Monday, August 30, 2010

Mad Men: Dick’s Still Around

A couple of weeks ago I said: “I suspect that Dick Whitman will expire along with Anna because there’s no place for him outside of her friendship.” I figured we’d seen the last of Dick because, up till that point, he’d been visible only in two contexts: mostly he was an apparition in Don Draper’s imagination when he remembered the shapeless hunk of human marble he sculpted into the Draper persona; Dick appeared in the flesh only in California in Anna’s presence, the one place where Don thought that artifice was out of bounds. Now that circumstance and alcohol have conspired to deprive him of his self-mastery, I thought Don would be too busy repairing his persona, or creating a new one, to remember not being a work of art.  And with Anna out of the picture, he'd have no occasion to reveal whether there was anyone left beneath the Draper mask.

Boy, was I wrong. We might have seen the last of Dick—unless you count the moment when he opens his eyes on Sunday morning, only to disappear when a call from Betty prompts Don to regain his wits and discover that the strange woman in bed beside him isn’t the same strange woman he’d gone to bed with Friday night. We soon discovered, right along with Don, that Dick had been out and about all day Saturday. He’d traded Don’s Friday conquest in for a woman better suited to Dick's social station, the waitress serving him French fries at a greasy spoon. So Dick is not only alive, he’s running around New York, having escaped the confines of Don’s memory. Dick has become the Dr. Jekyll to Don’s Mr. Hyde. Or is it the other way around?

What a difference a week makes. Last week we were cheering Draper on for shamelessly exploiting other people’s sense of shame. We’d become, once again, accomplices to his hubris. Dick’s invisible presence in the story reminds us that there’s a moral price to pay for imagining that you can recreate yourself out of nothing. Dick’s survival reveals that Don’s shamelessness is, at bottom, an affectation. As hard as he’s worked to become someone else, he’s still a guy that looks exactly like Draper (minus the Brylcreem) trying desperately to escape the shameful circumstances of his illegitimate birth. Worse, Dick is running around New York without Don even knowing what he’s up to.

Consider the brilliant juxtaposition of Don and Roger in this light. For most of the episode, it looks like they’ve traded places. I don’t know about you, but I was shocked early in the episode to see Don, already drunk with Roger-like self-regard, getting properly drunk with alcohol in the middle of the morning at the mere prospect of winning a Clio award. I wouldn’t have thought that the Don Draper we’ve come to know would get that carried away about winning one of fifty such awards presented that afternoon, especially since Peggy had the idea for the award-winning spot. But soon he’s back at the office, strutting around with Roger and Pete like they were members of the same college fraternity, and making a slurred pitch that he’d lifted from the hapless candidate for a copy-writing position. Before our eyes, Don Draper had become a buffoon, as visibly out-of-control as an off-the-wagon Duck at the award ceremony or Roger marrying a secretary to ward off middle age.  But without even a touch of Roger’s redeeming grace.

While Don careens around in drunken absent-mindedness, Roger’s experiencing Draper-like flashbacks. Don’s winning the Clio has assaulted Roger’s self-esteem. So he’s trying to console himself with the thought that it was he who recognized Don as a diamond in the rough when he was still selling furs (and Roger was buying one for his new mistress Joan). Yet Roger’s memories are faithful enough to the facts to reveal that Don had played Roger like a violin. Having done his research, Don made his pitch for a job at Sterling Cooper by getting Roger too drunk at 10 in the morning to remember whether he had or hadn’t offered Don a job. When Don shows up for work at Sterling Cooper the next morning, Roger’s too vain not to welcome him to the firm.

By the end of last night’s episode, Roger’s experiencing a pang of self-awareness. He might be childish, but he’s figured out that he has a self to be aware of.  That's more than you can say for Don.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, spot-on commentary.

Anonymous said...

To RR: your commentary is really interesting. I have noticed the amazing physical transformation that Jon Hamm goes through when he is Don vs. Dick. I saw a shadow of that last night. He really is an amazing actor.
I love the way you dig deep into Don/Dick's persona. I think, after last night's show, I would say his character rivals that of Tony Sophrano.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Don/Dick has the luxury of aknowledging self-awareness in the same way Roger does (Family background amounts to notes Mother Sterling's preference of transparent vanilla to chocolate ice cream). Roger's not coming from such a twisted past - he can afford to absentmindedly spout off memories for a memoir to a secretary and while there may be embarrassing moments to remember, their darkness isn't nearly as harrowing as Don/Dick's.

Anonymous said...

Ever since Don sexually assaulted Bobbie at the restaurant in season 2 I have felt that there were a lot of similarities between Don and Tony Soprano. I have read elsewhere that having Don descend into this spiral is not good for the show. However, I don't agree. This is one of the few shows where there is a lot going on with the characters' inner lives. Even the characters in some of my favorite series don't really change. That's why I adore this series so much. Tony Soprano ultimately was not much different at the end of the series than he was in the beginning. Carrie Bradshaw changed not one bit. Here we have young people in their 20's who are on their way up and we have to expect there will be changes to Peggy and Pete. Frankly, given Don's behavior in the first 3 seasons, I would be surprised not to see the change we see now. Weiner is really brilliant. He doesn't let his characters stagnate. Also, remember that the next 14 years are years of incredible change for the United States. No one entered 1960 and came out a decade later unchanged. Don will either pull it together or he'll end up killing himself one way or another (a dx of lung cancer?). Or, he'll end up back in poverty. Those good looks are not going to last; especially with the drinking, smoking, etc. Jon Hamm is so brilliant as an actor. I foresee some great acting from him this year. Maybe he'll get that well deserved Emmy next year.

Anonymous said...

Jon Hamm, when interviewed on the Red Carpet about dancing in the Emmy's opening "Gleeful Mission" number said, "I have to play other characters, because it is very depressing playing such a dark figure everyday." (summarized)
Jon Hamm's dancing skills: http://www.nbc.com/emmys/video/a-glee-ful-mission/1246536

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Anon at 12:08 am for reporting on Jon Hamm's comment at the Emmys. So I think we're all correct in observing that Don is descending deeper and deeper into a dark place. I don't think we'll see him in psychotherapy any time soon, but he is going to have to do something radical. Even Don knows that Don is losing it -- remember he unplugged the phone on Sunday after being awakened with the startling realization that he had not only lost Saturday, but apparently spent Saturday as Dick. I think he's going to marry Bethany real quick. Then Bethany will fill the stabilizing role that Betty played in his life.