Don Draper’s life is all about moving forward, or so he would like to believe. In the first season of Mad Men, two women ask him how he goes from work and affairs to an outwardly normal home life, and his response is “I don’t even think about it.” Don and several other characters try to live by his philosophy in season two, but the results are often less successful than they first appear.
Episode five, “The New Girl,” has several flashbacks to Peggy’s time in the hospital after giving birth. Peggy is in deep denial, but she doesn’t extract herself from the situation until receiving a visit from Don. After giving his patented advice to move forward, Don tells her, “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” As we see throughout the season, Peggy is trying to live by his advice, yet Don seems to be cracking under the pressure of his own secrets and self-denials. By the third episode, he’s returned to his old pattern, entering into an affair with a comedian’s wife. However, unlike his affairs in the first season, his interactions with Bobbie Barrett have no warmth or affection. Their liaisons are about a fleeting moment of domination and oblivion.
In episode six, “Maidenform,” Don becomes uncomfortable under his daughter’s loving gaze on two occasions. After the first time he runs to Bobbie, and the second time he just asks Sally to leave him alone. Both instances prove that for all his talk about forgetting the past, Don feels like a fraud when faced with his daughter’s blind admiration. By mid-season, when Betty is tipped off to his most recent affair, Don’s self-loathing must be reaching maximum capacity. Jimmy Barrett tells Don, “You’re garbage and you know it,” and we believe him. As Don escapes to California for a business trip, we see a more drastic attempt to either forget the past or find a place where he is truly known.
And where Don feels truly known is not in a stranger’s mansion with a group of cosmopolitan nomads. The companionship of a young, carefree woman would seem to offer everything his philandering heart desires, but he ultimately rejects her as well. Instead he goes to Anna Draper, the widow of the man whose identity he stole. In her presence he can be plain old Dick Whitman again. During this visit, Anna delivers one of the most important lines of the entire series: “The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.”
The desire to be known also creeps into Pete and Peggy’s conversation in the season finale. I’ve long contended that “Meditations in an Emergency” is one of the best television episodes ever. The backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis gives everyone an “end of the world” mentality, which befits Sterling Cooper’s looming merger with another ad agency. In the case of Pete Campbell, it leads him to wonder who would care if he was gone. “I mean, Trudy would care,” he tells Peggy, “but she doesn’t know me. But you do. And I know you.” The scene is tragic because Pete really doesn’t know Peggy, a fact that she makes clear by telling him about her pregnancy. It’s an end to innocence for both characters.
If season one asks, “What do I want?” then season two asks, “Who am I now?” When Pete learns of his father’s death, he goes to Don with the news. A rather bewildering choice, given their contentious history, but Pete still looks up to Don. As Pete talks over what to do next, it amounts to asking, Don, how do I be a person? Pete knows that Don won’t make a scene, not to mention Don is familiar with lacking the proper emotional responses to situations. Yet there’s something very sad about turning to Don Draper, Human Cipher, for reassurance. When Don tells him to be with his family, Pete skeptically asks, “Is that what you would do?” It’s as if he believes that Don has the key but won’t give it to him.
In season two, Peggy continues her transformation into a career woman, eventually rejecting the earnest confession of love that her earlier self probably craved. Don tests the limits of his dual lives before ending up back at the kitchen table with Betty. In the midst of an emergency, Don goes home to his family, just as he told Pete he would, but he hardly seems less alone than the season before.