The 1960s California of Mad Men is seemingly a vibrant and relaxing place where someone like Dick Whitman can go and take it easy, leaving his Don Draper (Jon Hamm) alter-ego behind in New York. The highways are open, the girls are liberated and endlessly precocious, and Dick looks just as good painting in his boxers as Don Draper ever has wearing his suits and sipping his Old Fashioneds.
This week’s Mad Men episode, “The Good News” (written by Jonathan Abrahams and Matthew Weiner, and directed by Jennifer Getzinger), brings Don back to Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton), the widow of the man whose identity Don stole, for the first time since season two. For half the episode Don is referred to solely by his real name, Dick Whitman, and we see him casually dressed and largely carefree, smoking pot and hitting on a teenager for seemingly no reason other than that he feels young. These trips to visit Anna are a strange sort of return home for Don, allowing him to lay down his guard and regenerate, and to reconnect with the man he once was. Anna provides Don with both a connection to his past and atonement for his present-day sins.
Mad Men’s sojourns to the West Coast have an otherworldly and surreal feel to them. It’s not that there’s anything particularly abnormal about the imagery or the writing, but somehow in the context of Mad Men a shot of the Pacific can look positively alien. Given the show’s uneasy relationship with the idea of discovering who its characters “truly are,” it’s appropriate that these direct glimpses of Don’s persona-free personality would come across as so strange.
At one point Anna claims that she once saw a UFO, and that it made her think about everything she thought she knew, and “how flimsy it all might be.” Don replies, “You don’t need to see a UFO to know that.” The truth about Mad Men’s characters is always flimsy, to the point where it becomes impossible to say anything definitive about them. Mad Men is a character-driven show that relentlessly hides its characters, suggesting that they are defined more by their lack of definition than by any positive facts.
Presenting characters in this manner is made all the more difficult by the show’s focus on its characters’ inner life, and their emotional turmoil that is so repressed and buried under pretensions that it often lacks any major outward expression at all. Providing the sort of confessional moments that other character-driven pieces rely on to make things clear would largely betray Mad Men’s thesis on identity.
It’s difficult to determine, for example, just how Joan (Christina Hendricks) feels about her marriage. Her husband Greg (Gerald Downey) seemingly refuses to acknowledge the things about Joan that make her remarkable. He also raped her. Yet Joan also wants to start a family with him, she’s clearly more hurt by his absence than his presence, and the inevitability of him going to Vietnam terrifies her. Mad Men is less concerned with working out a resolution to these conflicting emotions than it is in simply presenting them as a reality.
On top of being a rather terrible husband, Greg isn’t a particularly great doctor either. This is not lost on Joan, as she awkwardly attempts to avoid Greg’s treatment after slicing her finger open with a knife. He, of course, forces it on her, while making a tasteless joke about “donkey dick” and acting like he’s a hero doctor. It is an incredibly difficult scene to watch; I kept expecting Greg to lop off Joan’s finger. It’s a scene that requires we empathize with Joan’s escalating internal struggle, despite not giving us a direct externalization of that struggle until Joan finally breaks down in a short fit of tears. We fear for Joan’s physical well-being, which is cleverly used to create tension in place of the repressed torment Joan is hiding, building toward the scene’s emotional payoff. And then in a moment it’s over, and everything is buried again.
Mad Men is a notoriously restrained and meticulously paced series; at times it requires us to wait the better part of a season (or even several seasons) for a payoff in which a character’s internal struggles are finally externalized. It’s the primary source of complaint from most of the series’ few detractors, that it’s simply too slow and that the “payoffs” scarcely justify the waiting game viewers are subjected to. But maybe this is the wrong way of reading the series, and really we’re not supposed to value the moments of externalization more than we do the moments of repression and silence. In many ways Mad Men rejects the idea that a person’s truth is revealed in unguarded outbursts of profound revelation or in some catharsis.
Certainly such moments happen, but often they fail to define the character any more than an ad defines a product. Back in the pilot episode, Don saves the Lucky Strike account by turning a boring but true statement about the product into a slogan: “It’s toasted.” It was an accurate tagline, yet it concealed more about Lucky Strike than it revealed, using something mundanely obvious to hide a deeper truth. In the world of advertising, the truth is often a distraction from what’s important, and in Mad Men a character’s most revealing moments seldom come when they are stating true things about themselves.
Anna Draper is the one person who allows Dick Whitman to be himself, and the one character with whom he’s ever been completely honest. Our introduction to her in season two felt revelatory, as though we were finally being given a glimpse into the truth of Don Draper, and the chance to see him free of put-on persona. It was also off-putting, and certainly raised the question about why a few days of uninhibited, free living in the sun should define Don Draper/Dick Whitman more than the many years of the highly inhibited regular life that he was hiding from. Is life any less “real” when it’s inhibited?
Conversely, Don’s return seems as much a harbinger of the death of Dick Whitman as it does the death of Anna Draper. Yet oddly, his practical life seemingly offers him far fewer incentives to lie than it did in season two. When talking about hiding the truth from Betty (January Jones) for years, Don tells Anna that he is amazed by “how small it is compared to how long it went on.” Anna admonishes him for referring to it as “small,” yet in a way he’s absolutely right. Even for the viewer it’s hard to remember, at this point, what exactly the stakes of Don’s lie were, especially considering Betty was acutely aware of Don’s infidelity (a seemingly more egregious lie) all along.
Don likely could have told Betty the truth at any time without it reflecting particularly poorly on him. This is essentially what did happen, as Don’s revelations in “The Gypsy and the Hobo” reflected him in about as sympathetic a light as one could imagine, and even elicited an increasingly rare display of warmth from Betty.
But then Betty left him. Not because she hated him as Don Draper, but because she simply didn’t love him as Dick Whitman. And as Don reveals this to Anna, it’s clear that he’s justifying both his future and past actions. The Don Draper lie will live on, not to conceal a past crime or hide from family, but because Dick Whitman simply doesn’t think he’s good enough.
As he leaves, Don complies with the wishes of Anna’s sister and conceals from Anna the truth that she’s dying of cancer. He looks back on the one person he could ever be honest with, and his last image of Anna, which will surely be burned into his memory forever, is defined by the one thing he couldn’t tell her. The heartbreak of Anna’s impending death is compounded by the fact that Don can’t be open with her at the end. He leaves because he knows the secrecy of the cancer creates a barrier in a friendship defined by its lack of them, and as he leaves he also leaves earnest Dick Whitman behind, as a memory, with Anna. The expression on Jon Hamm’s face as he pauses for a moment before leaving is an absolutely shattering culmination of one of the most effectively emotional scenes Mad Men has ever produced.
And then we cut to Don on a plane, heading back to New York, and a flight attendant referring to him as “Mr. Draper” while wishing him a happy new year. As 1965 begins, we realize that the “Dick + Anna ’64” signature that Don painted on Anna’s wall is an epitaph for both of them, and that Don has lost his last meaningful tie to Dick Whitman. Yes, Don’s past will continue to follow along behind him, and we will certainly see him regress again, but from now on the fact that Don Draper’s name was once Dick Whitman is no more informative than the fact that Lucky Strike cigarettes are toasted.
From there the episode takes a left turn, transitioning from the conclusion of Don’s relationship with Anna to the beginning of his relationship with Lane Pryce (Jared Harris). As a pretty big Lane fan, I was excited to see him in the spotlight, and thought that Jared Harris made great use of the extra screen time.
For the most part, Don and Lane’s time together is a hilarious, drunken romp through comedy clubs and movie theaters, as Lane yells faux-Japanese gibberish at theater patrons and slaps a slab of beef to his crotch and shouts something about a “beautiful piece of American meat.” But there’s also a poignant understanding between two men who have failed at pretending to be something they weren’t in order to meet the normative expectations of domestic family life. While Lane’s faults are less sinister than Don’s (he’s a workaholic who loves to be busy in his Manhattan office, rather than spending the holidays with his wife in London), it’s doubtful they made him any better of a husband. At the end it’s unclear just what Lane thinks of the whole ordeal: he enjoyed being free of familial obligations and letting loose with Don, but despite the new freedom he’s still far too proper to let someone else pay for his prostitute.
Mad Men is full of those rare television characters who can think different things at different times, and often think different things at the same time. It’s one of the reasons truth can be so flimsy: it so often depends on perspective and situation. In a conversation between Don, Anna, and Anna’s niece, the titular “good news” is referenced in terms of a born-again Christian’s preaching. It’s mocked in this context, but from the perspective of a believer it represents absolute truth. The truth about Don Draper as he relaxes in carefree California under the name Dick Whitman is no more “true” than the truth about Don Draper in Manhattan. They’re simply different perspectives of the same man.
Lane later gives Don some good news of his own: that on the books “it’s been a magnificent year” for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. It’s a statement that could be taken either as a transcendent affirmation of everything that’s happened the past year, or as an ironic jeer, mocking two men who have lost their families, and Joan, who will likely never have the chance to start her own (much like how “It’s toasted” mocks the Lucky Strike customers dying of cancer).
One of the best things about Mad Men is that it’s not afraid to have things both ways. It takes to heart one of the fundamental lessons of advertising: that it’s possible to tell the truth and to lie at the same time.
• Lane Pryce claims to be the one “incorruptible exception” when it comes to refusing Joan’s charms. This just may be some sort of unholy superpower calling for immediate inclusion in the Avengers movie. “Breast? Thigh?” Lord.
• It’s fun that Don can directly mock the idea of his own masculinity: “I think Norman Mailer shot a deer over there.”
• The combination of Don sitting motionless on the couch, as time-lapse photography moves from nighttime to daytime, and the score becomes as foregrounded as it has at any time during the series, provides for one of the strangest Mad Men shots I can remember.
Luke De Smet is a freelance writer based out of San Diego, who spent way too much time obsessing about movies and television while growing up in rural northern Alberta, Canada. He’s currently attempting to avoid movies and television long enough to take up surfing, but is failing, miserably. You can follow him on Twitter.