“You’re a very beautiful girl,” Don tells Sally. “It’s up to you to do more than that.” Like most of the best advice we give, Don’s talking to himself. He’s echoing an observation Mathis yelled at him earlier in the episode, “You don’t have character. You’re just handsome.”
Don Draper’s not the biggest monster in the world, but he’s not generally a kind or happy person. He’s seductive, but his darkness is bottomless. He’s a walking advertisement, a fleshed-out dream that turns to dust when you touch it. And the dream was enough, for a while, even in his dust of a life. It was enough for an audience to fall in love with him, to covet him before we knew what we were getting into. Now we’re just another ex-wife who has seen through the veneer, but still is less dissatisfied with Don Draper than he is with himself.
Even in his desperation, he was kicking up storms, floating on fumes. But now, the storm has died out, and Don is left with debris and mirrors. After all these years of showmanship, he has less to do and more to think about and doesn’t know how to live with himself. All these years he’s used mirrors for tricks rather than reflection. He’s packaged up his heart for the masses, he’s peddled his nostalgia, but now he can’t distract himself with those vapors.
He doesn’t know how to live with the man behind the chiseled face and the finest suits, that strange soup of self we all have to contend with. We all feel a bit disconnected from our faces, from our outward presentations. It will never quite match up, but as soon as we get comfortable with it, our bodies change and sag and age. All the right creams and hats and ironic t-shirts in the world won’t save us. We have somehow find peace in the dissonance.
“Why don’t you just write down all of your dreams, so I can shit on them?” Peggy asks Don after she naively insists on a real performance review. Peggy’s still hungry, she’s in the flush and fight of living, while Don has retreated. He’s on a lonely peak where all he sees above him are clouds, and they don’t look like much to him. It’s just all clouds above and below. He’s reached a top that’s just the bottom again.
He tells his daughter to be something more than beautiful, but still can’t work out for himself what that is. He’s suddenly full of decent advice for Sally, but mostly he’s just working out difficult things others had put in his head. He’s thinking of Peggy when he tells Sally and her friends, with their lives still unlived and unspoiled, to write down their dreams while they’re still young enough to have them.
Don envies people who still have dreams, or at least the ability to dream. The brutal truth about dreams is that that’s all they are. They exist most solidly when you dream them, not when you achieve something close to what you dreamed up. That doesn’t mean trying and striding and succeeding is pointless, it means not being aware about what dreams really are is dangerous. It breeds a poisonous ennui and lack of gratitude.
“We know where we have been, we know where we are. Let’s assume that it is good and that it is going to get better. It is supposed to get better,” Don says into a dictaphone. But, it’s not always good. It doesn’t always get better. We are animals, and eventually we die. There are declines in life as much as their are ascents, but there is an expectation in business (and social hierarchies) that we should always be on an upward escalator. It’s always okay to start low, but it’s not ok to go back a few steps. It’s not ok to get off. It’s not ok to just be still.
We are workers, we get psychological reward from success and goals and just from the effort itself. Work and drive in itself isn’t bad, but it can seem bad if we don’t allow for the realities of behind a modern human, if we only accept the same story about ourselves even when we don’t feel it anymore. Sometimes being human is just being alone in a field looking at the stars, and you need a certain comfort level with your self in order to do that. “This is about my job, not the meaning of life,” Peggy says at Don’s scoffing at her dreams. “You think those things are unrelated?” he retorts.
They both have a point. They are both straining at the same problem. Peggy has many times been confronted with the sacrifices she’s making in giving herself wholly to her job, and that will probably cause her pain someday if she reflects on could-have-beens, but there is wisdom in accepting your life as it is. No matter what choice you make, there are a billion others you can worry about, and that worry takes away literally everything you have right now. When you yearn for a lost life that never was, that is exactly where you live, in a nightmarish Neverland. Maybe those are the dreams Don has, not of a future to reach for, but of buffet of pasts he can never really taste. He’s not even a man of regrets, so much, because all his lost roads mock each other.
Looking back, the past is as distant as it is unerasable. We simply undo what we’ve done. All we have is the very next step. And maybe the next step is to not assume it is good. To not assume it’s not better. Maybe the next step it to be something more than beautiful.
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