Richard Pryor and Don Draper, soul mates

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Then along came Megan Calvet, the young, French Canadian secretary at Draper's firm who impressed Don by seeming a better, warmer mother than Betty could ever be. She became Wife No. 2 and, as we've learned this season, the second gorgeous woman who was not enough for Draper. A few episodes back, he returned, Pryor-like, to his ex-wife's bed.

Jon Hamm plays Don's need for love, or at least physical contact, like a teenage boy's need for calories. It's automatic, unthinking, barely noticed in the moment and, ultimately, unsatisfying. There's the same haunted look in Hamm's eyes that we see in some of the photos of Pryor.

But how else could it be? Known as Dick Whitman in childhood — more on that in a moment — Draper, we see in flashbacks, was raised by a hard, physically abusive father and cruel stepmother who let him know the true circumstances of his arrival: His mother, a prostitute, died in childbirth.

"Whore child," she calls him as a young boy.

This season, we've seen flashbacks to a teenage Don taken by his stepmother, after his father dies, to live in a brothel where his aunt works. He has his virginity taken, with coercion if not outright force, by a prostitute who later mocks the incident in front of the adults in charge of Draper's life. All the prostitution allusions and outright references, which also include Draper's vocation, selling his creativity to clients for money, are a bit much for writer Heather Havrilesky, one of the most astute "Mad Men" observers out there.

In Salon, she writes of Draper's big affair in Season 6 with neighbor Sylvia Cohen, the wife of a doctor friend Don admires: "But it's not enough to make Sylvia the nasty, emotionally absent mother-whore. We've also got to have a whore spoon-feeding a young Don soup, then having sex with him. Because Don can't tell the difference between a prostitute and a mommy, get it? Don associates unconditional love with sex! He confuses the two! He loathes whores but he craves his lost whore-mama!"

The complex psychology of Pryor and Draper leads them to want to seduce more than just women. For Pryor, he has to win over audiences too — but just as with women, he alternates between attracting and repelling them. "I wanted to test you to your (expletive) soul," he says.

So he presented daring, soul-baring stories, in profane, racially frank language that hadn't been used on so big a stage before. It led to best-selling albums and a popularity that helped him become the biggest black movie star there had been. But at key moments, he turned on his audience too. In his Hollywood phase, it came when he upbraided the audience, including many celebrities, at a big charity fundraiser for having done nothing during the Watts riots.

Draper is at the cusp of an understanding that advertising isn't a pitch to the wallet so much as to the spirit. It's about creating an emotional bond between buyer and product, consumer and brand. As he puts these ideas across, his pitches of new campaigns to clients are masterpieces of seduction. And he often seems to hate himself for it afterward, especially when the client rejects his great idea, cementing the notion that his mind is for hire. But when he does win them over, that leaves him empty too.

"Every time we get a car," he said this season, after his firm had won Chevy as a client, "this place turns into a whorehouse."

Both men have sought escape from themselves in new identities. Draper, in the big secret that animates the show's first season, takes the name, dog tags and life details of a deceased Army buddy, trying to leave Dick Whitman behind for good. It won't surprise you to learn he cannot, as his first wife and even a couple of colleagues uncover the lie he is living. This season, his teenage daughter Sally discovers a newer lie. Her father, caught by the girl in Sylvia's arms, isn't the good, stoic man she imagined. Draper, as the finale looms, seems genuinely crushed by her discovery and is shown twice in last Sunday's episode in the fetal position.

Pryor, meanwhile, began his career as a sort of Bill Cosby imitator, working with his representatives to clean up a natural inclination to work blue so that he could come across to a wide audience. It worked too. He did the 1960s talk shows. He had big headlining gigs in Vegas. But at one of those, at the Aladdin Hotel, he turned on an audience, breaking loose with a string of profanity because, he later said, he didn't like the false self he saw reflected in the eyes of Dean Martin, who was there in the crowd that night.

He moved to the San Francisco area and immersed himself in the counterculture, living on the cheap, even taking a false name. "Edwin or Edward. Something stupid," Mooney recalls.

When he returned to comedy, his 1970s work, including the groundbreaking "Richard Pryor: Live in Concert" film, was much truer to who he really was. But offstage, he remained a compulsive and uncomfortable personality.

In the best explanation his friends offer, Pryor was too sensitive to what was really going on to handle life without chemical intermediaries. More bluntly, one describes him as "a full-blown junkie": vodka, cocaine, Courvoisier, freebase cocaine when that became available.

It was during a freebasing binge that he poured 151-proof rum over his body and lit himself on fire, the incident that should have killed him. Instead, he came back in the 1980s with some potent comedy, despite his change of heart about using the N-word on stage, but a declining movie career that saw him taking mainstream, demeaning roles, including one as a child's puppet in "The Toy."

Pryor returned to cocaine, which he finally fully quit after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the degenerative disease that would allow his last years to be calmer, filled with high accolades rather than drama. He died in 2005 at age 65.

Pryor "defeated himself," said the comic David Steinberg, a contemporary.

The question for Don Draper is where his downward spiral will lead. He is certainly, too, an alcoholic and self-saboteur. While he has been granted some redeeming qualities through the years, this season the show has hit very hard at his character flaws. Thematically, he has been slowly working through Dante's Circles of Hell, after reading "Inferno" on the beach in the season's first episode.

Replete with Draper lies, Sunday's second-to-last episode was all about fraud, the eighth circle, although it nudged toward the ninth circle, treachery, when he savagely undercut former protege Peggy Olson in a client meeting.

"You're a monster," she told him in response.

The question is whether the monster is heading toward a tragic ending, perhaps a suicide, as suggested by the episode this year that saw him pass out into a pool and by a demeanor that, for six seasons now, has all but screamed "depression."

Will his central hollowness and dissatisfaction, like Pryor's, be granted some way to modulate itself? Castration is probably out of the question, but disease might be one answer.

Or because he is, after all, a fictional character, and because TV shows do come to an end, we might just be forced to live with ambiguity, a fade-out and a starting point for speculation: What do you think happened to Don Draper in the 1970s, and how would he have reacted if the show had put him in the audience at a Richard Pryor concert?

sajohnson@tribune.com | Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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