For the man who seemingly has ‘everything, and so much of it,’ Don Draper is irked deeply by his loneliness. He is not alone in the world for lack of human understanding. Of all his gifts, his greatest science is people. He excels in an industry reliant on a mass manipulation of the human psyche, and has become too keen to make lasting connections. He sees through, he outsmarts.
In his sexual relationships, Don jerks between controlling women and allowing them to meet him eye-to-eye. Deep down he wants to be known, he wants to be good, but his nagging narcissism gets in the way. Don enjoys dominating and being dominated. When he hires a call-girl, he asks her to take charge, to slap him and humiliate him. When he is with a woman like Bobbie Barrett – someone confident and controlled in her sexuality – he fists her against her will in a restaurant bathroom and ties her to a bedpost for speaking out of turn. The ability to twist away from the expected demonstrates Don’s desire to take divine control over all situations with women.
And why shouldn’t he? His conscience sees no direct correlation between the way he acts and what unfolds, especially when it comes to taking responsibility for others’ pain. For narcissists, this can be traced to a belief that what one does only matters to oneself. As with Allison (his painfully tossed-off secretary) Don doesn’t set out to hurt, he just doesn’t think beyond the moment. The moment is his and his alone.
What Don really needs is an equal, to meet him at his level and hold him accountable for his actions. But if that woman came along, would he be able to embrace her knowing what he would sacrifice?
Enter Peggy Olsen. In terms of equality, there are marked similarities between Peggy and Don. They both tend towards partners they can control, partners who are beneath them. Peggy chooses men who easily fit in the backseat and do not question her secrets. She knows that finding a mate is part of the game, knows what most men want to hear, and doesn’t mind feeding them the lines. To a point. Eventually, bored with their stupidity (as with her most recent boyfriend, Mark, and his inability to read her emotions about her family) she shows little patience for ego. She almost mocks Pete Campbell’s sincerity when he declares his love for her, and has no qualms about turning the tables on the ‘nudist’ art director whose sexual bluffs hold up her work.
Getting involved with a man like Don would cause a great upheaval for Peggy. Such a relationship would require real caring, but also real risk: risk that everything she’s wanted for herself must come second to the self-actualization of this man. The possibility of this is likely, and reason enough to stay away. She has witnessed his cruel and childish defenses at their ugliest, defenses that abusively slash at her Achilles’ heel: her work.
Don is not necessarily threatened by Peggy for being smart. but there is something in her that causes him to give generously only to take swiftly away. It may be she is the mirror to his insides: insides tangled with love, hate, and confusion. Or it may be he feels Peggy embodies the ultimate independent woman, and if he can manage to tear her down he would be the ultimate powerful man.
In his every day existence, Don despises being known, being considered obvious or available. He chooses Betty as a wife for image purposes, not for intimacy. She was first his ad model, then his wife, giving him the model picture, then the model home. Landing a woman like Betty – of breeding, beauty, and poise – is a huge get for a man with charm and brains, but no substantial background.
Ironically, Don comes closest to redeeming himself when he finally reveals his past to Betty. He feels relief, and believes that he has touched upon something profound in their relationship. But his honesty is rejected. Betty never wanted the real him. He picked her because of what she offered, and her promises never included being married to Dick Whitman.
Throughout the series, Don’s lurking sub-conscious has consistently sabotaged what he’s worked to create. He ‘accidentally’ leaves the keys to his past in his bathrobe for Betty to find. In his latest bender he uses the name Dick, not Don, to bed anonymous women. Draper’s sub-conscious is pushing him towards a partner like Peggy. But he is still too emotionally immature to embrace a romantic equal. He retreats to manipulation when he is sexually attracted, and there is too much of a divide in his mind between romantic encounters and realness in another.
Don is the King Midas of Madison Avenue. The world came to him because he knew how to spin it, and now there is nothing left but to rearrange the landmarks. In his adult life, he has fairly painlessly proved what he is capable of. And yet remains that tug-of-war: between the desire to succeed and the desire to be known. The former is cloaked in anonymity, the latter defines intimacy. And perhaps, Draper’s happiness.