There is no “Mad Men” without Don Draper. Jon Hamm does the impossible over the course of the storied AMC period drama, by fully inhabiting a man as believably charming as he is emotionally stunted. Viewers soar on the wings of his creative triumphs and cringe at the sight of his personal failures. Just like the ad agency that eventually bears his name, Don rises and falls over the course of the decade that “Mad Men” depicts with a waltzing, drunken, two-steps-forward-one-step-back stumble. This journey is never less than riveting.
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“Mad Men” is a show of many pleasures, ranging from its depiction of landmark historical events to the small details of its incredible production design. But it succeeds on the strength of its characters, and the increasing meaning and nuance every scene gains as time marches on. As we begin to understand Don Draper, it hurts more to see him embark on yet another affair, or have too much to drink. We want to believe he can break the self-destructive cycle, but we’re never sure how possible that truly is. We’re here to trace the highest and lowest points of one of TV’s greatest anti-heroes. These are Don Draper’s seven best and seven worst “Mad Men” scenes, ranked.
As the meme goes, some men will invent an entirely new identity instead of going to therapy. By the Season 6 finale, “In Care Of,” the mirage of Don Draper is coming apart at the seams. Drinking too much and watching his marriage to Megan (Jessica Paré) crumble, Don has decided to move to Los Angeles to start over yet again. He successfully lies to Hershey’s executives, telling a wholesome story about how his father would tousle his hair and buy him a Hershey bar for mowing the lawn. But with a glance at the forlorn Ted (Kevin Rahm), whose place in California Don is set to take, the wall separating Dick Whitman from Don Draper finally dissolves.
Don tells the stunned Hershey’s suits that he was actually an orphan raised in a brothel, and was sometimes rewarded with a Hershey bar for stealing change from the clientele’s pockets. He ate the candy alone in his room, pretending to live a normal life. While this moment is cathartic and important, it’s freighted with the sinking feeling of something happening in the exact wrong time and place. Don is swiftly suspended from work, and strains his marriage even further by sending Ted to Los Angeles. “I have to say this,” Don tells the Hershey’s execs. “I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.” This sums up the moment’s sense of absolute doom.
Don’s particular method of moving on at all costs isn’t really the healthiest thing in the world. But going to find Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) after she gives birth to a child she doesn’t want and convincing her to come back to work is one of the most selfless acts Don performs in all of “Mad Men.” As we see in flashback in Season 2’s “The New Girl,” Don tracks Peggy down by contacting her roommate and mother. The latter woman tells Don that Peggy has tuberculosis and is in quarantine. “I guess she thought that was supposed to lessen my concern,” he remarks, glibly.
Without asking questions, Don tells Peggy to tell the doctors whatever they want to hear and then get out of there. “This never happened,” he tells her. “It will shock you, how much this never happened.” It’s one of the biggest moments in a friendship that runs the course of the show and fuels many of the best episodes of “Mad Men.” Don is drawing on a deep well of personal denial and enormous will to impart strength to his newest copywriter. It’s as touching as he ever gets.