First, Pete Campbell. You kind of knew that Pete would be joining them—in early seasons, his boorish behavior was often highlighted, though in recent years substituted for a mannered, practical dickishness. Now, as he begins the philandering he assumes is his inherent right, he discovers that he is no Don Draper.
Pete has essentially the same story arc in this episode as Don, but things play out in a way that highlights the differences between the two men. Pete, feckless and weak, cannot build the same thick, impenetrable walls between the different compartments in his life in the way Don Draper can. He lacks the charisma to put the people close to him under the same spell that allows Don Draper’s continued impunity. Pete Campbell’s wife sees right through his rationale for renting an apartment in the city, the woman he chooses is frail, insecure and in a toxic marriage, and he fails to react decisively when the pressure is on, or to show an iota of empathy for the incredible price his mistress pays. Pete learns that he cannot play with the big boys, and loses his marriage and his own contrived self-image.
For Joan Harris, we see consequences for actions that are not necessarily her choice. Last season, she chose to sleep with Herb, an executive with the Jaguar car company, in order to secure their business. Still reeling, she carries the shame inside her. When she sees Herb again this week, she cannot hold it in. Don sees how upset she is, and refuses to get on board with Herb’s plan to change the Jaguar campaign clandestinely, possibly endangering SCDP’s hold on the Jaguar account. Maybe it really is not about what you accomplish so much but how you accomplish it after all.
Sylvia, Don’s mistress, proves to be a resonant character. She is the type of woman that Don likes—intelligent, strong, but with her own hang-ups. She proves resonant enough to bring up flashbacks to the origin of Don’s sexual hang-ups. Don lived in a brothel run by his aunt and uncle, and once saw his uncle take advantage of his pregnant mother. (Another reminder of what sets Don apart from Pete and Roger—his behavior is not fueled by mere selfishness, but also by pain).
So far, this season appears to be about limits. All these characters—even Don—are approaching the outer reaches of what they can pull off. Lane Pryce may have been ahead of his time, and his may have just been the first in a long list of reckonings.