Superficially, Mad Men is a drama based around an ad executive, his personal life, his ad agency, and the employees in that agency during the death throes of the over romanticized American period when women were suited only to homemaking and secretarial work, persons of color to menial service labor, and drinking, smoking, and sexual harassment were acceptable workplace behavior. Beyond the periphery of 1960s advertising and social upheaval and chic Madison Avenue affectation is a series whose overwhelming concern is identity. The series has hit on sexual identity, realized or suppressed, professional identity, familial identity, and in what has been essential to the narrative from the start, an out and out identity swap.
Despite seeing Sal Romano’s latent homosexuality, Betty Draper and Peggy Olson discovering the joys of vibration, Sally Draper looking for a place in a broken home with two narcissistic parents, Roger Sterling’s need to be in a miserable marriage, or Freddie Rumson wondering who is without his job, Mad Men is Don Draper ne Dick Whitman. No character in TV’s “New Golden Age”, save Tony Soprano, has so commanded every frame and no actor, save James Gandolfini, has so seemingly effortlessly embodied his character as Jon Hamm. With show creator Matthew Weiner’s previous job writing for The Sopranos, that probably isn’t a coincidence. Don Draper’s wrestling with his past, like Tony with his mother issues, informs so much of who and what he is. Bore by a prostitute into a home of rural poverty, a drunk father and a zealot stepmother (who tells him he is a dirty child and will go to hell), how could Don get farther away from his past than being an urbanite bourgeois selling products and the image of the perfect American family?
In the first two seasons Don sells his “perfect” family and the mythical American Dream as vigorously to himself and colleagues as he does pitching ad ideas to clients. The beautiful wife, two children, the clichéd white picket fence. He may have all the domestic comforts and trappings, but when it comes to his family Don can never bring himself to buy what he is selling. He’s a philandering husband and an absent father because a man bought up in a whorehouse doesn’t know how to be comfortable as a husband or father. He knows how to be comfortable working or in the midst of an affair. There he is completely the carefully constructed deception that is Don Draper, at home there is always that shoebox in the locked drawer containing artifacts of what was Dick Whitman. When the drawer is opened, what is left of that life falls apart.
It is Dick Whitman’s original sin in switching dog tags with Lt. Donald Draper that ultimately brings him the most happiness, and sadness. He is never seen anymore carefree or at peace with himself than when he is in California with the real Donald Draper’s wife Anna. The weight of lies and the façade of Don Draper fade and he just gets to be Dick again, himself, honestly. And it is in Anna’s death that Don shows us a real emotion other than anger. Even though Don asserts to Peggy, “you will be amazed how much it never happened”, his past, and his former self loom over his entire life. Trying to outpace his demons through work and alcohol. Turning away his lonely, troubled half brother. The lax discipline of his parenting (“my father beat the hell out of me and all it made me do is fantasize about when I’d be old enough to kill him”). Destroying a chance at a much needed aviation account when his firm losing clients to stop the Department of Defense security clearance from revealing his secret. Bending to the patrician pouts of Pete Campbell, to keep Pete’s knowledge of Don’s past quiet. Don Draper must guard against all threats, to keep hidden that he not only changed his name, but has done all he can to erase his painful past. F. Scott Fitzgerald said “There are no second acts in American Life.” Don Draper knows this, and knows that it is others that won’t let you have the second act. No matter who you are in the now, people will want to know where you’re from and who your family is.
Mad Men asks within the confines of its narrative, does saying you are someone else make you different? Mad Men asks viewers to contemplate the universally human question “who am I?” and the quintessential American questions, “what makes me happy?”, “what is happiness?”. Not that we, nor the characters can or will have these questions answered for us. Sometimes it is more important that questions are asked and thought about than that they are answered.
The final season of Mad Men begins April 5th at 10 on AMC