Though it’s not the final episode of Mad Men‘s first season, “Nixon Vs. Kennedy” brings a number of the previous 11 episodes’ story lines to a climax with a masterfully unified plot. Much of the story hangs around the fateful presidential election of 1960, in which John F. Kennedy eked out a win over Richard Nixon with a contentious Electoral College victory, but several other plot threads wrap here as well.
The most important of these is the largest looming question of Mad Men‘s first season: Who is Don Draper? Not only do we finally pull back the curtain to reveal the truth of how Dick Whitman came to be known as Donald Draper, we also gain a good deal of insight into his present-day moral character and his penchant for self-delusion. Don is a war criminal, a deserter from the U.S. Army, an identity thief, an officer-impersonator, and arguably even guilty of manslaughter. Yet he walks around with a chip on his shoulder, resenting the lives of those born into wealth and status, presenting himself as a self-made man. Possibly the most surprising fact about this entire episode is that Don’s most revelatory scene about doesn’t come from his Korean War flashback but rather from an incidental conversation with Peggy Olson.
Which isn’t to say the glimpses of the war aren’t informative in their own right. At last, we see a young, insecure Dick Whitman arrive at his post in Korea, where he’s stuck as a one-man entire regiment digging trenches and laying the foundation for a M.A.S.H. unit. We see his panicked, incontinent reaction to a surprise shelling by the enemy. And we see his shaking hands fumble for a cigarette only to drop his lighter in a patch of gasoline that chars his commanding officer – one Lt. Donald F. Draper, mere months away from completing his tour of duty – beyond recognition.  While Dick’s decision to exchange his dog tags with Draper’s seems like a crime of opportunity in a moment of shellshocked delirium, he commits to the lie after the Army assumes he is, in fact, Don Draper. He literally turns his back on his past, ignoring his half-brother Adam as he drops off the body of “Dick Whitman” for a funeral service, and allows a beautiful woman to “buy a solider a drink” as his train takes him to parts unknown.
So Don is a criminal, and Pete Campbell attempts to extort him with the awareness of Don’s real identity, which he gleaned by committing the relatively modest crime of mail tampering. Campbell demands to be placed into the firm’s top sales position over the seasoned veteran Herman “Duck” Philips. Until Pete’s threat materializes, Don seems to be taking spiteful pleasure in snubbing Pete, and every petulant, entitled demand Pete issues only steels Don’s resolve to shut him out.
Once he realizes denial and intimidation won’t work against Campbell, Don’s next reaction is to run away, to get as far away as possible with his mistress Rachel, leaving behind his job, his home, and his family. Of course, the very feature that draws him to Rachel – her uncanny ability to see right through him – is what repulses her from him. Though she doesn’t know the root of his sudden desire to go away, she understands that he’s a coward, and that as much as she wanted to make their relationship work, it was always built on a fraudulent foundation.
When he returns in defeat, he’s enraged to find Peggy using his office as a place to hide. Poor, earnest, frumpy Peggy manages to break through his anger as she cries over the firing of some of the janitorial staff who took the blame for theft perpetrated by some of the junior executives or secretaries during the previous night’s election viewing festivities.
“I try to do my job,” she weeps. “I follow the rules. Innocent people get hurt and other people – people who are not good – get to walk around doing whatever they want.”
Her tearful rant leaves Don momentarily dumbstruck. But his silence isn’t because her words give him pause for self-reflection; rather, he sees himself as one of the innocent, not one of the perpetrators. Never mind that he caused a man’s death and stole his name. Never mind that he only moments earlier attempted to leave behind his wife and family and flee to California with his mistress. He finds himself galvanized with indignation at Campbell’s criminal audacity and storms into the other man’s office to refuse to be cowed by blackmail.
It’s no coincidence that we see Kennedy making an acceptance speech on a television in the background as Don sneers at Campbell’s misplaced sense of entitlement. “Why do you deserve this?” he demands. “Because your parents are rich? Because you have a $5 haircut? You’ve never worked for anything in your life.” Don has previously compared himself to Nixon – a war hero, a self-made man – and honestly seems to believe that he has built himself from nothing, never mind that he did so with one foot planted firmly on the corpse of a family man whose very blood was on his hands. Of course, history will prove that Don does have a lot in common with Nixon, but their similarities have more to do with criminal fraud than with the triumph of the Protestant work ethic. Even as he makes his misplaced moral stand against Campbell, Don can’t help stealing from others. He co-opts Rachel’s disbelieving exclamation at his impromptu escape plan (“You haven’t thought this through”), twisting it into weapon to use against Pete’s obviously calculated scheme.
And ultimately, it proves to be much ado about nothing. Pete reveals Don’s secret to Bert Cooper, to which Cooper responds with a blunt response of, “Who cares?” Ever the Randian pragmatist, Cooper is perfectly happy to overlook the obvious truth of Dick Whitman to focus on the fact that, when it comes down to it, the man calling himself Don Draper is the firm’s big money-maker, and moreover he advises Campbell to do the same. The ticking bomb is defused without destroying Don’s livelihood, though it comes with a cost. After all, Cooper is now the one with leverage over Don, and despite the older man’s eccentricities he’s proven himself time and again to be remarkably shrewd.
But perhaps more significantly, Don has become everything he hates: An undeserving man who’s risen to the top on someone else’s name, and who’s benefited in the here and now from getting into the good graces of the people in power. Then again, between Nixon’s Watergate and the constant talk here of voter fraud allegedly perpetrated on Kennedy’s behalf, perhaps the ultimate takeaway of this episode is that everyone is dirty. There’s nothing remarkable about Dick Whitman. Nixon Vs. Kennedy? Who cares? The power players are all criminals in the end.
 An ironic twist in light of the running subplot about the firm struggling to help Lucky Strike deal with increasing government pressure to acknowledge the hazards of smoking.