Rachel and Don hadn’t thought it through
Of course, the psychologist is always right, so before Don gets remarried to the depressed, sometimes suicidal, raven-haired twenty-nine year old cocktail waitress he meets just after he’s been released from the Bellevue psych ward in “Free at Last, Free at Last” – Episode 11 — oops, should have typed SPOILER somewhere up there, sorry — I wanted to revisit and evaluate his past amorous relationships.
Let’s start with, imo, the most publicly misunderstood one of the bunch, Rachel Menken. First, for the record, let me unequivocally state, I liked Rachel the Wise. She makes the most astute yet under-acknowledged and under-accepted observation about the all-infecting nature of The Patriarchy®, — it, too, must be hard being a “man” in this societal structure. That’s an important point to remember before judging that “manly” behavior too severely. It seems Don would benefit by chewing on that thought a bit this season, if it is only to allow him to cut himself some slack.
But if we are to honestly evaluate the nature of their relationship, Rachel needs to take some responsibility for her mistakes. Sipping a mai tai in the lounge in “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” she’s attracted and feels they share a similar disconnectedness from the apparent structure of the way people live. This could be a good thing to bond about, if you’re both outcasts from the Accepted Traditional Way; outliers. This really only works though if you’re prepared to follow the logical course of events all the way out. As it transpires we discover that either Rachel is not prepared to do this or she doesn’t know herself as well as she thinks she does; these are her mistakes.
She’s very intelligent and world-wise. She’s not stupid in any respect, but she displays a large amount of willful ignorance to what she knows to be fact. She guesses correctly Don is married but she puts those cufflinks on him anyway. She tells a sad story and allows herself to be kissed despite what she knows about him. She retreats but she won’t let it go. She and her sister talk it out. Sis reminds her, “you’re a modern woman.” But they don’t really address the responsibilities of being that particular modern woman, nor do they discuss the reasonable probability of how this affair will have to end. Does she delude herself into believing he leaves Betty for her? Does that even work for her if it happens? Does she delude herself into thinking she would want to be just the mistress happily ever after? In addition to young Pete, Rachel is another one who has clearly not thought a thing through.
Shifting to Don’s perspective for pursuing Rachel, Midge gives us the only detail we need to understand precisely what the prime motivation for all his sexual encounters over the course of these five years has been. She says, “I like being your medicine.” Starting with the girl on the train, who buys the soldier a drink and advises him to forget about the boy in the box, it’s clearly evident that women, alcohol and putting things in the past will be the keys to how Don Draper is able to look at himself in the mirror each morning.
So it’s no surprise, as he’s sensing Midge slipping away, that dark-haired, modern woman Rachel catches his eye. And when Roger almost buys the farm in “Long Weekend”, our fearful existentialist heads straight for the bottle of 100 proof Rachel to help keep the horse from kicking him in the head too. This affair isn’t about love in a traditional romantic sense of the word. This affair, for him at least, is about seeking a measure of comfort and compassion to counter the cold realities of a mortal existence. All his sexual relationships are about this I think. (hell, all my sexual relationships have probably been about this . . . fuck, ALL SEX for all mankind may be fundamentally about this.) He even got a lot of this medicine from Betty at one time probably but may have grown to think it wasn’t quite right to bring all that fear into their perfect suburban home. In a contorted way, he might rationalize it’s better if he doesn’t expose Betty to this “I don’t want to die” anxiety sex, at least not all the time, every time.
So we’re led to assume Don and Rachel make Mad passionate love on the sofa; he’s there because he’s scared of dying and she’s willing because she’s empathetic and needed. And these reasons alone would not be objectionable foundations to build a lasting relationship on necessarily imo, except for the fact Don and Rachel are both infected with the same ideal definition of romantic love. He knows “the lightning bolt to the heart” is an enticing fabrication that sells everything, but he’s enough of a classic romantic down deep to hope some sliver of the fairytale might be true; he’s the storyteller after all, he knows how the best tales are all spun from some piece of truth. Somewhat conversely, Rachel, as a classic romantic, presumes and accepts the story of the “lightning bolt” is real and true; she just thinks the reality of her life hasn’t allowed her to experience it yet, but she believes with almost total certainty she will.
Anyway we come to denouement day, where we find out no one anywhere in the show it seems has thought anything through. Don really had no plan to implement if Dick Whitman was ever found out. So he freaks. And comes to Rachel for medicine. . . but it has to be on the road, or in the plane, or below decks of the freighter, wherever but there. Rachel loses it in the face of Don’s real fear and starts to finally work out the scenarios, (we get to watch her eyes as they play out in her thoughts) and surprise! none of them now, nor actually ever, made sense — “this is not how I thought it would be.” She was never going to run away with him, ever; she had a family store to run. “This was a dalliance, a cheap affair.” She’s projecting what she knew to be true deep down all along but chose to ignore. The facts of their lives were never going to change no matter how much they pillow-talked the ideas around. They were two delusional romantics telling each other stories, the fantasies that could never be.
So to wrap up, at the end of the day, you can probably tell I didn’t think it was much of a relationship. Self-deception turns me off I guess. (That’s why later Suzanne’s disregard of the same accepted societal boundaries and her bleak yet honest assessment of their relationship arc strikes me as so damn sexy.) As far as a reunion goes, imo, in the real world, a man cannot expose that much irrational fear and panic to a woman that early in a relationship and expect things to develop well. If she got over the initial repulsion, which Rachel clearly, understandably felt, and wanted to take him back, I still think Don would reflexively be even more closed down and guarded than he already has shown he’s inclined to be. The spell is broken there, I feel there’s no going back from that point.
That being my considered opinion though does not make it necessarily true. Well I guess if Mad Men were a mere actual soap opera, sure theoretically, if the audience demanded it and threatened not to watch, and advertisers thought she would bump up the ratings, and if Weiner were facing financial ruin due to his paintball habit, and if Maggie Siff (hubba, hubba) didn’t already have a more interesting role on Sons of Anarchy, yeah, then I guess I’ll concede the writers could probably choke back the vomit and break out the crayons and scribble some contrivance that would bring Rachel back to Don’s lovin’ arms. But such a fantasy would most likely involve a lot more slapping than what we’ve already seen this season and probably some leather restraints too. At that point, I’d opt for Porn Tube, it’s a little more genuine there.