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Don Draper, The Truth Is: You Lied

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has a lot on his mind as the new season of <em>Mad Men</em> gets underway.
Frank Ockenfels
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has a lot on his mind as the new season of Mad Men gets underway.

***For Mad Men fans who missed Sunday night's Season 7 premiere, be warned: There are spoilers below.

Don Draper finally told the truth, and it ruined his life.

Perhaps that shouldn't have been such a surprise. Because Don has mostly been a master of the lie — especially in the form of an ad pitch. And he never lost his touch: He suckered everyone last season with one of his best pitches for Hershey's chocolate bars.

Facing a roomful of Hershey's executives, he told a heartwarming story of getting one of their candy bars as a reward for mowing the lawn. "And as I ripped it open, my father tousled my hair, and forever his love and the chocolate were tied together," Don said. "That's the story we're going to tell."

But that bit about his dad was a total lie. And as his partners in the advertising firm were practically spending their first check from Hershey's, Don couldn't resist dropping a bombshell that brought it all to a halt.

"I grew up in Pennsylvania, in a whorehouse," he said, voice nearly cracking. "Closest I got to feeling wanted was from a girl who made me go through her john's pockets. If I collected more than a dollar, she bought me a Hershey bar."

This infusion of truth dropped jaws in the boardroom and in the TV audience. Don had never spoken like that in public before.

So when Mad Men returned Sunday, beginning the first half of a final season ending in 2015, any hope that Don might have developed a habit of telling the truth was dashed.

He had already found a new lie to tell.

The first hint dropped in the episode's very first scene. We're mesmerized by a near-perfect advertising pitch, which had become a Don Draper specialty: "You go into a business meeting. Is there food in your teeth, ashes on your tie? And you've got nothing to say. But you're wearing an Accutron. This watch makes you interesting."

Smooth and professional. A Don pitch if ever there was one — only it isn't Don delivering it. It's Freddie Rumson, a recovering alcoholic who was forced out of Don's firm long ago.

Turns out Don is still on the outs at his firm, and he's using Freddie as a proxy to deliver his perfect pitches as a freelancer. But Freddie has a few words of advice for Don while the two share a couple of sandwiches and gossip.

"They had Christmas without you and the Super Bowl, you know. I've been there," Freddie says, pushing Don to find a new job before he gets canned. "You don't want to be damaged goods."

This is what will stand out in all of the Mad Men talk today: how Don Draper is still stuck living a lie. To the outside world, he still looks like a bicoastal advertising executive married to a rising actress in Hollywood. But just like before, that appearance is a thin facade. He's living in New York, increasingly estranged from his young wife and barred from his job.

As fans obsess over every nuance of new Mad Men episodes, I hope the show answers one of our biggest questions: whether Draper can find peace in a truthful life or will surrender to the lies.

One real-life liar even appeared in the background of a crucial scene. The show's writers slyly staged Don and Freddie's conversation in front of a TV broadcasting Richard Nixon's 1969 inaugural speech.

This is what Mad Men truly does best. Don and Freddie have an important personal moment while a historic event unfolds around them. They see the promise of a new presidency, but we know it all ends in lies.

It's a terrible omen: A brutal future is coming for everyone.

And I can't wait to see more.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.