“Draper? Who knows anything about that guy. No-one’s ever lifted that rock. He could be Batman for all we know.”—Harry Crane
“Marriage of Figaro” begins with a bombshell revelation, albeit one that’s been hinted at somewhat: Don Draper probably isn’t Don Draper after all. No dialog in the episode rules out the possibility that Richard Whitman’s old buddy has mistaken Don for someone else, but Don’s behavior, beginning with glazed grouchiness (which tellingly causes him to miss the conductor’s bemused reaction to the VW ad) and culminating in a marathon drinking binge that goes a long way toward alienating his wife Betty, it’s clear that ol’ Larry was on the money.
My first viewing of “Marriage of Figaro” (which I saw out of sequence, as the screener was sent out after the one for next week’s stunning “New Amsterdam”) led me to dismiss it as the series’ weakest to date, but the next day I was haunted by the way Don’s frustration leads him to reach out to Rachel Menken and then further wall himself off from his family after she spurns him. I watched it again that day, and again the day after that. If it’s not my favorite episode of the series, it’s still the one I find the most complex and sophisticated. There’s very little plot here—the episode is far more concerned with letting viewers exist in Don and Betty’s world (with a couple of excellent tangential moments involving Harry and Pete). The Asian-family prank that gets played on Pete is a fascinating bit for a number of reasons—the glib use of now-frowned-upon terminology (“orientals”, “chinamen” etc) is creepy enough, but instead of seeming like an opportunity to congratulate themselves for being advanced, the whole thing seems genuinely alien since it’s impossible to tell why everybody thinks it’s supposed to be funny.
Don’s ability to come up with the funniest one-liner about the Asians when he’s at his most pissed-off (“I’m still waiting on my shirts”) speaks volumes about his intelligence, and—at the risk of entering cultural-stereotype land—there’s a dark Borscht-belt tinge to it that lends ammunition to Don’s-a-closet-Jew theorists (ditto his “Maybe I should stop paying you!” crack to Paul last week. Even if Don’s not a secret Jew, his rooftop flirtation with Rachel Menken is nonetheless an example of the “real” Don—who may not even be Richard Whitman—taking a baby step toward opening up and suffering a painful rebuff for his effort.
The episode really kicks into gear when Don begins his bender while building a playhourse as a birthday present for his daughter. By my count, Don knocks back at least five beers, at least one mint julep and at least one healthy tumbler of bourbon over the course of the day. That’s a hell of a lot of alcohol by any standard, but it’s by no means out of the question for a truly experienced drinker. Don doesn’t get so bombed simply to so he can tolerate building the playhouse—rather, it seems pretty obvious that he’s drinking to suppress the real him that began to emerge when he was recognized on the train. The dark humor of the sequence obscures, at least on an initial viewing, some of the additional hints about Don’s past that are revealed: His comfort with manual labor certainly hints at working-class origins (and/or having done plenty of shit work in his military days), as does the hilarious scene where he takes a leak and finds himself unable to wipe up without disrupting Betty’s meticulous organization of the bathroom. An unexpected side effect of this is the extra virility that comes through—Betty and her friend suddenly see Don as a sex object once his rough side begins to surface. Not until my fourth viewing of the episode did I realize that we actually see the exact moment our protagonist resumes the role of Donald Draper: It’s when he slips Betty his beer and exchanges it for a mint julep.
The scenes with the Drapers’ friends and neighbors during the birthday party are among Mad Men’s most frightening examples of retrograde behavior to date. The assumption that new neighbor Helen Bishop’s divorcee status QED makes her a slut is expressed by the braying men and whispering women alike in cringe-inducing terms (we’re also treated to an especially creepy example of casual anti-Semitism). The swelling bile comes to a head when gap-toothed neighbor Jack delivers a brutal slap to someone elses’ kid…for the crime of spilling a drink. You truly can’t blame our man for getting so hammered—it’s the only way he can tolerate the people he has to surround himself with as a requirement of the role he’s playing.
The title of the episode is something of a puzzler. At one point during the party, a radio is tuned to a broadcast of the eponymous Mozart opera, which I’m afraid I’m not familiar with. The closest parallel to the episode that Wikipedia’s plot summary offers up is the motif of unknown identity—Figaro, like Don, was a foundling, though the barber-turned-valet learns who his parents are in the opera. Whatever the nature of Don’s true identity is, it’s something he’s labored mightily to escape, and because of how closely Matthew Weiner and Jon Hamm are playing their cards where Don is concerned, it’s a shock to see the ultraconfident pitchman at the brink of suicide during his meandering birthday-cake run. When he belatedly returns with a dog for his daughter, the first time I saw the episode, half-asleep at 2am, I reached the weird conclusion that he’d gone into the city for an offscreen tryst with Rachel Menken and returned with one of the denizens of her rooftop kennel, which of course makes no sense (among other things, the dogs are totally different breeds). The dog, obviously, is a stray Don picks up in order to save face with his daughter, and it works like gangbusters. Our protagonist may be pretty damned good at selling cigarettes and toothpaste, but there’s no product he’s better at pushing than Donald Francis Draper.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.