath. All these eighties television examples of handsome men keep popping up as creeps: first Ted McGinley and now Harry Hamlin. Another way the show keeps screwing with time. Also there was a strange detail involving Ted on the floor of his office, trying to find the sitcom "Hazel." Hazel was a maid who always got her way with the man of the house, by plying him with deserts instead of short hemlines. It was cancelled in 1966, two years before the show’s current timeline. Ted’s partner is about to die and perhaps his agency along with him. No wonder he’s curling up like a little boy by the TV set, in search of a more innocent age in all the white noise.

What Ted fears is niceness, Peggy sees as strength. Megan takes Don’s desperation and terror as a sign of courage. She wants to help him jump from the balcony. Roger is closing deals again and handling Don. “It’s one thing to want something, another to need it,” says Ted. He’s driven by survival but Roger and Don seem to be after that something that Peggy can’t remember Emerson preaching. “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

“Some asshole is taking my place in history while I piss away my life in New York City,” says Dr. Rosen. I keep thinking about legacy. It feels like what this season is shaping up to be about. At Martin Luther King’s funeral, he asked for there to be no mention of his awards or honors but that it be said that he tried to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, be right on the Vietnam war question and love and serve humanity." On the night of his assassination, Megan’s award lies forgotten on the couch. Ted’s partner isn’t feeling the magic of rockets as he contemplates his own end here on earth. Don and Roger have a light in their eyes that we haven’t seen in a long time as they fight for their stake in the future.

The Chevy Vega, named after the brightest star in the sky after the sun, was released in 1971. It sold well and was voted car of the year but ultimately went down in history as a lemon. There was recall after recall. It signaled the beginning of General Motors becoming known for indistinct and uninspired products. Motor Trend magazine wrote that it “was troubled by one of the most vulnerable Achilles heels in modern automotive history; an alloy four-cylinder block that self destructed all too easily, and all too often.” Its innovative aluminum construction masked an otherwise generic, old-fashioned engine. Herb to Don: “You never fail to overheat, do you?”

The first heart transplant was done by a South African surgeon named Christiaan Barnard, also known as the “doctor of hearts” because of the way we had with the ladies. His reputation took a beating when he got older after he started shilling for a non-F.D.A.-approved anti-aging skin cream. The technique that Barnard used was pioneered by Norman Shumway, the first American heart transplant surgeon but the fourth worldwide. He conducted his initial research in a primitive lab at Stanford with a roof that leaked when it rained. He hoped to perform his first transplant without any publicity at all but the news was accidentally leaked to the press and he was thronged. His patient died after nineteen days from a “fantastic galaxy of complications.” Shumway continued to do transplants after virtually all other surgeons had abandoned it, eventually making it a standard procedure. The key was figuring out how to help the heart deal with rejection. Because what’s the point of being spared from death if you aren’t able to actually live?

Starlee Kine is a a frequent contributor to PRI's "This American Life." She writes a weekly essay on "Mad Men," every week after an episode airs. Previously: Don Draper in the World of Tiers.

All photos Michael Yarish/AMC.

Editor's note: This article has been updated from an earlier version, to link to some research that casts Chevrolet's account of the origin of its logo in some doubt.