The Season of "Not Don"

And BAM, just like that, with one wry smile Don Draper is back. This season's pure lack of Don came to an inevitable end Sunday night, when millions of viewers tuned in to a cheapened Megan, a beat-up Pete, a dead Lane, an aging Joan, a rising Peggy -- and Roger Sterling's ass.

Chalk it up to character development, this season Matthew Weiner put some serious work into his defensive line-up, and man aren't we all hoping it'll pay off when the show's star quarterback, Mr. Draper himself, returns to carry Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce all the way to the top. Did you hear that speech he gave to Dow Chemical? He's back...

In the larger context of the series, this season was the season of the Not Don -- and it left nothing but a capacious gap in the show's usual modus operandi: catering to the creative masturbations of Don's character that stem from the ebbs and flows of his melancholy.

In its place we got to see the rest of the characters vie for Don's throne, while Don himself takes a much-needed odyssey -- hopefully to return as the cerebral hero we all want him to be. In his absence, each character has a Don-style moment.

When we enter the season, we find Betty -- fat and depressed -- processing the possibility that she could have cancer. She struggles to grasp at the things that are familiar to her, calling Don nostalgically and asking him to "say what you always say." Betty's brush with death finds her reaching for the past, one of Don's few coping mechanisms.

Then there's Pete, caught between the throes of finally achieving some much-lusted-after success at the company and a crumbling marriage to Trudy at home. He turns to drinking and adultery. Coming from an event with a client, where Pete sleeps with a prostitute, he turns to Don during the car ride home seeking approval -- as if to say, "Look at what I did. I'm just like you." He's the Don of last season -- the sad, fallen man, searching for redemption.

Speaking of the fallen, the sharpest line of the season finale comes from Lane's wife when Don comes to drop off his insurance money. "How dare you fill a man like that with ambition" rang through everyone's ears. Lane wanted to be Don throughout the season, and fights his good nature to do so. Even as he begs Don on his couch to forgive his embezzlement, he whines that the money he stole is "nothing" to Don.

One of the biggest Don imitators of the season, and perhaps the most surprising one, is Joan. In prostituting herself to the head of Jaguar in exchange for partnership at the company, she pulls a move similar to when Don writes the Big Tobacco letter. It's a rash decision that gets her exactly what she wants... for now. Don himself is still recovering from the side effects of smoking out Lucky Strike. You can bet that somehow, someway, Joan's play for power will come back to bite her.

Peggy represents the best version of Don, and the finale sets her up with a bright future for the coming season. She's finally having her moment in the sun after stepping out of Don's shadow. Who can wait for her and Don to fight over the same clients -- now that'll be fun.

Peggy also presents the perfect positive foil for Megan, who in the crux of the season showed the greatest potential to be Don. In the office, Megan outshone Don with the Heinz account. Her ad idea -- showing a mother serving beans in the past, present, and on Mars -- is supposed to set up Megan as the future (both for her fresh perspective as a member of the show's up-and-coming '60s generation, and for her creative ability to come up with such a stunning idea.) At this moment, Don respects Megan as a creative equal, and his love for her is at its greatest.

Then it all falls apart, and we see Megan go after a dream she isn't suited for: acting. Mrs. Calvet says it best, "That's what you get when you have an artistic temperament, but you're not an artist." The irony is these are the exact set of characteristics that make Megan good at advertising. She throws all of it away in order to be in a commercial, and Don walks away.

That Megan's star must die in order for Don to be reborn, is the saddest reality of this season, but there can only be one Don.

And then there's that hilarious closing shot of our favorite LSD-loving character, who with a bare bum reminds us that while Don's trip may be coming to an end, Roger Sterling's has just begun. All season long, Roger has been teetering on the edge, and now he's finally fallen off the deep end...

At the end of the finale, we find Don nestled in his usual pocket, studying the whiskey in his hand.

When a set of eyes across the bar catch his, and then we land on his half grin, eyes twinkling, we're all wondering, which Don is this?

I guess we'll have to wait until next season to find out.

All hail the return of the king.