As Draper quietly struggles to maintain his identity as Manhattan’s most brilliant ad man, our perception of him is blurred by an unsettling vagueness. Why is he so furtive? He hides his WW2 Purple Heart in his desk. The junior execs gossip about how little they know about him. In the third episode, a fellow train commuter hails him as an old acquaintance and calls him “Dick Whitman,” and Draper, though uncomfortable, doesn’t correct him. There’s a nagging sense that he may not be the man we think he is.
On the flip side of this portrayal of masculine ideals in flux, the women are gathering steam for an even greater transformation. You don’t know whether to laugh or weep watching the secretaries at Sterling Cooper being ogled and manhandled by their bosses. But that was life back then — secretaries were seen as fresh meat for the young lions. And, truth be told, some of those women were out to bag big game. Virginal secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss, in a pitch-perfect turn as an innocent with underestimated depths) has just been hired and assigned to Draper. She’s tutored in the essentials of office concubinism by her supervisor, Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks, with the unmistakable hard-bodied curves and uplift of late-1950s underwear), who tells her to “keep a fifth of something in your desk. Invest in aspirin, Band Aids, and a needle and thread . . . ”
Peggy is all wide-eyed eagerness, but, as with Draper, there’s more to her than the outer wrapper suggests. She aspires to something greater, even if she’s unsure what it is. She visits a (rancidly paternalistic) doctor for birth-control pills; she makes a play for Draper but is rebuffed; she sleeps with a drunken Campbell on the eve of his wedding. But when she learns that there’s a world beyond the secretarial pool, that there are female copywriters, she seems to light up with purpose.
Whereas Peggy foreshadows the sexually active, career-pursuing ‘60s butterfly soon to burst from the cocoon, Draper’s doll-like wife, Betty (January Jones), whom he affectionately calls “Birdie,” is miserable in her gilded cage. Betty is merely a crinolined extension of her husband. Like Draper, she’s living the life of her parents’ dreams, but she can’t find security in it. When a sophisticated divorcee with two children moves into the neighborhood, Betty and her married neighbors are in a tizzy of suspicion — they imagine that no husband is safe from an unattached woman.
Betty has reason to fear. As a husband and father, Draper is like a model home — perfectly furnished but uninhabited. He’s strong and silent to the point of emotional cruelty. “Don doesn’t like to talk about himself. I know better than to ask,” she tells friends, apologetically. When Betty starts to suffer from anxiety attacks, Draper, shocked, takes her unhappiness as an affront to his manhood. He regards her visits to a psychiatrist as an invasion of privacy.
And yet, he easily unburdens himself to a client he barely knows, strong-willed department-store owner Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), to whom he’s physically attracted. He confides in her over a business lunch, telling her that he believes in nothing, because there’s nothing to believe in: “What you call ‘love’ was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” But does he really believe in nothing? Or are his ad slogans expressing the deepest poetry of his soul?