Sterling Cooper throws an election night party that gets out of hand. Ken Cosgrove finds a pithy stage play written by Paul Kinsey, which is acted out and reveals the author’s many insecurities. Harry Crane cheats on his wife with Pete’s secretary, Hildy. The next day, in the fallout of the stunning Nixon defeat, Don fights his biggest battle yet when Pete threatens to out the secrets of Dick Whitman.
“Nixon vs. Kennedy,” the penultimate episode of Mad Men’s first season, can be seen to have a double meaning in its title. First and most obvious is the 1960 presidential election, the campaigns of which have played a small part in the background of this season. The episode spends much of its run-time on an election night party at the Sterling Cooper offices.
The second, and more hidden, meaning references something Don said earlier in the season. When describing the two candidates, Don expressed his distaste for Kennedy as a “silver spoon” spoiled rich boy. Nixon grew up poor during the Great Depression, but pulled himself up by the bootstraps to go through law school, serve his country in World War II, and work his way through politics all the way up to the vice presidency. Don said when he looked at Nixon, he saw himself. With Pete being somewhat of “silver spoon” lineage himself, the episode is a battle of an ersatz Nixon (Don) vs. an ersatz Kennedy (Pete).
Pete wants the head of accounts job, and feels Don hasn’t been taking him seriously as a candidate. Only now, Pete has blackmail material–in the ending of the previous episode, he was mistakenly given the package that Adam Whitman sent Don. The package is full of pictures of young Adam and a younger version of Don…but the pictures are labeled “Dick” instead of “Don.”
Pete has a friend, Russ, who works in the Department of Defense. Pete uses this contact to find out that Dick Whitman died in the Korean War, and the real Don Draper should be 43 years old. It doesn’t take Pete long to figure out that Dick Whitman actually survived Korea and stole the identity of Lt. Don Draper. (We also see flashbacks to how it all played about in Korea; while building a mobile hospital, Lt. Draper and Pvt. Whitman were bombed. Dick peed his pants, dropped his lighter and blew up his commanding officer. Then he traded dog tags with the dead man.)
When Pete sees Don bring Herman “Duck” Phillips in to the office, Pete’s ready to attack. Duck is an advertising industry vet. Ken Cosgrove mentions that Duck is known to have a drinking problem, was working in London most recently, and things apparently went spectacularly bad for Duck over in the U.K. Pete recognizes right away that Don’s going bargain shopping, getting someone with experience who will take the job for relatively little compensation, to get back in the game.
Pete confronts Don and, after about five seconds of playing nice, makes it clear he knows Don’s secret and will have no problem using it as blackmail in exchange for getting the head of accounts job. Don tries it to play it cool, at first denying the validity of Pete’s claims. When Pete refuses to relent, saying he will go to Bert Cooper with this news if he’s not given the head of accounts job, Don’s still not sweating, but he loses his cool a bit. He tells Pete to stop and think about his supposed intel: if it’s powerful enough to get something out of somebody they normally wouldn’t give, what else can it make them do? Pete is unfazed. When he walks out of Don’s office, we finally see that Don is indeed in panic mode. He’s ready to run.
Don goes to Menken’s department store and rushes into Rachel’s office. He proposes they run off to Mexico or Los Angeles. At first she thinks it’s just a weekend trip, but she quickly realizes Don means forever. Everything starts to click into place for Rachel: Don doesn’t want to run away with her, he just wants to run away, leaving his kids fatherless, and all for some reason he can’t even verbalize to her. She throws Don out of her office, ending their romance by calling it a “tawdry affair.”
Dejected, Don heads back to the office to face his fate. Opening the door to his office, he finds a crying Peggy. It’s the night after the election party that she mostly skipped out on, and she walked in to find vomit in the trash can by her desk. Her locker was raided too, and she lost some cash. When all the hungover guys in the office offer no help, she looked for a safe place to cry. Don tries to be understanding, but obviously he’s having a bad day and snaps at Peggy. When he calms down a bit, he offers her a drink, and Peggy talks about how unfair it is that honest, hardworking people have to suffer while selfish people can get away with whatever they want (she’s also upset because an African American janitor lost his job over the theft, when she’s positive he was innocent).
Don decides to take action over the Pete situation, and heads to Cooper’s office. It’s easy to read his inspiration from Peggy’s speech one way: Pete is the bad guy, doing whatever he wants to get whatever he wants (blackmailing Don to get the promotion). But maybe Don got some other sort of inspiration from Peggy’s speech? Don is the one who stole a dead guy’s identity so that he could desert the U.S. Army, let his family think he was dead, and take over someone else’s life which he has used to get to the top. Perhaps he thought about it, realized he was one of the dishonest guys Peggy says always win, and felt confident about his luck.
Sure enough, Pete follows Don into Cooper’s office (hilariously, they have to slow their rush into the office to take off their shoes, per the rules of germaphobe/neat freak Cooper). Don tells Cooper he’s hiring Duck for the head of accounts job. Cooper approves. There’s an awkward silence. Pete spits out everything he’s found about Dick/Don. Cooper gets up from his desk, gives Don a look, but then delivers one of the greatest lines of the show’s early run: “Mr. Campbell, who cares? Who cares? This country was built and run by men with worse stories than whatever you’ve imagined here.”
Pete counters that he’s not imagining anything. Cooper still says to forget it; whatever the past is, Don Draper is in this room now, and there’s more profit in forgetting this and moving on.
With that, Don has put Pete in his place. In the pilot episode, Pete made it clear he wanted to join the executive suite with Don. Pete was the only one in the office to verbally disagree with Don’s promotion to partner. Pete took Don on in this showdown. Don has won, and is sitting pretty as we head into the final episode.
Except that Don has nothing to be happy about. He blew his chance with Rachel for good this time. Midge is gone to the beatniks and proto-hippies he left her with. All that’s left for him is at home, and the gulf between him and Betty has never been bigger. We’ve learned a little bit about who Don Draper is this season, but the season finale will tackle the question of “can he be happy?”