Last week, I found myself wondering how Mad Men's writers could ever cast Don Draper in the role of the wise sage, mentoring Peter Campbell back onto the straight and narrow. Recall Peter's outrageous tear: first hitting on a high school student and then indulging with a whore, only to have Don admonish him, "Don't throw it away."
Until this week's episode, "Far Away Places," I could barely recognize 'the Draper.' He has often appeared downright rabbit like, behaving like a moonstruck boy and imbibing only something Ward Cleaver would drink: iced tea with lemon. Fortunately, Matthew Weiner, much to his credit, refuses to let us get too comfortable with any pat character notions. Instead, he continues to stir the pot, most notably by having the newly constituted "sweet" Don once more come out swinging like a bear. (Just when we thought we had lost 'old grisly,' he's back!)
In retrospect, we could see Don and Megan's showdown at HoJos coming a mile away. The season opened, after all, with Megan asserting herself in two daring acts vis-à-vis Don. First, she threw him a 40th birthday "surprise" party, knowing that he hates birthday parties almost as much as he hates surprises. Then, already having made him squirm, she treats him -- and the rest of the guests -- to her own French Canadian "cabaret" style version of Marilyn Monroe's iconic "happy birthday, Mr. President." Megan clearly does not intend to play "Barbie" to Don's sophisticated attempt at "Ken."
Now, in episode six, Draper tosses off his "Thumper" costume to reemerge, in spite of himself, as the self-indulgent bully we have come to know and understand... the guy who can make a season turn on his axis. Don innocently takes charge once more, whisking Megan away from work for a "mid-day tryst" at prospective client Howard Johnsons, while simultaneously leaving Peggy flying solo at the Heinz Baked Beans campaign presentation. Don casts his long, disruptive, tension-inducing shadow over both women's lives, producing outcomes he never expected.
First, we watch Peggy heroically attempt to fill her boss' "male" shoes as a creative force and leader within the firm. She courageously, and self-destructively, storms the beaches before all the mines have been cleared, defending both Megan's copywriting and her own creative vision. Peggy winds up grappling unsuccessfully, in simulated hand-to-hand combat, with an uncomfortable male Heinz executive who prefers to take his buying cues from Don (another man).
The executive interprets Peggy's attempt to take charge of the meeting and confidently close the sale, the way Don would have: as a blatant act of insubordination. He orders Pete Campbell to take Peggy off the account. In the end, Don throws his trusted protégé, to the wolves just so he can take what Burt Cooper rightly describes as an afternoon "love leave."
In addition to putting a meaningful account at risk, Don pulls rank on Megan, awkwardly insisting, in front of her colleagues, that she abandon them in their hour of need to follow him out of town on a whim. Megan feels humiliated and controlled. At the Howard Johnson's, Megan makes a scene when Don insists that she help him eat a bowl of orange sherbet that she says she doesn't like. "Yes Master!" she snaps, as a horrendous fight breaks out and quickly escalates. Don's intended romantic interlude on the company quickly degenerates into an all-out fight and he drives off, stranding Megan at the Howard Johnson's restaurant and motel.
Season Five continues to brilliantly depict women in conflict, both at home and in the workplace. While Joan Harris seems to be finding her path, Peggy and Megan appear far less sure-footed. Perhaps that is because those two exist in the eye of the storm owing their proximity to Don: Peggy as a senior creative director and Megan as Don's wife and employee. Having come far, but not nearly far enough in this male-dominated world, Megan and Peggy need each other's camaraderie, care and feeding and emotional support as they work through the difficult challenges they face.
Through my boomer lens, I can see how helpful it would be for Peggy and Megan to connect along the lines of Thelma & Louise. Imagine how cathartic, and constructive, taking in such a movie would be at this point in time. But Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis wouldn't star in that female-empowering film for another 25 years!
Considering that, I would offer these two characters some friendly advice instead. "Megan and Peggy, grab your bags and brief-cases and do a Don Draper... knock off early for an overdue girl's night out at P.J. Clarke's. And invite Joan Harris along. I promise you will feel a whole lot better with her around.