The realization that your parents are human beings in their own right, with their own histories and secrets, that they are the central figures in their own lives, happens to everyone eventually. It’s a gate you go through on your way to adulthood, one that locks behind you. Once you see someone you love so purely as a three-dimensional person you’re better off, I think, you know them better and you know yourself better, but it’s not an easy thing. Nothing about growing up is easy.
Sally Draper’s image of her father has grown more detailed with every passing season of Mad Men, the lines sharper, the shades darker. She is a bright and observant girl, and in the early seasons Don was often his best self in her presence. He wasn’t a good man or a good husband, but he tried to be a good father, and in Sally’s eyes he has often seemed a better option than Betty (this week, full of hyperbolic teen bravado, Sally claimed she’d stay on at boarding school another 6 years in exchange for her mother’s death). Let’s not forget the time she ran away from the Francis home and turned up at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce because she wanted to live with her dad. Sally is Don’s, through and through.
But the pedestal on which Sally placed her father has been crumbling for awhile now, especially since she caught him in flagrante delicto with the downstairs neighbor last season. While season 6 ended with Don taking his kids to see where he grew up, and to presumably tell them the truth about Dick Whitman, it’s clear when he arrives back at his apartment in “A Day’s Work” to find Sally waiting on the couch that they have not been able to rebuild the bond they once shared. Sally is still angry and Don doesn’t know how to fix it.
Sally’s anger is renewed, though, over her discovery of yet another lie: Don’s not going to work these days and someone else has taken up residence in his office. When Sally gives Don a chance to come clean he lies again, and poorly. He’s still learning just how much his daughter takes in, how watchful she is, and if Dawn hadn’t called him he might not have learned about Sally’s revelatory visit to SC&P.
Don has always been overly concerned with the facade, the image of Don Draper that his double life necessitated, and he isn’t ready to let that go just yet, even as more and more of the people in his life have been let in on his Big Secret. He may be spending his days sleeping till noon, drinking, and stuffing his face with Ritz crackers in front of reruns of The Little Rascals, but he’s as slicked and shined and put-together as ever when Dawn comes by to fill him in on his calls and accounts. He doesn’t want her to see him slip, even though he knows she knows he’s slipping, even though he’s loosening his tie as soon as she’s out the door. For an audience, even an audience of one, he has to be Don Draper, and that’s more than just a name.
So he tries to put on the Don Show with Sally as well. He hand-waves the illness he claims has him home in the middle of the day and offers to drive her back to school, takes it as an opportunity to talk to her (to talk to anyone), not to mention a project to fill some of his time. He writes Sally a note of excuse (“Just tell the truth,” she tells him, in the dearest, most English-Major-y line of the night) and they hit the road for a little father/daughter one-on-one time. But Sally’s not having it. She knows her father too well now.
In fact, by this seventh season Sally knows more of Don’s secrets than anyone else–anyone but Don himself, at least. She knows about Dick Whitman, she knows about Don’s affair with Sylvia, and now she knows that he’s been forced out at SC&P, and why. The moment where he opens up to her about what happened in the Hershey meeting is like a sledge hammer hitting the brick wall between them: it’s not going to knock the whole thing down, but it’ll let a little light through. It’s at least enough to get Sally to eat something.
It would be ludicrous to claim that Mad Men has any single central story, but one of its strongest throughlines over its run has been Sally’s coming of age. She’s wise beyond her years, yes, but she’s not all grown up yet. She doesn’t know how to dress for a funeral, can still be a little intimidated and dazzled by her father’s suggestion that they skip out on their restaurant bill. Sally is a kid who has seen too much, perhaps television’s most solid example of Philip Larkin’s “This Must Be the Verse,” but she’s not as worldly as she sometimes seems. Much like her father, she knows how to put on an act.
Don thinks his image is all he has left, the facade of Don Draper: Ad Man, but all he really needs to get through to Sally is a little bit of honesty. She may think it’s more embarrassing to catch him in a lie than it is to let him lie to her, but that doesn’t mean she’ll play dumb and go back to being Daddy’s Little Girl, and while her methods to get her dad to open up aren’t particularly sophisticated, they are effective. When Sally calls to check in, her friend Carol says, “at least the trip was worth it.” She’s talking about shopping, but Sally’s got more on her mind.
But Sally’s not the only one that gets something out of Don’s decision to open up, Sally gives something back. She eats a tuna melt, tells Don about the funeral, and, most importantly, uses her last moments with him to tell him she loves him, throwing the words at him as she’s jumping out of the car, like she’s scared to let them go.
This week’s closing moments were essentially the opposite of last week’s. We left Don alone again, sure, but rather than the self-pitying, lonely Don, out in the cold, trapped by his own lies, this week Don had hope, he had the capacity for redemption. He told the truth and Sally loves him, maybe she even loves him more. Maybe Don is finally learning that the truth can set him free.