Monday, February 18, 2008

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

(Note: Because AMC is rerunning the first season of "Mad Men" every Sunday at midnight, and because a lot of people missed the show the first time around, I'm reposting my blog reviews for each episode the morning after. These are written as they were back in the summer/early fall; if I feel differently about anything in retrospect, I'll mention it in the comments. Also, while comments from both newbies and people who watched the first time are welcome, if you've seen these episodes before, please be vague about events in later episodes so as not to spoil things for the newcomers.)

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?


Dan Jameson said...

Wow, I've never been the first to comment on any post before.

I thought this episode was great. We all knew that Don had some secrets up his sleeve, and while we still don't really know what they are, at least we know they are real. Dick Whitman....Don Draper....who are you? I enjoy how the show revolves around this theme while not losing focus on the rest of the cast.

I can't help but think that Betty isn't so much afraid of being a single, divorcee...but rather envies the single life. I think we've seen her struggling with the fear of ending up like the divorced neighbor but also the envy she has for someone like Peggy.

Overall, I really like this show. It's a breath of fresh air compared to the serialized network shows we have shoved down our throats every year.

Anonymous said...

Again, a great episode. But I too was wondering about the casting of Don's younger brother. He did say 8 years old. Does this mean he supposed to be a teenager?

After seeing him, my wife and I were convinced that Don must have been a WWII veteran. But if it is really is Korea, it does create some potential time / continuity issues (or perhaps casting issues).

Then again, there is a lot we still don't know about this story. Presumably the writers have a plan, so I'm willing to be patient.

One minor request for future posts, Alan. Any chance you could put a link somewhere to the original post for each individual episode? Since commenting has been light on these "Redux" posts, it would be interesting to see what people had to say back when the episode originally aired.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Pandyora, it's not a spoiler to say that a later episode establishes that Don's brother is supposed to be 18 in this episode, which makes it bad casting.

If you want to see the older posts, just go to the search box at the top of the blog and type in the subject line -- in this case, "I don't want to be a Dick" -- and you'll see both this and the original post.

bgt said...


This link will take you to all of the original posts on Mad Men.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I are thoroughly enjoying Mad Men... but we both were very confused by the casting of Don's younger brother. Not only do they not look anything alike, they look like they could be 4 years apart in age, tops. Ah well. It is going to be hard to resist reading about future episodes and finding out what the story is behind Dick/Don, but it will be worth it in the end.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the clarification, Alan. The fact that Don is a Korean war veteran, however, does change my assessment of his age. I guess this means he is in his early thirties (32-33 at the oldest) rather than his late thirties as I had assumed. It also means that he is closer in age to Betty, who told creepy neighbor kid that she was in her late twenties.

I wanted to avoid spoilers by wading through the old "Mad Men" posts, but hadn't thought about searching on the title. Thanks for the suggestion!