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Michael Hogan

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Don Draper Cheating Twist: Why It's The Saddest Thing Ever

Posted: 04/07/2013 11:00 pm

Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 6, Episode 1 of AMC's "Mad Men," titled "The Doorway."

Man, that was one saddening episode of "Mad Men."

Mostly because of the giveaway in the final minutes, which retroactively explains so much that happened in the previous two hours.

[For more on all that, be sure to read my colleague Mo Ryan's recap.]

Matthew Weiner has said that a theme of this season is "no matter where you go, there you are," and that's captured pretty neatly by the vision of a man visiting Hawaii, literally shamed into silence by his own guilt.

It's one of the ironies of relationships: The happiness of the person who loves you becomes intolerable when you know you've betrayed her.

At the end of the episode, Don's new lover asks him, "What do you want for the new year?" He replies, "I want to stop doing this." And I don't think he's referring only to her, this affair, this betrayal of a neighbor so decent that he keeps a pair of cross-country skis in the basement just in case he needs to save a life in the middle of a snowstorm on a taxi-less holiday.

The damage of betrayal extends to the betrayer himself. It would be comforting to think that Don is evil, that his outward kindness toward Megan and the doctor is all just an act. That his affair with the doctor's wife reflects his true feelings.

The truth is worse: He admires the doctor and he loves Megan. The person he hates is himself, because he knows his nature. He's the scorpion who stings the frog midway across the river.

Roger is just as lost as Don is, but he's a lot more vocal. He tells his ex-wife and his shrink how he doesn't feel anything, even though his mother has just died. (Lit students and scholars of existentialism will recall that Camus' "The Stranger" begins with a similar conundrum.)

Eventually, though, Roger's emotions do catch up to him. When his shoeshine guy dies, the family sends Roger the dead man's shoeshine box. Not the most realistic plot contrivance, but Roger's breakdown over the poor man's brush feels true. His grief had been lost amid all the agita surrounding his mother's death -- the arrangements, the frustrating will, the arrival of Mona's new boyfriend, the pushy old biddies.

But when it's just Roger and that wooden box, he can finally feel. His mother is gone. The person who loved him with the kind of all-healing, all-enveloping love that "unconditional" doesn't begin to describe -- that person no longer exists.

Mona can tell him that all the people in his life love him no matter how badly he's treated them, and he might even believe her, but it's not the same. When your mother goes, that's the day you learn that life isn't messing around. Death isn't theoretical. If this world is brutal enough to kill your mom, it's sure as hell not going to spare you.

Don has known that for a long time. The world made his mother a whore, and Don killed her on his way into existence. Then he died, after a fashion. No wonder he's such a bad funeral guest. He knows just how cruel life can be, and that's why he always looks out for No. 1.

He loves Megan, but does Megan love him? (It's a measure of this show's quality that she asks him that question in reverse, in reference to her soap opera character's wicked behavior.)

If Megan knew the real Don, would she understand? If her acting career really takes off, if people keep asking her for autographs, will she still be satisfied as the wife of an aging ad executive who drinks too much. Shouldn't he have a backup? Isn't there someone else who can prove that he's still desirable, lovable, worth having around even when he isn't paying the bills?

And if the doctor has the power to heal, to bring the dead back to life ("What did you see when you were dead?"), does that make Don worthless by comparison? Maybe by seducing the man's wife, he can prove to himself that he's just as good as any surgeon -- better, even. She's fucking Don Draper now, after all, not her husband.

But fucking another man's wife doesn't make you than better him -- it makes you worse -- especially when that other man is a selfless healer and saver of lives. Meanwhile, what are you? A cheat, a sneak, a whore.

If Megan knew what you really were, she would be disgusted. She would leave you. And then where would you be?

It's that thought that drives Don back into his mistress's arms -- and so the cycle continues.

This must be why some people whose taste I admire refuse to watch "Mad Men." It's like that ad the hotel reps rejected -- the one that reflected Don's vision of paradise but looked to everyone else like the prelude to a suicide. Like a good ad, television is generally expected to be an escape, but this show is just the opposite. What is happening to this man on our screen? Where is he going? Why is he acting like a man with a death wish?

Instead of alleviating our anxiety, "Mad Men" dares to depict it, give it shape, rub our faces in it. We can't help loving Don and Roger, but look at what they do. Look at how they live.

They're monsters. And they look an awful lot like us.

"Mad Men" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.

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