There are far more superfically interesting plotlines simmering on “Mad Men” at the moment besides Don Draper, but I keep returning to Draper because — when Matthew Wiener’s symbolism is not heavy-handed enough to crush my larynx — I think he’s the most fascinating character on television. There’s so much subtext to Draper that it’s easy to get lost reading into it, and I often can’t see the forest for the trees Wiener keeps poking into my kidneys.
A few weeks ago, I advanced a theory that Don Draper would die by the end of the series, if not sooner, but only in identity and that, in the end, Draper would be reborn as his original identity, Dick Whitman. There were a number of clues in the pilot that suggested as much, including a Don’s copy of Inferno, his guilt over a Zippo that recalled the death of the original Don Draper, and two very key lines of dialogue: The photographer requesting of Don to “just be yourself,” and Don’s talk of a man who “sheds his skin” in the ad he created that clearly representing a man’s suicide (here, the suicide of Don’s identity).
I stand by that theory, but the past few episodes have also offered evidence as to why Don Draper would want to shed that fraudulent identity. That transformation will not come, however, until Don fully comes to terms with the fact that he’s not a good man. I think that is what he’s struggling with now, and while he’s expressed a desire to call it off with Sylvia, his current mistress, I don’t think he’s quite realized what a distasteful human being he has become.
That’s no more apparent than in the scene this week in Pete’s apartment, when Pete offered it to Don for “use” and Don responded with disgust, “I live here.” It’s not the first time, either, that Don has expressed disgust and disapproval with the way that Pete behaves. Perhaps the best example was an episode last season, “Signal 30,” in which Don chastised Pete for his philandering after Pete spent an evening in a brothel entertaining a client. Likewise, Don expresses dismay and disgust with Arlene and Mel — Megan’s employers — after they ask him and Megan to come back to their apartment, completely failing to recognize his own hypocrisy. After all, he turned down the wife-swapping to go home and fuck his mistress.
As Sarah noted in her recap of this week’s episode, it’s hypocrisy, plains and simple, but the rub is that Don doesn’t yet recognize it. He doesn’t realize that he and Pete are not that different. There’s a part of Don, still rooted in the 1950s, that believes that as long as he doesn’t leave his wife, he’s allowed to sleep with whomever he wants, and as long as he’s not caught, it doesn’t count. In fact, that belief is so deep-seated for Don that, when his wife cheats on him even in pretend — as Megan did by kissing her co-star on the set of the soap opera — it’s Don that feels wronged.
Don hates Pete because Don doesn’t fully see this in himself. At least not yet. He still sees the white knight who tried to save Joan from whoring herself out for partnership; he still sees himself as the guy who gave Suzanne Farrell’s brother Danny a wad of cash a few seasons ago; he still sees himself as the guy who made Peggy’s career, only to be backstabbed by the woman he was closest to emotionally. He created “Don Draper” as a good guy, and some part of him is still clinging to the 1950’s everyman who rolls up his sleeves and fixes the kitchen sink’s plumbing.
Indeed, the twist here is that Don believes that his “Don Draper” identity is his good side, while he’s spent the last two decades running away from Dick Whitman, the son of a prostitute. What he doesn’t see, of course, is that he’s running straight toward him. You don’t need a magnifying glass to see all the whore symbolism that surrounds Sylvia (the fact that he’s left her money on two occasions is the most obvious clue). Practically every woman he’s slept with is a mother figure to Don, and he treats them like the prostitutes his mother was.
There will come a tipping point for Don, I think, when he will realize that his identity as Don is worse than the reality of Dick. Don is Dick Whitman in a better suit, with a better job, with a nicer apartment. He is, and always be, the son of a whore, and a new name, an impressive job title, and a expensive clothes will never change that fact.