The Wheel (season one, episode 13)

In the history of man, the wheel stands for innovation and progress. It was mankind’s great, original invention. We discovered fire, and we figured out the utility of tools, but it was the wheel that allowed the creation of complex mechanisms: Rolling sleds, then wagons, then mills, then clockwork. 

For someone like Don Draper, who sells Americans dreams in an age of seemingly unbounded progress, the wheel represents the aspirations into which his work taps – the belief that the best is yet to come. That, as he said in the pilot, “You are OK.” Yet when Kodak asks his agency to pitch a campaign to sell a new kind of wheel, the company’s new rotating photo slide projection device, Don looks to the wheel in a more metaphorical sense: A symbol of rebirth and reinvention.

“Round and around, and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.”

Don’s moving pitch leaves the Kodak executives speechless and sends faithless Harry Crane – currently separated from his wife for his election night indiscretion – rushing from the room in tears. And in this moment, the whole of Don Draper/Dick Whitman and his journey through the first season are laid bare, rendered in sum total.

Throughout this season, Don has repeatedly shunned progress. When his artists brought him a pitch for aerosol shaving cream depicting its “space age” technology, he dismissed astronauts as idiots who wet their pants. Some people find change frightening, he explained, and in truth he was talking about himself. He’s spurned the younger generation as being no better than his own. And here, he takes a great piece of home technology, which makes slide shows painless and simple, and rebrands it. This product isn’t a space ship, he explains, it’s a time capsule. A way to reopen the old wounds of nostalgia.

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“It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child does.”

And here we have the contradiction of Don Draper writ large. He’s a man who left behind his past, who runs from danger, who would willingly leave behind his career and his family to escape the consequences of his own actions. Never satisfied with what he has – which is bountiful – he’s always restless, looking to the next thing. The next campaign, the next venture, the next extramarital dalliance. He shunned his own brother. He abandoned his upbringing. And yet he pines for the childhood and the past he was denied; he clings to a past he never experienced.

The Carousel pitch demonstrates Don’s habit of using ads as therapy, of talking through his own problems and neuroses with pitches. His peers see him as a genius, because he always comes up with unexpected angles for his campaign concepts, but in truth he doesn’t draw on any unusual font of inspiration. He’s just creating ads that speak to his needs – it’s only because he’s so guarded and private that the results seem to come from nowhere. No one but the omniscient audience gets to look at both sides of Don’s life, so we alone have insight into the mundanity his supposed brilliance.

As he clicks through a series of personal slides – photos of himself courting Betty, their wedding, holding their infant children – he gives a mesmerizing, emotional speech. Yet his monologue draws its potency not from his innate skills as an orator but rather from the fact that, unbeknownst to his coworkers and clients, he’s placed his personal regrets and sorrows on display. The Carousel pitch isn’t Don speaking for the every man, it’s him contemplating his own short-sightedness and the sudden realization (perhaps prompted by his near-brush with exposure and Rachel Menken’s breakup) that he’s nearly lost his family.

Betty has gone from a trembling (literal) wreck in “Ladies’ Room” to a woman who’s grown increasingly willing to face up to the realities of her life and Don’s infidelities. She’s still pretty screwed up, as the fact that she desperately confides in secret to young Glen for lack of anyone else to speak to will attest, but she no longer pines for Don or silently accepts the way he treats his family almost as a part-time amusement. His refusal to accompany her and the kids to Thanksgiving, not because he can’t afford the time off but rather because he simply doesn’t want to be bothered if it means spending the weekend with his in-laws, drives a dangerous rift between them. As he spins through the slide show of his intimate memories, he seemingly resolves himself to self-betterment. He pushed his brother Adam away with tragic results, and the Carousel, it appears, inspires him not to want to make the same mistake twice.

The wheel has religious connotation, the concept of being trapped in a cycle of failure and the aspiration to break free and escape his destructive behavior. It’s this reading that drives Don in the end. Galvanized, he rushes home to surprise his family and join them on their vacation. Yet in the end, he’s too late. They’ve left already without him, and the season ends mournfully as Don sits alone in his dark, empty home, a man without a past and without a family. It’s a strange ending – not a cliffhanger, yet offering no resolution, either. The audience experiences the wrenching emptiness of Don’s hollow pursuits.

Of course, he still has his family, but in the end he is the wheel to which the episode title refers: Spinning forever around and around, trapped in his rut, unable to break free. The “perfect” life he seemed to lead at the beginning of the season is circling around as well, spiraling ever downward. The Don Draper of “In Care Of” isn’t a particularly changed man from the Don Draper of “The Wheel,” and the show’s most recent season ended with him grinding through the same routine we see here: Estranged from his wife, rejected by his mistress, wearing the same grey suit and skinny tie, presenting an impassioned and deeply personal pitch to a client. However, while Don Draper hasn’t changed in the show’s eight years of chronology, the world around him has. The raw emotion of his Kodak pitch inspires clients in 1960, but it horrifies Hershey’s in 1968 and loses Don a job – a change of status equally motivated by years of his unchanging, impetuous, selfish behavior.

By contrast, consider the role of Don’s foil-née-protége, Peggy Olson, in these episodes. Here, Don promotes her almost carelessly to full-time copywriter, in part as recognition of her skills and in part as a means to annoy Pete Campbell. Where Don regrets his abandonment of his own family, Peggy is horrified to realize her recent weight gain is the result of an unknown, unwanted pregnancy. She rejects the concept of family both subconsciously and (we’ll see) directly. Eventually, she’ll become Don – but a better Don, one from a sometimes rocky but nevertheless loving home, one capable of making clear choices between work and family, one who pursues her desires with far less human carnage trailing in her wake, one eager to embrace a better future rather than cling sullenly to the past.

Don is trapped forever in the rut of the wheel, but it’s Peggy – who learns from his example what and what not to do – who transcends.

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