Hey, sad Don Draper. You’re at a bar. You’re alone. You’re perhaps disappointed with your young wife’s recent decisions. Enter: Attractive Woman. “Are you alone?” she asks coyly. Cut to black.
The last image of Mad Men’s fifth season is a hard one to forget. Though we don’t know anything concrete about what decision Don made that night, opening the door for another affair was at turns dismaying, ominous, and so familiar. And it’s hard not to trace it back to Megan and some sort of undefined, fundamental disconnect in their relationship. There aren’t enough martinis in the world to make Jon Hamm, Jessica Paré, and series creator Matthew Weiner talk about season 6 specifics. But EW did talk with them about Don and Megan, where the couple left off last season, and what they both wanted out the relationship.
Season 5 opened with Don and Megan as co-workers at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. She’d been promoted out of her secretarial role and was actually thriving there as a copywriter. Alas, the advertising life wasn’t for her. She just wanted to act. Things changed palpably for the raven-haired couple as soon as she left the agency to try the acting thing, and reached a climax when Megan asked Don to call in a favor on her behalf. She was struggling. He had an in. And they might never be the same as a result. But their entire relationship up till that moment had been so surprising and complicated that it’s hard to reduce it to anything as simple as Don just wanting something different or someone younger. Don and Megan built a deep connection and seemed to really be as perfect as anyone can be for another person. But what did he want? What did she want?
“[Don] had a schoolgirl fantasy about what marriage is – that this was going to be the marriage that he did well. I had a lot of men come up to me last season and tell me that [Megan] was their second wife. That that was a chance for them to do it right. But that there was a gap,” Weiner says.
Don’s perspective may not have been so elusive. Though the sudden proposal was shocking, audiences have spent a lot of time with Don and even if they can’t predict what he’ll do, they do have a base of knowledge for analysis after the fact. Megan, however, is still somewhat of an enigma.
“She’s a woman who was very independent and she had her eye on this man. She loves the way he looks at her, she loves what she can bring him, she loves that she can see him in the way he wants to be seen. He’s idealized. That is like a gift,” Weiner says. “You know that she’s an independent person, but she’s got this rich husband – she did skip ahead of everything as her father said. And everyone likes that. I don’t care who you are. Don Draper is going to come into your life and he’s got a lot of money? So you have this mix of adulthood.”
“As far as Megan’s concerned it is and always has been pure love. I think she sees him the way nobody else does. She sees this warm, loving, fun, dynamic charming person. Nobody else sees that side of him. But those people also could see what Megan is somewhat blinded to, which is that he’s got a very, very dark side,” says Paré. But still, it’s not a superficial connection. Megan understands Don, and knows more about him than practically anyone in his new life. But she’s still developing and changing as a person, and that might be her fundamental flaw in Don’s eyes.
Weiner notes that last season they spent a lot of time in the writers room trying to figure out who Megan really is and what drives her. “What’s interesting to me is that she’s an idealistic person. She’s artistically idealistic. And I love that she couldn’t be kept from that,” Weiner says. But Weiner wasn’t about to let her get away with just up and quitting the agency. In the Mad Men world, all actions have consequences. “It was kind of an indictment of his job which I think was somehow insensitive. And I always wonder if she wishes he was doing something more important,” Weiner adds. “In the end, her independence is threatening to him. He’s old-fashioned like that.”
Hamm has a similar reading on the situation, and how Don might still be reeling from her choice to walk away from his chosen profession. “I think he wanted her to be an amazing advertising wunderkind. He was fascinated by that and thrilled that there was this person who was as good as he was and as cognizant of the landscape and the world and had this kind of very natural understanding of it,” Hamm says. “That’s why I think why he was mystified [when she] wanted to go into acting, which, to most people is the dumbest thing you could ever do because there’s absolutely no security or guarantees in that. Other than music it’s probably the world’s most corrupt and filthy business. Or publishing.”
But, according to Hamm, it’s not just Don’s ego that got in the way. While it’s partly the time period and Don’s own expectations of what women are like and what a wife needs to be, it’s also a universal bridge that all relationships have to cross. “I think he wanted her to be independent on his terms which obviously is no independence at all,” Hamm says. “You love them until the first time they say ‘no.’ And then where are you?”
Whether or not Megan understands that her actions might have affected her relationship with Don is another question. Even though Megan hesitated to ask Don to help her with her career, ultimately, she was glad he did. “I really think that she’s struggling with this decision that she’s made,” Paré says of the fateful favor. “It’s almost embarrassing for her to ask him this question because she knows she’s stepping over a line. And she also knows that she would rather do it any other way than have her husband make that phone call for her. And as soon as she says it she’s like ‘forget it, forget it — you’re right I don’t want to do this.’ But then he does. And now she’s got her career and she’s got her amazing beautiful man who’s made this sacrifice. I think that she thinks everything’s great.” As Paré mentions, Don’s capacity for darkness is not necessarily something Megan fully recognizes.
Weiner sums it up: “She’s growing up, and that’s a threat. Even if he’s secure enough for her to have her own life, the threat really is that she didn’t live it all for him.” Don may not be right to be disappointed in his wife for wanting something that she’s chosen, but that’s his character — as flawed and misguided as anyone.
Tune in to AMC on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET to see what we learn in the two-hour Mad Men season 6 premiere, and be sure to check back in for EW’s recap.