The Internet is teeming with idle chatter about Mad Men’s season premiere. I don’t yet have much to say about it because I don’t pretend to know where the story lines introduced last night are going to take us. Anyone who has watched the show’s first four seasons knows how easy it is to surrender to a Matthew Weiner head fake.
There was one development in last night’s show, however, that really got my attention because it said something about the story arc of the whole series: Megan Draper knows that her husband used to go by the name “Dick Whitman” and is now living a life that he fabricated out of whole cloth. It’s not yet clear how much she knows about Dick Whitman, above all, whether she knows that he’s an army deserter who got a new lease on life—or should I say “a lease on a new life”?—impersonating a dead man named Don Draper. Yet Megan is plainly perceptive enough to figure out that anyone who would bother to lie about something as trivial as a birthday must be keeping a pretty dark secret from the world at large. Don seems to have let her in on most of it.
Seen from one angle, Mad Men is about one life splitting into two lives that gradually reunite back into a single life. Dick Whitman stopped being a cowardly and socially stunted farm boy when he exchanged his dog tags for the ones dangling from Don Draper’s charred neck in Korea. By the time we first laid eyes on "Don Draper,” he was a swashbuckling advertising executive. It has always been hard to believe that his visible self-command and Dick Whitman’s all-too-visible cowardice could be different aspects of the same person. Were we watching Dick Whitman conceal himself or Don Draper become himself?
When we first met Don, the social and psychological barriers between his life and Dick’s seemed impermeable. As far as we knew, they had no mutual acquaintances and Don was utterly unburdened by memories of being Dick. That all changed when Adam Whitman, Dick’s abandoned half-brother, showed up in Don’s life halfway through season one. Suddenly, Don had to answer to someone for changing his name. After he turned Adam away, Don started being afflicted with memories of his prior life and a guilty conscience. By the end of the first season, he knew that he was responsible for his brother’s suicide and that, despite years of marriage, his bond with Betty could never take root as durable love because he’d secured her affection under false pretenses.
The social and psychological barriers between Dick and Don’s lives have been steadily eroding ever since. His darkest secret was revealed first to Pete Campbell, then to Bert Cooper at the end of season one, and then to his ex-wife Betty by the end of season three. Last season, it looked like things were coming to a head psychologically. In one episode, Don went to bed on Friday night with a woman he’d picked up in the course of celebrating an advertising award he’d received for the Glo-Coat commercial only to wake up Sunday morning to discover himself in bed with a different woman that Dick Whitman had picked up sometime over the weekend when Don wasn’t conscious. By the end of season four, Don had confessed his darkest secrets to Faye Miller and contemplated revealing them to the world at large to relieve the psychic stress of being two people. Marrying Megan was Don’s way of stepping back from that brink.
Yet we now know that the step back was measured. For my money, the crucial juncture of last night’s show was when Don acknowledged to Megan that, although she’d just put him through the ordeal of a surprise party in celebration of his fortieth birthday, he’d really already been forty for over six months. Before he met Megan Don had always refused to celebrate his birthday (except for pretending it was his birthday that time in Baltimore with the stewardess in the first episode of season three). Maybe that’s because Don couldn’t decide whether he was born the day a prostitute gave birth to Dick Whitman, the day he started wearing different dog tags in Korea or the day Don Draper now puts on his tax returns. It looks like he has made up his mind.