Monday, August 31st, 2009, 9:27 am
I was Twittering while watching last night’s episode of Mad Men and asked a question that was misinterpreted by a few. Understandable as media criticism is difficult at 140 characters a pop, but what I was wondering about was this–how did Dick Whitman become Don Draper? Not, as a few people quite reasonably thought, how did Dick take on Don Draper’s identity. That I know, I’ve seen the first two seasons, saw the flashbacks in Korea and his meetings with the real Mrs. Draper.
No, the question I have is how did Dick Whitman, who in every flashback was an unsure, frightened, passive man, turn into Don Draper, Master of the Universe? Taking a man’s name is one thing, but it’s much harder to playact another whole personality. And even harder to fake extraordinary talent. That’s what I was thinking about last night–Dick Whitman took on Don Draper’s identity, but the creative talent, the salesmanship, the will…that springs from somewhere. How did the soldier who pissed his pants in Korea morph into the creative director at Sterling Cooper?
We know a little bit about Don Draper’s resume–he sold used cars (and was apparently successful) and wrote copy for a fur company (he talked about that before he made that extraordinary Kodak Carousel presentation). But there’s still some pretty big gaps in his history, and perhaps that will be explored in future episodes. While I was musing on this extremely important question I engaged the Google and came across Alan Sepinwall’s interview with Jon Hamm. If you haven’t read Sepinwall’s episode recaps of The Wire or The Sopranos block out eight hours or so and dig in. Fantastic stuff. Anyway, he asked about the Whitman/Draper character and Hamm said, “When Don’s in trouble, Dick runs”.
And that’s true, especially when it comes to having his identity revealed. When he’s escorting “Dick Whitman’s” body back from Korea he hides on the train, which is understandable because then his family would see that, like, he’s still alive. But his brother Adam sees him and never stops believing his brother is alive…right up to the point where they meet again in New York. And Don responds to this happy reunion by trying to shoo Adam off with hush money. Adam commits suicide, so no need for Don to worry about exposure from him, but Adam mails a package that’s intercepted by Pete Campbell. And after Pete tries to blackmail Don he rushes to Rachel Menken asking her to run away with him. Who wants nothing to do with it and tells Don that he’s a coward. Which he is.
That of course led to the famous showdown with Pete in Bert Cooper’s office, where Cooper, after hearing Pete’s story, utters the immortal line, “Mr. Campbell…who cares?” Which leads to another thought–who really would care if Don Draper’s past was revealed? Maybe it would damage him professionally, but talent tends to win out against petty considerations like pathological lying. Maybe it would end his marriage, but that nearly happened in Season 2 anyway and doesn’t it seem probable that Betty would forgive hiding Dick Whitman from her over excusing Don’s serial infidelities?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, hence I watch the show. I’m also now going to sit down and read through Sepinwall’s episode recounts of Mad Men, which I think will be just a bit more interesting, insightful, and nuanced than this.
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