cara-buonoKeeping track of Don Draper’s women is a little like trying to keep count of his Old Fashioneds and Lucky Strikes.

Given that he was born of a prostitute who died while giving him birth, it makes sense. Matt Weiner’s story, which wraps in two short weeks, would spend its eight-year odyssey watching Don try to replace that mother figure.

And he’s had plenty of candidates. Betty, the young model-turned-housewife that Don thought would morph his house into a home. Megan, the actress-turned-housewife that Don hoped would serve as a do-over. Peggy, the young, sharp copywriter Don saw as a young version of himself (which, unfortunately for Peggy, may be true). Sally, the daughter who Don thought would be the proper fashion accessory for a father, but who is becoming very much like her father — with a conscious. Anna Draper, the real wife of the real Don Draper, who would become a sister figure to our protagonist but die too soon, sending Don into an ever more desperate search for family.

And, of course, the lovers who paraded in a beauty pageant before Don, only to be as disposable as his drink and smoke of choice.

But in Netflix-binging old episodes one weekend (I like to prep before a new show, particularly as Weiner circles back to motifs of season 1), I realized that one key female figure flies  below the radar.

The unheralded-yet-vital woman in Don Draper’s life is Faye Miller, played by Cara Buono. Faye was a strategist for a consumer-research firm feeling for public pulses for Don’s ad firm. She, like so many, would serve as a brief, rejected lover.

But in her 10-episode affair in 2010, Faye was that rare confidante.

Don admits much of his real past to her, and hints at the depths of his sins. When authorities do a brief background check on Don before an account, she sees his meltdown as he panics they will learn of his desertion from the Army. She witnesses how frightened Don is: he vomits in fear in front of her.

And she makes the mistake of behaving like an adult. In “Tomorrowland,” the season finale of Season 4, she tells Don on the eve of his departure to Disneyland on a work/vacation that, perhaps, he’d be best served facing his demons, rather than running from them.

Watch Don’s reaction (John Hamm has eyebrows as telling as Nicholson’s) when he realizes that Faye is getting close to Dick Whitman, his real-life alter ego.

“I’m going to miss you,” he tells Faye before the trip. In truth, he is saying goodbye to her. Instead of facing the world as she suggests, he will run to Disneyland and pop a surprise proposal on Megan, the secretary he hired to watch his children while he tends to money. He opts for an old escape plan over a fresh start.

But Don may have been saying more than that. Just as Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) returned from Season 1 (as a ghost whose death made Don question his own mortality), the exchange with Faye may also make for an encore appearance. Because Don’s rinse-lather-repeat stratagem to life is beginning to catch up with him.

Don may have said goodbye to Faye and his past in their brief fling. But he may have also been saying hello to his fate.