Every new season of Mad Men, there’s a time jump that’s met with subtle shifts in decor, in costumes, in hair. For the second half of Season 7, when Sterling Cooper & Partners leapt into the patently terrible 1970s, that hair was downright majestic: Teddy Chaough’s shaggy bowl cut. Pete Campbell’s receding line. Roger Sterling’s glorious, glorious mustache.
But there was Don Draper in the season premiere, cooing high-octane come-ons to a fur-decked model, looking razor crisp in his impossible, timeless cool. Don Draper, the man who once sold Peggy Olson on the virtue of leaving your old life behind with, “It will shock you how much it never happened”; who isn’t even really Don Draper; who lives his life in a constant state of perpetual forward motion, hadn’t changed.
He hadn’t ever changed, it turns out, over the course of seven seasons. And on the eve of the series’ final episode, it’s finally driven home that the man who worships at the altar of moving on is stuck firmly in place. Does any of this sound familiar?
For a show that’s set in the same era as peak Vegas, the two have somehow never crossed paths. Mad Men has been to California, Detroit and to Plattsburgh, New York, (trust me, as someone who spent three years in Plattsburgh, there is zero reason for any show to ever take place there), but never to swingin’ ’60s Sin City. Which is, in itself, weird.
Showrunner Matthew Weiner is on record saying one of his chief aims was to spotlight the other ’60s, the one that doesn’t get the anguished Vietnam setpieces and the overblown Buffalo Springfield soundtrack. It’s the ’60s of the culture, not the counterculture. The ’60s of grown-ups.
And what was a bigger institution of the grown-up ’60s than Las Vegas? If Mad Men was never here in body, it damn well was in spirit. So, in that vein, let’s consider immutable Don Draper, forever reaching for that change he can never actually affect. Let’s look at all the ways Don is secretly Vegas.
Quintessential Don moment: Season 1, Episode 13, “The Wheel.” If you fully embraced this show early on, it was because of the scene where Don pitches Kodak on his campaign for their Carousel slide projector. “This device isn’t a spaceship,” Don intones, lost in a dreamy reverie. “It’s a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again to a place where we know we were loved.”
Vegas analogue: The High Roller. What could be more circular than Vegas appropriating the London Eye, itself stealing from the grandeur of the original Ferris wheel that was the crowning attraction of the 1893 World’s Fair? Around and around, to a place where we know we were loved. Or back to the Linq. For 37 bucks and a stroll through the gift shop.
Quintessential Don moment: Season 1, Episode 8, “The Hobo Code.” This is the first time we find out that Don Draper isn’t who he said he was. That he’s really Dick Whitman, son of a hobo-fleecing father who grew up on some nondescript Illinois farm where they didn’t even have the decency to stock good vodka near the chicken coop.
Vegas analogue: Cody Stevenson, the 23-year-old douche-uniform-wearing lax bro in line at Marquee isn’t who his ID says he is. He’s really Tyler Jacobson, the 20-year-old douche-uniform-wearing lax bro in line at Marquee.
Quintessential Don moment: Season 2, Episode 3, “The Benefactor.” Don’s shocking hair-pulling, fingerbang/whispered threat-negotiating tactics with Bobbie Barrett reveal an even darker side to our hero—and prove once and for all that Don probably didn’t even take one business course at the local community college.
Vegas analogue: Not so much “analogue” as just “Vegas.”
Quintessential Don moment: Season 3, Episode 9, “Wee Small Hours.” When Sal Romano refuses the advances of Lucky Strike honcho Lee Garner, Garner gets Sal fired from Sterling Cooper. Even though Don turned a blind eye to Sal’s homosexuality—progressive enough for 1963—he thinks Sal should’ve just given it up to the cigarette exec. What’s the point of hanging on to your office gay guy if he isn’t going to service your niche clients?
Vegas analogue: Ignoring prevalent sexual social mores for the sake of business? Forget hookers and strippers. (We won’t, of course. But you should for the sake of this comparison.) It’s all about the six-week divorce laws of the early ’30s and the economic windfall they afforded. You get the feeling that if the Depression-era mayor of Reno had the chance, he would’ve made out with Andrew Mellon to keep the city in the black. Would’ve been downright inconsiderate not to.
Quintessential Don moment: Season 3, Episode 13, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat.” Don and his merry band of traitors conspire to steal Sterling Cooper out from under McCann Erickson’s takeover bid.
Vegas analogue: This is straight up Ocean’s 11, down to Lane Pryce as the doomed Richard Conte of the group and Joan as a way-hotter Angie Dickinson. This is also, ironically, the episode where Betty Draper goes to Reno to prep for her divorce from Don.
Quintessential Don moment: Season 4, Episode 12, “Blowing Smoke.” Don goes rogue, writing an op-ed in The New York Times saying that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was going healthy and would no longer take on tobacco companies.
Vegas analogue: Water parks and theme parks and adventure domes and jousting and little kids getting their sticky paws all over the slot machines. Don renouncing cigarettes is as ridiculous as family-friendly Vegas.
Quintessential Don moment: Season 5, Episode 1, “A Little Kiss, Part 1.” Don debuts his shiny new marriage to Megan, and she in turn serenades him with “Zou Bisou Bisou” to the unending delight of every dude in the room.
Vegas analogue: The sudden, economy-rearranging head-first dive the Strip took into a nightclub-first business model. You still wouldn’t rule out this ending with Steve Wynn and Jesse Waits crying together on the floor, would you?
Quintessential Don moment: Season 5, Episode 11, “The Other Woman.” Don tries to stop Joan from prostituting herself for the sake of the business.
Vegas analogue: Does not apply.
Quintessential Don moment: Season 7, Episode 7, “Waterloo.” The episode ends with Don hallucinating Bert Cooper singing “The Best Things in Life Are Free.”
Vegas analogue: A bizarre musical number that wasn’t ever real? See: Triumph: It Runs on Steam.
Quintessential Don moment: Season 7, Episode 9, “New Business.” Don chases his own past, beginning a relationship with a diner waitress named Diana who reminds him of Rachel Katz (his mistress from Season 1), and his history of cratered relationships.
Vegas analogue: SLS. Slightly modifying an old classic and doing some hand-waving in the general direction of the past, only to realize it’s never the same as the thing you’re actually chasing. Also, your hundred bucks gets you a lot farther than it would with other diner waitresses/at the Bellagio.
Don’t ever change, Don. Or Vegas. We know you can’t.
Season Finale 10 p.m. May 17 on AMC, AMCTV.com.