Friday, August 17, 2007

Mad Men: I don't want to be a Dick

Spoilers for episode five of "Mad Men" coming up just as soon as I hit the newsstand...

"Who is Donald Draper?"

That is indeed the question, young Adam Whitman, and will no doubt continue to be the central narrative pillar of "Mad Men." The show's not much on plot, but the mystery of Don's true identity -- not just his birth name, which we now know, but how and why he is who he is -- is a lot more interesting than any procedural cop story I watched in all the fall pilots.

In an episode where Jon Hamm has a lot of great moments, I think my favorite may be right at the end. Don's returned from paying off his brother to go away forever and is completely out of sorts. Betty tells him, "I want to talk to you about something, and I don't want you to get upset," and the look on his face is priceless, because there's such a long list of potential secrets Betty could have uncovered: the Dick Whitman thing, Midge, Rachel Menken, etc. No wonder Don's big brainstorm for their banking client was the secretive "Executive Account" -- if ever a man needed such a thing, it's Don, who has so much going on behind the scenes that his secretary assumes she's covering for one scandal (Midge) when it's something else entirely (Adam).

Though we now know for sure that the Dick Whitman incident on the train in episode three wasn't a case of mistaken identity, there's still a lot here that remains unclear. Did Dick/Don fake his death, or did Adam and the family just assume he was dead when he didn't come home after Korea? Is there identity theft going on, or just Don escaping the shame of his family, whatever that is? How long ago did he leave? Adam makes reference to seeing Dick/Don in his uniform, after his "death," when Adam was only 8. We know Don's service was in Korea (I have that straight from the creator's mouth, and there's a more explicit reference to it in an upcoming episode), which would put it less than a decade in the past, but Adam's clearly not a teenager. So either I misheard, the line was a continuity error, the producers mistakenly believed Jay Paulson could pass for 18, or something more complicated is going on.

Regardless, Adam is quite a bit younger than Don. He almost certainly can't have been involved in whatever horrible thing "mom" and "Uncle Mac" did to Don, is in fact so young that he doesn't seem to comprehend that something awful happened. So unless Don is keeping his old identity a secret for reasons beyond shame, his unsolicited payoff seems especially cruel. Maybe necessary, but cruel.

Meanwhile, I was inordinately delighted by the subplot about Kenny (who?) (exactly!) getting a short story published in The Atlantic Monthly, which promptly causes all the other young guys in the office to react like the high school prom queen realizing on her first in college that she's no longer the hottest girl around. Pete -- who just last week felt emasculated by the wealth and influence that comes with his family -- mocks Kenny as a nobody with a salesman for a father. Paul, pretentious, Orson Welles-impersonating Paul, can't believe an account rep (not a man from "creative") could accomplish such a thing, is taken aback that the premises for Kenny's two novels don't sound awful, then goes on a rant about all the brilliant ideas he has locked away in his oversized melon, like the one about "this crazy night I ended up in Jersey City with all these negroes and we all got along. Can you imagine how good that story is?" (Based on that logline, Paul? Probably not. Could be the premise for a Chris Tucker movie, for all I know.)

After going to great lengths last week to make Pete a sympathetic figure (as I said, to explain, if not apologize for him), the writers are back to using him as the selfish, tunnel-visioned little rat he was early on. Sending your wife back to see the ex-fiance who still holds a torch for her -- and guilting her into it by claiming it would "help make up for" her losing her virginity to that guy instead of Pete -- all to keep up with the Kennys of the world? Wow.

Last week, commenter Anthony Foglia asserted that the episode was the best so far: "One major benefit was that, unlike all the other episodes, it wasn't a particularly dated story. The time merely enhanced the drama, as opposed to being the root cause of it." That description applies to this subplot, and to much of the episode. The petty professional jealousy story translates easily to today -- though the achievement in question no doubt would have involved getting a short film into Sundance, or getting a million hits on the YouTubes or something you young people do. (Get off my lawn! Rarrr!) I can't speak to the Don stuff too much, simply because we don't know all the details of how and why he stopped being Dick Whitman, but there wasn't a lot of Frankeinstein-esque "Sixties baaaad!!!! Bread gooooood!!!" going on.

What did everybody else think?

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Re: age of Don's brother--Don served in Korea but was in the military prior to that? (Ran away to enlist?)
That could account for the brother, age 8, seeing Don in uniform.
Brother was in room 5G, received five G's...thought for a minute there he might get shot (the Sopranos legacy) but maybe it was just cash locked in the desk with the purple heart.

R.A. Porter said...

I too was convinced he was going to shoot him, but more from the delivery of his line confirming that Adam's whole family - everyone who'd care to look for him - was dead. I was disappointed they didn't make that dark turn, or at least have Don pull the gun and be unable to do it before chickening out and paying Adam off, but I like dark.

I loved the B-story about Kenny and the boys, but since the writers hadn't really introduced us to anyone but Pete from the account side before last night, they were forced to promote a red shirt for an episode. After his delivery of the "you lost" line, though, I hope they can find him more screen time. And of course more screen time for Christina Hendricks...reading a phone book, or just filing her nails would suffice. Ahhh, Mrs. Reynolds.

When Adam showed up, I paused the Tivo for a minute to deliver my latest and greatest theory to the poor wife - who just wanted to watch in peace and then move on to Burn Notice for some tasty but empty calories - "Don Draper is Holly Golightly". The theory was full of holes within minutes since "Fred" is alive and kicking and there's no sweet old person back on the farm Don's trying to escape. I liked it for a minute, though.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I thought Don was getting a gun for about a half-second, but it just didn't feel like the kind of thing this show would do. (Even five episodes in, I feel reasonably confident about the tone.) Don threatening to kill his own brother would seem a little melodramatic.

Also, Kenny got a fair bit of screen time in the pilot episode, as one of the indistinguishable gaggle that hung on all of Pete's stupid jokes.

Toby said...

At first I thought Don was going to shoot Adam as well. It just had that feel of the first twenty minutes of a classic 'Columbo' episode. But that would have really narrowed the focus of the show, and I think Wiener has a wider scope in mind for looking at the era and the people who inhabit it.

But once I had that image in mind, I remembered that Columbo would have been still a cop in NYC in 1960 (although probably about to make the move to LA) and that he was a Korean vet as well.

One of those things that can only happen in fanfic now though.....

Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying the show, but I kind of think it's a bit on the overambitious side.

Don has a secret past, is cheating on his wife, flirted with Rachel Menkin; Pete is a screw-up at work, is a lousy husband, has daddy issues, slept with Peggy; Betty is a typical housewife, has tremors in her hands, etc., etc., etc.

It's one thing for characters to be layered and multi-dimensional, but to me it feels like they're kind of piling things on and just putting in any idea as it comes to them. I mean, we're five episodes in and they've yet to acknowledge the vailed reference to one character's homosexuality. And Betty's hand issues haven't come up again at all after being a major plot point a few episodes ago. Personally, I wish they'd dial things back a bit and try juggling fewer balls at once.

Steven said...

My pet theory is that Donald Draper was Dick Whitman's commanding officer in Korea, and Draper was KIA and Whitman assumed his identity. The Purple Heart "Don" took out of his desk say "Lt. Donald Draper." Given the spares details we got from Adam it seems highly unlike to me that Dick Whitman went to college, making it impossible, save for a battlefield commission, him to be an officer.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, Mrs. Reynolds.

I wonder how successful this actress feels about her level of success when people still refer to her by the name of her character from a two episode stint on a canceled show that didn't air a full season.

Dani in NC said...

Not everyone makes the Christina Hendricks/Firefly connection immediately. I was a big fan of another show she did, "Kevin Hill".

If all of us thought that Don was going to shoot his brother, then we're not ALL crazy. They wanted us to think that.

My Don Draper theory is not terribly mysterious. I think he came from a dirt-poor family from the wrong side of the tracks and was abused by a relative. He took the identity of a dead Army buddy who had a good pedigree rather that work his way through college and try to get ahead the hard way.

Anonymous said...

This thing about a veteran assuming the identity of a fallen comrade...are there well-known cases of this occurring in real life? Didn't this happen on the Simpsons years ago? (with Principal Skinner) To me it just doesn't seem like something one could get away with easily.

Anonymous said...

My theory… I believe Dick escaped from Nazi Germany as a young Jewish boy. His family was sent to a Concentration Camp (he is 10 years old in 1940) and he makes it to the U.S. and somehow was "adopted" by Abigail, who had a very dark evil criminal life that she subjected Don to in a horrific way--possibly child pornography or child prostitution...she herself may have been a prostitute…Uncle Mac may have been someone that worked with her in the criminal world who took a liking to her and tried the best he could to at least treat Dick and Adam with some level of normalcy in what was obviously a very bad life. Adam was born around 1942 probably the result of a very brief affair of Abigail’s. They were raised as brothers to the outside but Abigail forcibly enslaved Dick into this very bad life perhaps in exchange for favors for herself. Whatever it was-expect something that will blow everyone away.

Cut to 1950...Dick is 20 and Adam is 8...Dick goes off to the service never to be heard from again. Fearful of what Dick may do as an adult, Abigail and Uncle Mac don’t try too hard to find him. During the Korean War, Dick assumes Don Draper's identity....perhaps he was his commanding officer that was killed. Remember Don's boss's reference to commanding officers in the military.

1954--Dick leaves the military with his new identity... He wants to have the life he dreamed of, possibly heard about from the real Don Draper...a world where his good lucks and creativity (probably developed from years alone) lead him to New York’s glamorous ad agencies and away from any part of his old Jewish persecuted life --first by the Nazis and then by criminal step parents that caused him to be a part of unthinkable acts. ...he is 24, and meets Betty meets who is 22 years old. They get married. have their daughter in 1955 and we cut to 1960 where Don now 30 meets his 18 year old brother Adam.

Anonymous said...

draper is definitely a jew. and he is conflicted suddenly with the growing need to 'come out', though he knows doing so might cost him everything.

we know adam and dick/don are half brothers (by the same father), but we know nothing yet of don's biological mother. remember, jews believe the blood is passed along the maternal line. if draper's mother was a jew, so is he.

Juanita's Journal said...

"My theory… I believe Dick escaped from Nazi Germany as a young Jewish boy. His family was sent to a Concentration Camp (he is 10 years old in 1940) and he makes it to the U.S. and somehow was "adopted" by Abigail, who had a very dark evil criminal life that she subjected Don to in a horrific way--possibly child pornography or child prostitution...she herself may have been a prostitute…Uncle Mac may have been someone that worked with her in the criminal world who took a liking to her and tried the best he could to at least treat Dick and Adam with some level of normalcy in what was obviously a very bad life. Adam was born around 1942 probably the result of a very brief affair of Abigail’s. They were raised as brothers to the outside but Abigail forcibly enslaved Dick into this very bad life perhaps in exchange for favors for herself. Whatever it was-expect something that will blow everyone away."


Huh?

TL said...

My theory… I believe Dick escaped from Nazi Germany as a young Jewish boy.

Re-reading in 2009 with 2 seasons of hindsight, it's pretty funny.