“Donald Draper? What kind of name is that?”—Adam Whitman
That explosion you just heard was the sound of the skulls of several hundred Mad Men fans erupting, Scanners-style, from the stress of trying to make chronological sense of Don Draper’s life given what we learn of his past in “5G”. We’ll deal with the continuity issues in due course, but suffice it to say that, pending future revelations, a whole lotta fanwank is required. But first, on to the story itself….
“5G” makes it official: Don Draper, in a past life (almost literally, since he apparently faked his own death) was Dick Whitman. “It’s not me,” Don tells Adam Whitman (Jay Paulson), the sad-sack janitor who turns up at Sterling Cooper after seeing a photo in Advertising Age of the man who used to be his older brother. Indeed, while many viewers over at Television Without Pity have been quick to conclude that Don is a cold, cold guy on the basis of his treatment of Adam, I’m inclined to think that his behavior is more the result of cognitive dissonance. Dick Whitman’s transformation into Donald Draper is so complete that, as we saw in “Marriage of Figaro”, the tiniest crack in the facade is enough to send him on a huge bender. In “5G”, the gig is very close to being up—both because of Adam’s arrival and because Peggy learns of Don’s affair with Midge and then reveals it to Joan (Christina Hendricks), which she really shouldn’t have done. Even if Adam never appears again, Peggy’s knowledge that Don was up to something when he slipped out for lunch—knowledge Don is entirely ignorant of—will surely have consequences down the line.
Once again, because of Don’s lack of a Jennifer Melfi figure—or even a good friend—it’s impossible to tell what’s going on in his head after Adam surfaces. This, of course, makes it possible for viewers to assume that Don’s going to shoot his brother (technically, they’re half-brothers, as this week’s episode strongly implies and next week’s makes clear). Certainly, there are few reasons to doubt that Don has the intestinal fortitude required of a killer—it would come as no surprise to learn that he’s killed men on the battlefield—he’s also smart enough to know that he’d never get away with the cold-blooded murder of Adam in a flophouse where dozens of fellow occupants would hear a gunshot. There’s the slightest twinge of actual affection in the brothers’ embrace in room 5G, which probably comes more from their status as mutual survivors of what was presumably a very brutal household than it does from any blood tie.
So much of what happens to Don in “5G” hinges on information that has yet to be revealed that it’s premature to evaluate the episode within the context of the series. Even so, the story works surprisingly well as a self-contained piece—like “Marriage of Figaro”, it provides strong evidence of the influence of short-story writers—most specifically John Updike and John Cheever—on the direction of the show. On the subject of short stories, the B plot about Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Stanton) being pubished in The Atlantic Monthly is a gem. Ken is the junior executive about whom we’ve learned the least, so the fact that he’s a writer—and a productive one—is as surprising to us as it is to Pete Cooper and Paul Kinsey. Pete’s reaction—he’s envious enough to seriously consider pimping his wife to her ex-fiance to get published—builds on “New Amsterdam” in interesting ways. It’s possible to read Pete’s reaction as the result of entitlement, but probably more accurate to take it as additional evidence of a burning desire to make it on his own and prove himself to his father (who reads The Atlantic), even if doing so requires stooping to extreme sleaziness. Paul’s response is funnier, and makes me love the character even more. He clearly fancies himself the smartest guy—and the most frustrated artiste—among the ranks of the junior execs, and it’s equally obvious that his high opinion on himself isn’t based on any actual work (Don’s probably on the money about Paul with his amendment to Roger’s crack about everyone at the agency having a very small percentage of an unfinished novel in their desks). And lord almighty, does his story about that night with those “negroes” in Jersey City sound terrible or what? His I-can’t-believe-I-said-that-out-loud reaction to Ken’s description of his two (!) novels (“Those don’t even sound stupid!”) is one of the series’ funniest moments to date, and it—along with incidents in the next two episodes—helps an important aspect of the series come into focus. My friend Charles B. François has always maintained that The Sopranos was, above all, a comedy of manners, and it’s increasingly obvious that this is the case with Mad Men as well.
Some miscellaneous points:
Continuity-wise, the big issue with “5G” is reconciling the amount of time Don would need to rise to his position at Sterling Cooper with him having joined the army at seventeen or eighteen (I’m going to go out on a limb and assume he voluntarily enlisted as a means of leaving home) and being a veteran of the Korean war rather than WWII. It only makes sense if you figure Don spent a fair amount of time in the service, (which isn’t a huge stretch if he indeed signed up as a means of escape). Figure he enlisted in mid-late 1946 after reaching the age when he could do so, then was sent to Korea pretty early in the conflict—while still Richard Whitman—and then, after seeing a fair amount of action and getting wounded, was honorarily discharged as Donald Draper before the end of 1950. I’m imagining a scenario in which he was the only survivor of a patrol that got wiped out and who, before being rescued, donned (no pun intended) the uniform of a dead-and considerably more privileged—comrade. If the real Don Draper already had a college degree, this could give him nine years in the trenches at SC, which seems about right—though of course the unanswered question of how much of Don’s résumé has been spun out of whole cloth gives Matthew Weiner a fair amount of wiggle room. I didn’t see last week’s behind-the-scenes segment, but some fans were apparently annoyed that Weiner and/or Jon Hamm offered up the “spoiler” that Don is an orphan. That may turn out to be a vicious tease—yes, Don Draper may be an orphan (it’d certainly have made his identity easier to steal), but Richard Whitman obviously lived with his stepmother until he was around 18, and his biological father was in the picture until he was at least 10 (his presumed age at the time of Adam’s birth). For this to work, Don would be around 33 and Adam 23, which doesn’t quite jibe with the actors’ apparent ages (I read somewhere that Hamm is 36; Jay Paulson looks more like he’s in his late 20s), but we’ll pretty much have to live with it.
The sum that Don gave Adam—$5000—gives the episode title a neat double meaning (in addition to the room number, it’s shorthand for “five grand”), and in today’s money that comes out to about $33,000 and change. It was also the average annual US salary then, and it’s not too far removed from that of today (the most recent median number I can find is around $43K; factor in differences and buying power and it probably all evens out). Of course, Don’s ability to produce the money nicely dovetails with the thinking behind the Liberty Capital “executive private” account that serves as “5G”’s Product of the Week. His inclination to keep that much cash lying around suggests it might have been a personal safety net for him to hightail it on if his secret was exposed—or, like his beer drinking in “Marriage of Figaro”, it could be read as a sign of the culture he grew up in (a child of the depression might have a gut distrust of banks that wouldn’t be there for someone who grew up as privileged as, say, Roger Sterling did).
Finally, the choice of The Atlantic as the magazine with Ken’s story resonated with me on a personal note, since a few years ago I was dumbstruck upon learning that my father had published a poem in the magazine right around that time (well, in ’64 or ’65). Dad downplayed his accomplishment when I made the discovery (“they just put it in this section where they ran light verse and stuff, it was a funny piece and not a ’serious’ poem”, etc), but it nonetheless completely changed the way I think about him. That one-off publication in The Atlantic was the end as well as the beginning of Robert C. Johnston’s professional literary career; Kenneth Cosgrove, I’m assuming, will ultimately prove to be somewhat more successful.
Andrew Johnston is the television critic for Time Out New York.