Monday, October 13, 2008

Dick Whitman

The core question of Mad Men seems to be not so much who the hell is Don Draper -- we know he died in the Korean War, that his identity was presumed by Depression baby Dick Whitman, and that he was, per the few moments we have of him in the show, a very decent guy.

No, the core question is how Dick Whitman went from taking Don Draper's name to becoming the much admired and envied Creative Director of Sterling Cooper ad agency -- and whether that Madison Avenue man is a character that Dick Whitman can continue playing for much longer.


As with the 13-episode arcs of most classic HBO dramas, the final three episodes comprise the last act of the season, and Act 3 of Season 2 of Mad Men kicked in on Sunday night with "The Jet Set". Don Draper's marriage looks to be over and between the business compromises and personal scandals infecting his office life, he grabs an opportunity for a business junket to Los Angeles. Although he's there to seduce the aerospace (jet set) industry, he's clearly disturbed by an atomic missile annihilation presentation, hearkening back to the moment when Don Draper was killed by airstrikes at their remote two-man outpost, and he swapped his dogtags for those of his superior officer. Combined with a fleeting vision of his estranged wife, Betty, and the seeming replacement of her by a young, wealthy free-spirit named Joy, Don takes up her offer of "Why would you deny yourself something you want?" and jumps in her convertible going AWOL to Palm Springs -- to be adopted into the jetset world of the idle rich.

Stripped of his own clothes, his ties to family and Sterling Cooper, floating with the topless Joy in a pool while another couple makes love downcurrent, Don has a momentary identification with an unhappy young boy dragged along by his divorcee father, muses on a crack in a glass, gives up even his bed in this house and awakens virtually naked on the couch the next morning, taking the moment when Joy goes off to pull close the rotary phone, dial a number out of his address book and intone the first tease of the big backstory payoff we've been waiting for all season:
"Hello, it's Dick Whitman."
The person on the other end gives him an address to scribble down, the camera switches to behind Don in a mirror image of the opening title silhouette image (also echoed by the first shot of Don in this episode standing overdressed staring out at his Los Angeles hotel pool), and we cut to his missing baggage being delivered to his Westchester doorstep.

Don's cut loose. Now Dick can return.

There have been two references this season to the person I believe Dick will visit in the next episode, along with a throwaway mention of his father's name after punching out obnoxious comedian Jimmy in a secret NYC gambling club several episodes back. The first was a mysterious addressee to whom Don sent his copy of Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency at the end of this season's first episode. The second was in "The Gold Violin" episode, where his consideration of a new car purchase triggered a memory in Don/Dick, of when he was selling used cars and a blond woman arrived (more Kim Novak than Grace Kelly, but a Hitchcock blonde nonetheless), who then called him out for not being Don Draper -- not being the man as advertised.

My best guess, and judging by some of the passionate online posts Monday morning I'm not alone, is that this woman is exactly who he called and is going to see. Maybe she was the real Don Draper's wife, maybe a sister. Maybe Dick Whitman got close to her; maybe she acted as a benefactor, helping him get to New York City and get his first job writing ad copy for the furrier mentioned in his brilliant Kodak Carousel pitch in the first season's final episode.

Based on the brevity of the call and Don/Dick's side of it, the person on the other end wasn't shocked to hear from him, nor did that person require much explanation. One wonders what Don may have learned from this person, what he may owe, what he may have left behind and if, for some reason to be revealed, that was o.k.

According to the "Inside Mad Men" online video for this week, this episode is all about being your true self, i.e. letting your true self come out, as reflected in Peggy's makeover, her haircutter's coming out, and Duck Dunn's renewed drinking triggering the type of bold business move he was previously known for executing:

If the theory I offered a couple months ago that this season is all about Don Draper as repressed artist, then the next two weeks could give us his opening up, a period of renewal and growth, maybe a new or newly invigorated Don Draper emerging.

After all, he is the "hero" of the show, or at least it's central protagonist. One thing we know about him is that he's a master of reinventing himself. (Not incidentally, a grand tradition of California adoptees.) We know that beneath his cool, relatively silent exterior is an intellect keenly sussing out human situations for what they really are. We know that he has the power to act decisively, for good or ill, in his Don Draper persona.

According to the chronology of U.S. history at the time of these final two episodes, there's about to be a Cuban Missile Crisis, as foreshadowed by the MIRV conference presentation that seemed to trigger something in Don. And the final episode has the same title as the Frank O'Hara book.

It's 1962 and when the series returns, if it holds to the time-scheme set up so far, it'll be 1964 with America still raw from the President John F. Kennedy assassination and Beatlemania about to sweep the world. The 1960's as most people characterize it didn't really begin until then, just as it didn't really end until maybe 1972 (Nixon's re-election) or maybe 1974 (Nixon's resignation).

So what's the "Emergency" going to refer to? Soviet missiles in Cuba? Sterling Cooper under corporate siege? Don's marriage in final crack-up?

Or the 1960's finally taking off.

Like a jet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna be VERY bummed when this season is over.