Monday, August 9, 2010

Mad Men 403: The Good News

Vacation is by definition the leaving behind of one's normal routine. For Don Draper, this goes a bit further. When in California, he can safely go by his birth name, Dick Whitman. Three thousand miles from New York, even the family of his formerly legal wife Anna Draper know him as Dick. Asked to sign the wall he painted, he signs "Dick". And this suppression of his adopted identity seems to grow on him: When the stewardess calls for Mr. Draper, Don doesn't react until the second time. Who is Don Draper? He's a man who hasn't gotten fully used to being Don Draper.

Don's skill is in crafting messages that others want to hear. Don's brief stay in California is full of moments where he says who he is by saying the things that he wants to hear. He brands himself. We can disqualify the preening he displays for Stephanie, who has won his lust with no qualms on Don's part that he remembers her from before her permanent teeth grew in. But when he talks to Patty about Anna's cancer, he lets fly with a moment that channels his rage and incipient grief with a moment of self-celebration. He notes Patty's helplessness because of her "limited means. But I'm here now." Patty and the circumstance quickly remind him that he can't throw money at Anna's problem. He loves Anna; it was noble that he wished to try. But the choice of words he used showed more than mere anger at Patty. It showed how central his material attainment is to his self-image.

And the weakness that the show of bravado is covering up: Don tells Anna that he'd never told Betty about his past because he believed that she would leave him when she found out; Don saw in his divorce confirmation of that. In his worldview, it was not his lying but his background that turned her away. To the point: Don attributes his divorce not on the truths about him that were within his control, that indicate character flaws; he atttibutes it to the station in life into which he was born.

Whether or not Betty was the kind of woman who saw her husband as a man diminished, Joan certainly is. When she cuts her hand, she repeatedly tries to get him to take her to a hospital instead of treating her himself.

Back in New York, Don and Lane find companionship with one another. Lane is soon to pour out the contents of his suddenly emptier life to Don. But it was Don who shouted cross-office, summoning Lane back to his side so that their drinking and shared flight from misery could resume. And how empty is Don's life? When he mentions that he expected to "meet a ladyfriend" on that night, New Year's Eve, it matched Bethany's proposed second date with Don. But Bethany, who would see Don, perhaps, for free, has apparently been cast aside or at least rescheduled so that Don could see the same call girl, Candace, who had slapped him before. Lane joins Don, and repays him later for the services of the prostitute arranged impromptu for him.

During their besotted night of misbehavior (Lane, especially, for squawking in false Japanese in the showing of Godzilla and pressing beef to his abdomen during dinner), Don is retreating into solipsism. When Lane notes that Don is spilling liquor onto the carpet, Don borrows Anna's line from earlier in the episode about smoking her dress. Lane cannot, of course, get the reference; Don is again speaking for his own benefit only.

There seems to be some foreshadowing that Don's existential tragedy may sooner rather than later lead us to his mortality. (Not before the last episode of the series, of course.) Anna's fatal cancer is placed before Don so we can see his reaction to it. It's all the more ominous for being unknown to her. He proposes their next meet-up on Easter, a day of resurrection. Later, Lane compares Don to a chap who died young in a motorcycle crash.

The episode ends with Don enigmatically distressed by Joan welcoming the company to 1965. His look of discomfort may reflect that seeing what the future brings has not recently worked well for Don Draper.


  1. rikdad, you are da man.

    After slogging through blogs and comments all night since the episode ended, your's was like watching the sun rise.

    I'm bookmarking your site.

  2. Okay, I'm impressed; this is sagacious.

  3. This is by far the most insightful wrap-up I've see, and I've read more than a few. Thanks for the spot-on analysis of the "limited means" remark. Clearly Betty's not the only one with a superficial admiration for material wealth.

  4. J., Bob, and Terry -- Thanks! I hope to post, similarly, after every episode this season (although I will be later than the night-of at least one of the upcoming weeks).

  5. Angela, thanks! I thought that line really went to the heart of the reason for the entire Los Angeles interlude, and moreover, was a deliberate part of the answer to "Who is Don Draper?" I think we can keep assuming that each episode this season addresses that question until we see an episode that proves otherwise.

  6. I think you're dead-right. Facing mortality is typically a big step in reevaluating who you are as a person and what you've accomplished, and in a scenario as ... scratch-built ... as Don's self-image, that sort of reevaluation is going to be expensive.

    I don't know if we'll get a near-death experience soon, but it certainly seems possible, and could easily be folded into the "changing times", the neighborhood of his apartment, and a few other themes to create a nice moment of cohesive resonance. A gunpoint mugging while he's drunk and fumbling with his apartment keys ... something of that nature.

    But that seems a little obvious. It is entirely possible for Don's self-image to come crashing down purely based on situational drama - his last vestiges of Dick Whitman are going to die ... so where and how will Don Draper "be himself"? Certainly not with anyone from SCDP ... he'll try to maintain that balancing act indefinitely.

    Again, in the future ... I suspect logical subversion. Possibly a "full telling of his secrets" to a surprising character - nobody that can screw him over with the information, since he's typically too smart for that. (The chick from Market Research seems like a fair option, though, since her skill at reading people has probably already gleaned some of the information).

    This season is Aces, so far. Who is Don Draper, when both Don Draper's AND Dick Whitman's lives are crashing?

  7. Retro, that's a nice way of looking at the man: live*s* in the plural.

    I wasn't suspecting a near-death experience so much as a countdown to his eventual death. Of course, that entails the end of the entire series, so it would have to be a long term plan, executed a handful of seasons down the road when the show had played out everything it intended to. A general disintegration towards the "end times" -- a technique employed by The Sopranos, which is the subject of a future post I have been toiling on for months now.

    Dr. Faye seems like the "type" you would expect Don to try to end up with. It would be funny (in a "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" sort of way) if she ended up with him after prophesizing that he would be married again soon. She might be a "type", too.

  8. She may be the last to fall prey to her own "rules" (being slightly aware of them), but she "must" be a type.

    Faye might know "Don Draper's type" but I believe she'd be ill-prepared to deal with Dick Whitman.