In Mad Men's first episode, watching Don Draper thrash around during business hours with Midge Daniels on an unmade bed in a Greenwich Village walk-up was the first indication that he’s a character who lives behind masks. We’d first seen him as the buttoned-down, hard-charging advertising executive, dressed to the nines, sipping a cocktail at a fancy bar while ruminating over the next Lucky Strike pitch. Later, we watched Don during his working day rubbing elbows with people like Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling, to whom the ways of Madison Avenue are second nature. When he wasn’t at work, Don was usually in Ossining, doing his best to persuade Betty that their house was his home. It was only in his afternoons with Midge that Don dispensed with pretense.
He could navigate effortlessly through Midge’s bohemian precincts, trading his cocktail for whatever controlled substance was being passed around. What set Don apart from the people around him was his capacity to master convention without ever becoming conventional. He’s was at ease everywhere, because he was at home nowhere.
That’s what drew Don to Midge in the first place. She wasn’t conventionally unconventional like her tiresome friends. So she could repair with Don to neutral ground that was equidistant, socially and psychologically if not geographically, from his perch in midtown and her perch downtown. Their affair might have been just a dalliance, but it was the only relationship that Don had that was based on mutual respect.
And that’s why, in last night’s episode, seeing Midge in the throes of her heroin addiction was so jolting for Don. With a junkie’s ingenuity, she’d maneuvered him into buying one of her mediocre paintings. Don didn’t try to conceal his contempt for her when he handed over the cash. In his eyes, Midge’s bohemian dissolution was a cliché that signaled a despicable failure of will.
When he got the painting home, however, Don found that he couldn’t throw it out. Contemplating it till daybreak, he couldn’t help seeing something of himself in it. He’s spent nearly this entire season in a state of dissolute passivity, trying to put himself back together after Sterling Cooper and his marriage crumbled around him. We’ve seen occasional flashes of the old Draper, for example, when he figured out against all odds how to win the Honda account. But this season Don has mostly been a character to whom things happened—the death of Anna, the complications of divorce, his feelings for Faye, being saved from the exposure by Pete, the loss of the Lucky Strike account, his seduction by Megan, etc. He used to be the guy who made things happen to other people.
In Don’s eyes, Midge’s addiction is a metaphor for his own passivity. Seeing her makes him realize that morbid self-consciousness is sapping his will. That's why he tears the filled-in pages out of the spiral notebook he’s been using as a diary to find a clean slate on which to draft a full-page New York Times ad in which SCDP renounces any connection with the tobacco industry. That's the sort of thing we'd come to expect from the old Don Draper.
For one thing, it’s an expression of vintage Draperesque amorality, not to be confused with the quotidian immorality of Don’s not living up professional standards by diddling his secretary or pressuring Faye into unethical conduct. It’s a flat out lie to say that SCDP has turned its back on the tobacco industry when, in reality, the tobacco industry turned its collective back to SCDP. But the old Don Draper was never above living a lie. Peggy hadn't made much of an impression when she reminded Don of the lesson that he'd once taught her, viz., if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation. The spectacle of Midge’s addiction makes him take Peggy’s gentle reminder to heart. You can see the relief, and admiration cross Peggy’s face when she sees that her mentor still has it in him to do what it takes.
For another thing, the Times ad is a classic Draper power-play. Much to their displeasure, Don didn’t consult his partners about running the ad because he knew they wouldn’t have consented. That breach of professional ethics has Bert Cooper collecting his shoes on his way out the door. But you can see the realization in the faces of the other partners that Don’s just re-asserting the natural order of things at SCDP.
Recall that SCDP was Don’s idea in the first place. The etiquette of a commercial partnership has permitted his partners to forget that Don’s the only one among them who is indispensible to its success. He's still willing to discharge his obligations to his partners—his willingness to front Pete his capital contribution in repayment for Pete’s covering for him with the DoD is evidence of that. But Don's no longer reluctant to remind his partners that he's the first among equals.
The world hasn’t been treating Don well this Mad Men season, so he’s decided to make a new one.