“I keep going to a lot of places and ending up somewhere I’ve already been,” Don Draper tells a sexy stewardess in the first episode of the season. From the start of season three, we know that the past will be encroaching more persistently than ever before. The first scene involves flashbacks to Dick Whitman’s birth with adult Dick/Don staring across a dark kitchen at the ugliness of his own conception. Born to a prostitute who died in childbirth, Dick was raised by a woman who never allowed him to forget his origins. Reinventing himself as Don Draper has taken him far, but he always returns to the reality of his self-loathing.
Given his background, there are certainly Freudian implications to Don’s interactions with women. Is he seeking the love and acceptance that he never received from a mother-figure? Or is his sporadic disregard for their feelings a way of getting back at the callous woman who raised him? Despite his hatred for his father, Don bears similarities to him in his drinking and philandering. The biggest difference is that Don’s misbehavior is usually controlled. In the seventh episode, a drug-induced stupor shows Don a vision of his father, who watches him with disgust. Fear of being his father’s son looms large in Don’s psyche.
After two precarious seasons, season three sees the final breakdown of the Drapers’ marriage. Don and Betty both conduct affairs, physical or emotional, that suggest what’s missing in their relationship with each other. Don is entranced by Sally’s teacher at the end of the second episode. As she dances barefoot in the grass, Miss Farrell seems to offer purity and renewal, but she resists Don’s advances until episode nine. She also calls him out for being a cliché of suburban boredom, saying that he wants her “because I’m new and different. Or maybe I’m exactly the same.” Despite pointing out the exhausting inevitability of Don’s affairs, he seems to appreciate that she isn’t fooled by him.
Betty loses her father early in the season—the man who indignantly told Don that his daughter is a princess. There are paternal aspects to her relationship with Henry Francis, who promises that he wants to take care of her. Don made similar attempts, but his care was usually financial rather than emotional. In Henry she finds someone who will treat her delicately while being direct about his intentions. Henry tells her, “I’m not in love with the tragedy of this thing. It’s not Romeo and Juliet. I want it to happen.” After years of marriage to Don, Betty is tired of playing the tragic heroine and ready to be revered again.
There are several lines of dialogue in the final episodes that are reminiscent of meaningful moments from the previous season. Most heartbreaking, when Betty confronts Don about his true identity, she asks, “What would you do if you were me? Would you love you?” I was reminded of Pete going to Don for guidance after his father’s death, skeptical to believe that Don would follow his own advice. Both scenes emphasize the unknowable facets of other people. Another callback comes in Don’s speech to recruit Peggy for the new agency. He tells her that she understands this concept: “There are people out there who buy things, people like you and me, and something happened—something terrible. And the way they saw themselves is gone.” This echoes Peggy’s speech to Pete in the season two finale, explaining to him that she feels a part of herself is gone and won’t come back. Don sees this in Peggy and considers her a kindred spirit because of it.
Want is a central theme of the show, and the final episode of season three gives us a direct articulation of what Don Draper wants. Furious that Bert Cooper is willing to let the agency disappear without a fight, Don declares, “I want to work. I want to build something of my own. How can you not understand that?” It’s a simple statement, but also one of the truest things his character has ever said. The dogged determination to create something out of nothing is Don’s greatest virtue. Roger tells Don, “You’re not good at relationships because you don’t value them,” to which Don replies, “I value my relationship with you.” If this is true, it’s because Roger understands The Work, and The Work is everything to Don.
The gleeful creation of Sterling Cooper Draper Price is a high point of the series. When Don looks around the hotel suite bustling with the members of his fledgling agency, he actually appears content. He’s ready to let go of his marriage and start anew. It just so happens, the next season is my absolute favorite.