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Has Don Draper already committed Mad Men's ultimate sin?

Don's inability to shift with the times may have doomed him.
Don's inability to shift with the times may have doomed him.
AMC

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by education reporter Libby Nelson and foreign policy writer Amanda Taub. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Amanda Taub: Todd, I think you're on to something in your discussion of class, because there is another parallel between Don and Pete that I think is worth drawing out. Both men betrayed the social class that they were born into. It's just that Pete betrayed it down, instead of climbing upward like Don did.

Pete's class betrayal can be hard to see, because let's face it: dude started his life rich and privileged, and there's every sign that he will end it the same way. But over the course of the series, we've seen him basically turn himself from old money into new money, and that has let the show tell a story about the decline of old privilege in a time of social upheaval.

Remember the scene in season one's "New Amsterdam," when Pete meets his father for a drink? The old man's disapproval of Pete's life path could not have been stated more clearly. Pete's career disgusts him. It is, he says, "no job for a white man." And who is a Dyckman Campbell supposed to be, if not a paragon of whiteness? "We gave you your name!" his father scolds. "We gave you everything!"

The whole point of being old money, after all, is that you aren't supposed to have to hustle to earn more — you're just supposed to spend what you have, in a manner that befits your station in life. Of course, when Pete's father dies in season two, we find out what that really means: he had squandered the family fortune on "oysters, travel, and club memberships," leaving his widow and sons with practically nothing. (Speaking of which, can it possibly be a coincidence that both of Pete's Mayflower-blue-blood parents were lost at sea when they died?)

That puts a new spin on Pete's reluctance to trade on his name, such as his obvious discomfort with using it to get past the condo board for the apartment he and Trudy are buying. I don't think it's just that Pete craves validation of himself as a person rather than just a pedigree — though of course he does, walking black hole of insecurity that he is — it's that he knows he's slumming it.

Pete using the Dyckman name to get ad agency accounts men into fancy country clubs or to get past the condo board that's so impressed to have a Dyckman in the building is like Rihanna playing an oligarch's birthday party. Worth it, maybe — but nothing to feel proud of.

That obviously made Pete unhappy, especially early in the series. But as the show went on, it also became an asset for him. Perhaps because he had already made a big break with what he was "supposed" to be and do, Pete was more open to the social upheaval of the '60s, and more able to take advantage of it. He wasn't insecure about proving his white privilege, and so could (rightly) point out to clients that they ought to be advertising in magazines focused on the growing African-American market.

Trudy's background was different, so she took a little longer to grasp that privilege was no longer all it was cracked up to be. But we saw the exact moment when she gave up on it: in the scene in season three's "The Grown-Ups," when she and Pete decide not to attend Roger's daughter's wedding. When Pete refuses to go, Trudy says they "have to," because it's his boss's daughter's wedding. It's what people do!

But she drops that objection immediately when Pete explains that he can't bring himself to go to the wedding because of how his colleagues reacted to the JFK assassination the day before. They almost seemed happy, he said. They made comments like "the man made a lot of enemies" — as if JFK's politics meant that he was to blame for his own murder. Trudy is horrified, and suddenly "what people do" is no longer as important to her: she slips off her dyed-to-match pumps and sits down on the couch, and that is just that.

The couple's willingness to disregard "what people do" pays off in the next episode. When Don and Roger invite Pete to join their new agency, neither Pete nor Trudy hesitates for a moment about whether to go with them. And that decision set up Pete for the success he enjoyed later, first as a partner at Sterling Cooper, then as the favorite son at McCann, and soon, presumably, as the Learjet king of Wichita.

He's still a jerk, of course. He still cheated on his wife, raped his neighbor's nanny, treated Peggy coldly when she showed self-confidence after sleeping with him, pimped Joan out — the list goes on and on. But it seems like he's being set up for a happier ending than anyone on this show could expect.

So Todd, I will end with a prediction of my own about how the show will end. It's not as specific as yours (although I agree that "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" could be the Don-Draperest pitch of all time, and I wouldn't mind seeing it). Rather, I think that the characters' final positions at the end of the series are going to be about whether they are still clinging to the old order, or whether they've benefited from changing times.

I think we've already seen that rule in action. Joan was never looking forward to the new order, even though she benefited from it, and the show punished her for it. McCann's lizards couldn't see beyond her sexy facade, and she was so used to relying on her looks that when it really mattered, she didn't know how to force them to see that she was much more than a pretty face and a Marilyn-esque body.  Betty also clung to the past, and now she won't even have a chance to adjust to the future.

Contrast that with the characters who saw the world changing and took advantage of it. Harry, slimeball that he is, correctly identified the growing importance of television, and now he's thrilled with his life at McCann. And Pete has embraced the new order, too, in his own way. He may have gotten the Learjet job because he's an "old knickerbocker" who went to the right schools, but he's heading West to literally help new money take flight.

Peggy, of course, has benefited most of all: the world of the show has gone from one that overlooks Peggy Olsons to one that prizes them, and she has reaped the benefits of that. I hope we're going to see her character again. But if we don't, she definitely got to go out on a high note, swaggering into her own office at McCann, pornographic painting under her arm and "don't fuck with me" look on her face.

But all of that makes it hard for me to believe that things will end well for our main character. Don constructed his entire life around passing as a member of the old-school upper crust, but the persona he created doesn't fit in the modern 1970s world. Now he's on a road trip, letting "Don Draper" go, but he seems to be moving backward, not forward: he looks more like the 1950s Don who worked in a California car dealership than a man poised to take advantage of a changing America. He's refusing to change with the times, which is the ultimate Mad Men sin. Will the show forgive him for it?

Read the recap, and come back tomorrow for thoughts on the finale.

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