“5G” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 8/16/2007)
In which Adam Whitman comes to town
(Available on Netflix.)
I posited in my review of the Mad Men pilot that one of the questions the show wants us to be asking is “Who is Don Draper?” In “5G,” that question becomes much less of a metaphysical one and much more of a literal one. Don Draper is not who he says he is. He’s hiding a secret past in the form of a brother he’s never mentioned to anyone, not even Betty or Midge, and that brother knows him by another name, by the name of Dick Whitman. In fact, when he and Adam meet at Deelite for lunch, Adam actually comes out and asks the question the show wants us to wonder in that moment: “Who is Donald Draper?” Adam means that he has no idea where his brother cooked up this identity from, but the audience takes it in another way entirely. (As I’ve mentioned before, subtext is sometimes not this first season’s friend.)
In many ways, the mystery of Don Draper’s past is an ingenious story device to get us through a first season without too many discernible plot engines. Mad Men is a show about closely observing human beings to get clues into their behavior. The audience does this because it wants to understand the characters more thoroughly, while the characters do this because they want to sell people stuff by playing off primal wishes and desires. But the show needs to train us to do this, and it’s not the easiest thing to do with a TV audience, which is, after all, usually chasing some variation of cheap thrills.
Now, the cheap thrills crowd was never going to be that in to Mad Men, but the mystery of Don’s past is something we can sink our teeth into. It feels like something that would pop up on Lost or Twin Peaks, the kind of thing we understand how to process almost intuitively as TV fans. The bonus for Matt Weiner and company here is that by asking us to ponder just what Don might be hiding in his past, they’re inviting us to put the characters under the kind of close scrutiny we might not provide for other TV characters, even on shows as good as this one. For the most part, even the best TV shows are largely straightforward. Characters might do things that aren’t immediately understandable to us, but we might have a guess at their motivations. For much of Mad Men, those motivations aren’t understood even to the characters themselves, and they might be directly contradictory to what the characters say and do. It’s a series about liars, on some level, and that means the characters have to constantly be lying to themselves, too. Thus, Don has to have built his entire life on a lie, and the audience has to be taught to try to find the loose threads in that lie and figure out how they add up to this new identity. All great TV shows teach us how to watch them, but Mad Men is practically taking us by the hand and leading us through the minefield.
I’ll be honest and say that the “Don’s secret past” mystery is far from my favorite thing about Mad Men’s first season. In many ways, it’s perfunctory to the point where most attentive viewers will have figured out most of it by the end of this episode. To a degree, I think that’s what Weiner intends, and it’s hard to convey without spoiling just how much this shadow over Don’s life haunts the rest of the show in ways that are so important to what makes it work. But long-form plotting has never been Weiner’s strength in the way it is for, say, David Simon or Vince Gilligan. He’s much more comfortable with stories that unwind in fits and jerks, and the slow reveal of what’s up with Don doesn’t really fit that model, to the point that I get a little bored with the whole thing when I watch these episodes. It’s the very definition of a TV mystery that loses much of its punch once you know what’s coming.
But at the same time, there’s something so sad about “5G” that I’ll try not to read my misgivings about what’s coming into it. Adam is so open and fresh-faced, so ready to reconnect with a brother he never thought he’d see again, that to realize that Don is simply going to brush him off feels almost like the worst thing the guy has done, and this is a guy who cheats on his wife and finds out from her psychiatrist what she’s saying in therapy. We have certain rules we expect our fellow human beings to follow, ones that might very well be stitched into our genetic code, and one is that we don’t turn our back on family, for better or (very often) worse. We sense in the scene where Don and Adam dine together that the woman who raised Don—for she was not his mother, as he insists—was dead to Don long before she was literally dead, but Adam doesn’t have to get wrapped up in that. The last time he saw Don (then Dick) was when he was an innocent little kid. And yet he gets sucked into the maelstrom of the past, and Don leaves him behind for safer shores. “I’m not buying your lunch because this never happened,” Don says, and it seems like a kind of motto for how he treats his past. The only problem with that is what never happened includes his very real younger brother, now grown and just wanting to reconnect with a man he’s never known.
Mad Men is a series that’s very consciously engaging with lots of famous American myths and legends, and one of the most potent is that of the self-made man. What’s fascinating is that the series has it both ways. Yes, Don pulled himself up from what sounds here like a hellish upbringing, one that sent him running so far away from it that it can’t have been anything good, and yes, there’s something admirable and impressive about that. After all, when he goes from the shitty little hotel where Adam is holed up to his spacious home where his beautiful wife reclines in bed, there couldn’t be more of a contrast between the world that was and the world he’s built for himself. There’s a reason we respond to rags to riches stories, particularly in capitalist societies: This is who we all hope we could be if we just had the gumption and the talent.
Yet “5G” engages with the other side of the coin, too. To become a self-made man, Don has to leave other people behind, and because he doesn’t see the point in looking at the past for too long, that means he has to leave them behind permanently. When he goes to Adam’s apartment at episode’s end, it’s not to share a drink with a long-lost brother, as Adam hopes and the audience might half-suspect. It’s to buy him off with the $5,000 that might have, in some other timeline, purchased Betty her summer home, that he might not have to spend at least part of August at Cape May with Betty’s dad harrumphing about how Don stole his little girl. (Notice the juxtaposition, here, of the family Don actually has with the one he’s married into by marrying Betty. It’s just another way he’s left behind a past he doesn’t want for the image he’d like to attain.) It’s possible Don thought all Adam would want from him was money, but I find it hard to believe he could possibly see the way his brother acted around him and conclude that. No, Don is trying to use cash to give Adam a head start on some other life, one preferably far away from New York. After all, Don reinvented himself; why can’t his brother?
The problem here is that not everyone is capable of slashing and burning their own pasts. Don’s quite comfortable salting the Earth of his memory, but Adam never will be, and Don’s central failing here is being unable to understand that. Don’s whole life is spinning lies and secrets and bullshit for everyone around him. It’s what he’s comfortable doing, to the degree that Peggy ends up inadvertently trapped in the web he’s weaving for all around him when she accidentally overhears him talking to Midge and assumes that’s where he is when he goes to lunch with Adam. But very few people are comfortable living that way. One could, indeed, argue that it’s vaguely sociopathic, that human beings are social animals who ultimately need to build some sort of community around themselves, even if it’s a virtual one. But Don doesn’t see it that way, and it’s why his reconnection with Adam ends up making him out to be the villain. We don’t yet understand completely why he’s doing this, and he seems all the more monstrous for it.
“5G” has a handful of B-stories that weave in and around the story of Don’s reunion with Adam, and I’m not sure they quite mesh with the A-story in the way of the best Mad Men episodes. I suppose if you really try, you can make all of them fit into a story about identity, but that’s kind of a stretch. The best, by far, is about Ken Cosgrove getting a story published in the Atlantic Monthly, which sets off waves of jealousy among the other young men at Sterling Cooper, particularly Pete and Paul. Paul expresses his anger via snarking at Ken about how his two novels don’t even sound that stupid, then ripping the story out of an Atlantic as Ken is bragging to the women of the office, but Ken gets the last laugh when Paul explains that he was racing everybody in the office to be a writer (apparently with a story about a time he ended up in Jersey hanging out with some African-Americans and they all got along) and didn’t realize he was also racing Ken. “You lost,” says Ken, a perfect kiss-off that suggests why he’s the only one who’s gotten anywhere with his writing career.
It’s Pete, though, who gets the bulk of the story, as he tries to get Trudy to go and talk to an old friend—who just so happens to be the guy Trudy lost her virginity to—about getting his story published. This is another “Gosh, isn’t Pete loathsome?” storyline, something that’s already losing a bit of its novelty this early in the show’s run, but it’s all worth it for the scene where the couple discusses his story (see, it’s not the bear who’s talking but what the hunter imagines the bear to be thinking) and Pete’s utter apoplexy at the notion of being published in Boy’s Life for a $40 fee. What we’re meant to leave thinking about here is how Pete suggests Trudy should have prostituted herself so that his story would be published—even though we know how thrilled he would have been if he had found out she’d done that—and this is perhaps the kernel that connects all of this to Don’s storyline.
Everybody in that ad agency is so eager to redefine themselves as something other than what they do at Sterling Cooper. Meanwhile, Don Draper actually has redefined himself, but he can’t outrun the past or the person he once was. Roger brings up the 10 pages of a novel that everybody in the office must have locked away in a drawer somewhere (in the meeting where he praises Ken for getting his story published while also subtly backhanding him by saying he didn’t understand the story). But when Don opens up his locked drawer, there’s nothing of the sort in it, not even the five pages he says he has. Instead, there’s a stack of money he uses to pay someone he should attempt to build a relationship with, by all rights, so that someone might exit his life in a timely fashion.
The irony here, of course, is that of all of the people in the office, it’s Don who might have the best makings of a novel about his own life if he really gave it a shot—he even brings this up back in the second episode as an excuse for why he so rarely talks about his past. But to tell a story about his life so far would require re-engaging with that past, would require letting it back into his life. Making art or telling a story requires some level of honesty, and maybe that’s what ultimately links Don and Pete: Neither of them can be truly honest with themselves. The difference, I think, is that one of them knows it and the other is still just a bit of a boob. But give it time.
- The other stories here involve Betty trying to get a family portrait taken despite Don not being there when she arrives at the office and Peggy trying to keep the secret of Midge hidden from everyone, even though she tells Joan about it. Of the two, the latter is more successful, if only for the moment when Peggy exhales a breath she didn’t even know she was holding after completing her subterfuge.
- The show still doesn’t quite have Joan figured out at this point in its run. The line “and that’s why we love them” strikes me as something the Joan we now know would never say, and that’s not even in the sense of how the other characters have evolved. Of all of the major characters, Joan most feels like she was meant to be one thing and then abruptly became something else, because the first thing wasn’t working. (This ended up being a good thing, ultimately.)
- In general, if you haven’t sensed already, “5G” is fairly over-obvious and lacks the subtext that really makes this show sing when it’s working. Another example of this comes in the advertising storyline, which involves Don coming up with the idea of an “executive account” for a man who wants to keep his private life private. It’s barely even there as a storyline and mostly just serves as another way to underscore how much he wants to keep his secrets.
- One of the things I like to say sometimes that seems to drive some of you up the wall is that Mad Men is, in a lot of ways, about writing a television show. While there’s not as much of that in this first season, you’ll see little signs of it creeping around the edges, and anybody who’s seen Matt Weiner at an awards show—whether standing off to the side when The Sopranos won or smiling in the spotlight when Mad Men won—will recognize a lot of that attitude in the bits about Sterling Cooper winning the award.
- Following up on the events of prior episodes, Pete is adequately obsequious to Don in the meeting here, giving him all credit for the executive account idea.
- I think it’s worth noting that Paul’s story sounds pretty awful. You just know that he underlines at all turns the message of his story.
- The title of Ken’s story is the most Atlantic published short story title ever. Good work, show.
Spoiling Cooper (Don’t read past here if you haven’t seen the whole show):
- “This never happened,” of course, becomes a very important part of the friendship that grows between Don and Peggy, as it’s exactly what he tells her when she’s in the hospital after giving birth.
- Also: The locked drawer in Don’s office comes back into play in season three when Betty learns about his past after she breaks into it.
- I can’t remember if Adam has another appearance between now and the episode in which he hangs himself. Can any of you recall?
Next week: Peggy steps to the forefront in another classic episode, “Babylon.” And then we’re on break for the holidays!