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Kindred spirits in the shadows

Wappler is a Times staff writer.

Couples are all over “Mad Men,” whether real, imagined or on the rocks. Most of them stay in whichever realm is safest, bound by a silent pact of self-repression, the glue that holds together “Mad Men’s” pre-hippie set of ethics.

Some pairings aren’t romantic at all; instead they share something deeper, a life philosophy. The AMC show’s most powerful example, suggested in only a few strokes, is advertising master Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and underling copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). These two are kindred spirits, professional allies, soldiers marching for a keep-it-to-yourself society in starched collars -- hers Peter Pan, his from Brooks Brothers. Both thrive in the impersonal atmosphere of the ad agency, where imagination helps. But identity, with its myopic, fixed point of view, can get in the way.

The dynamic between Peggy and Don has been one of many fulcrum points for “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner. “Don and Peggy are mirror images of each other,” Weiner said. “They have a special bond; I always wanted that. Don sees himself in Peggy; he recognizes her talent. I always wanted her to be a shadow of him, for him to reach out to her and say, ‘You do it right, don’t do it the way I did it.’ ”

In the office, Don recognizes Peggy as a quick study and a disciplined mind in need of direction. It was easy to fire office drunk Freddy Rumsen, knowing Peggy could pick up the slack. When she meekly asked for a raise last season, he admonished her to be more forthright, setting the tone for her increasingly confidant business interactions.

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More than any other of the characters in “Mad Men,” which ends its second season tonight, Peggy and Don have tried to deposit their former lives and secrets behind them. Peggy, from a lower-middle-class Catholic family in Brooklyn, clearly feels a pull whenever she speaks with Colin Hanks’ Father Gill, but she’s alienated from the church and her family, which seems at least in part self-imposed, because she’s had a baby from an affair with a married man.

Don’s past is even murkier. Born Dick Whitman to an abusive father and a prostitute mother who died in childbirth, Whitman saw an opportunity for rebirth and assumed the identity of Don Draper, an officer he served under who died in combat in the Korean War. In a scene from the first season, we saw young Dick’s outlook being molded by a hobo who’s at peace with a life of no ties.

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Trying to break free

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In an American culture that can often hold people back by their class, gender or race, Peggy and Don see their troubled pasts as skins that should be shed. Of course, the past and its specters don’t always cooperate.

In “The New Girl,” Episode 5 of the second season, Don, engaged in a half-hearted affair with throaty-voiced lynx Bobbie Barrett, has gotten into a car accident while the two were driving to the beach after several rounds at Sardi’s. At the police station afterward, he spent his only call not on Roger Sterling, ad agency partner and fellow skirt chaser, but Peggy, his former secretary whom he promoted to copywriter.

She arrived with money for the drunk-driving fine -- which she eventually asked to be repaid, in a splendidly awkward moment near the episode’s end -- and delivered them back to the city with no questions asked, just as they’d both prefer. It’s Don and Peggy’s mutual regard for privacy that keeps them respectfully distant but ready to pinch-hit. They both recognize that the other can keep a secret.

Before “The Oprah Winfrey Show” or blogs or our multitudinous venues for public emoting and confession, Peggy and Don’s strict adherence to privacy, especially in the workplace, was considered a virtue. “Peggy’s very old school that way,” said Moss. “She’s a very strong, smart person who likes to keep her personal life and her work life completely separate. Both her and Don have massive secrets that they don’t think anyone else deserves to know.”

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The aftermath of the car accident isn’t the only moment in that episode where we explored the nature of their bond. We also got to see one of its earliest formulations.

Peggy’s pregnancy, a result of her dalliances with married account executive Pete Campbell, was one of the cliffhangers from the debut season. On the eve of the Season 2 finale, it’s still on slow boil, a move that might have cost “Mad Men” some fair-weather viewers. We know Peggy’s resentful sister looked pregnant around the same time and that she’s caring for one child now, a toddler whom Peggy has regarded with pleasant disinterest. Is this Peggy’s incredible capability for denial or a sign that this isn’t her child?

Don tells Peggy, in a visit after she’s presumably given birth to the baby, “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” We never do get to hear what exactly “this” is -- delivery of a child to adoptive parents? Or a baby that her sister would publicly claim is hers? But putting that aside, will Don’s advice work for Peggy and has it really worked for him?

“Don’s a good person, but he’s significantly more damaged than Peggy,” Weiner said. “He’s not doing all that well, especially considering the fact that he’s supposed to be moving on and not thinking about the past. He’s always telling people, ‘Don’t think about that,’ but how well is that working for him?”

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A compartmentalist

As for Don’s policy, Hamm doesn’t see it as his character’s personal failing or the end of Don’s relationship with his emotions. “For a certain generation of people, it was considered rude, selfish and weird to talk about yourself. Don’s an extreme example in that regard, but I still think he feels what he feels. He has emotions and feelings, but he compartmentalizes them.”

In the last few shows of the season, Don’s system seems to be breaking down. Out for a conference in California, he ditched Pete and his work for a rendezvous with some wandering sophisticates and then, worried that his separation from his wife, Betty, has jeopardized at least half of his carefully constructed life, he sought out Anna Draper, widow of the original Don and a sympathetic ear.

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In the season’s final episode, it’s possible to imagine Peggy searching for Don in California, as he searched for her when she went missing from the office. If so, she might be one of the only people Don wouldn’t turn away.

Whatever the final show will reveal, it will include a showcase for Moss, who’s been working in enigmatic mode all season.

“It’s exactly,” Moss said, “what the audience will want.”

Weiner raises the bar even further: “We’ve given her the best scene of her career.”

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margaret.wappler@latimes .com


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