Who is Dick Whitman?
Sometimes this season I try to imagine myself watching Mad Men as some people I know are doing it, without having seen seasons 1-3. This week’s episode, “The Good News,” might be among the less comprehensible in the whole series, but there would certainly be funny and poignant moments. Don’s man-date with Lane has its outrageous bit of comedy. Joan’s firing of Lane’s secretary for failing to take responsibility for the flowers fuckup is deliciously dramatic. I would gladly watch Don Draper drive a red convertible along the Pacific coast for an hour or two each week. The scene in which Greg stitches up Joan’s finger while telling his hillbilly joke is one of the most arresting in the episode whether or not you know the backstory of these two, though it packs much more of an emotional wallop if you know [SPOILER ALERT!] that (1) he raped her, and (2) he has no brains in his fingers, which has led to (3): he joins the army and is soon shipping off to Vietnam, where he will die.
I said as the scene ended, “I really don’t want to like that guy” and well, that scene made me LOVE him, which is just wrong. Of course I don’t know that he’s going to die. The M.D.s are less likely to die in a war than the G.I.s, but given that these scenes were paired with the ones of Dick finding out about Anna’s terminal illness, death is a theme.
This show makes me want to fish for thematic parallels and obscure allusions, and bear with me. One of the movies Don and Lane consider seeing on New Year’s Eve is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (IMO, the greatest film ever made) and in that movie, the protagonist played by Catherine Deneuve becomes pregnant with a child just before her lover departs for the war. When he returns he finds her having set up a family in his absence with another man. In “The Good News” Joan is looking to get pregnant at the same time that her husband is shipping off to Vietnam. Uh huh. Another thing this episode makes me think about is harm to people’s legs and feet. First in Season 3 Guy McKendrick is run over by the John Deere driven by Lois, his career ending in that awful bloody moment; then the Ad Age reporter sent to interview Don in “Public Relations” is missing a leg (lost in the war, of course, the same one in which Dick became Don), and now Anna Draper, who already limped from polio, has her leg in a walking cast. I’ll get back to you about the ultimate significance of the deep symbolic meanings involved here but they sure suggest mortality and pain.
We learn a lot in this episode, which I found to be among the most amusing, surreal, and inconsequential of the series so far. Joan has had two abortions, one of them performed under questionable and undoubtedly dangerous circumstances. This threatens her ability to have a child with Greg, though the gyno (he calls her Jojo and she calls him Walter -- interesting!) seems confident enough.
I would predict that Joan can’t have kids, though perhaps an even better storyline for her would follow the Umbrellas situation -- pregnant with an absent husband, or maybe Greg returns from the war with a bum foot? Let’s keep going: Anna Draper is dying and everyone is keeping it a secret from her. This is one of the show's "period" ironies -- in those days, that's how things were done. Can you believe that? As well, Lane, like Don, is divorced. (Remember the scene in “Love Among the Ruins” when the Pryces an Drapers go out for dinner together?) The students at Berkeley are staging sit-ins. A whore cost $25 in mid-1960s NYC. Don Draper will indeed put the moves on every young, attractive woman he comes across. And so on.
If you haven’t watched every episode leading up to this one, you don’t know that scenes in an OBGYN office are always important.
Peggy goes to Joan’s doctor -- the same one we see in this episode -- for birth control in “Smoke Get in Your Eyes” only to meet with his paternalism and disapproval. (“Even in our modern times, easy women don’t find husbands,” he admonishes.) Betty sees hers in season 2 to find out about her surprise pregnancy with baby Gene. Now here we are back with Jojo’s Walter. This is so obviously a “setting things up” episode that Joan’s fertility is undoubtedly in play as S4 progresses, as is Anna Draper’s mortality. I can’t help but anticipate a connection between them.
But what seems most in play is the underlying identity of Don Draper as Dick Whitman. If Anna Draper dies, so does the experience Don/Dick has of being a true, authentic self, a pre-Don Draper innocent. We know that the season’s theme is supposed to be “Who is Don Draper?” This episode pushes us to consider the possibility that Don is no longer the assumed identity of Dick, that enough time and experience has passed that the identity of Don supersedes that of Dick. When Don signs her wall "Dick + Anna '64" it makes it seem as if Don is performing an earlier, more youthful identity rather than, as earlier in the series, as if Don is Dick's performance.
The larger significance of these observations for my ongoing MM blogging project is to see the dense interconnection of themes and motifs, along with the backstory and our memories of characters’ journeys, as essentially legitimating of shows like this one. A network serial would most often belabor the backstory with expository recapping dialogue. Characters would remind one another of their situations. For instance, Joan and Greg’s exquisite home surgery scene would find more obvious ways of reminding us that Greg’s career as a surgeon had seemed so promising, only to fall apart when he was denied the chief residency. Anna and Dick’s moments together would find more obvious ways of reminding us of that earlier episode, “The Mountain King,” when Don first pays her a visit and remembers the earlier time when they were together. The subtlety of this episode’s allusions and cues to memory works in a different register of audience address than the typical mass television fare, rewarding and flattering the completist audience for Quality TV (and especially the people like me who have seen every episode at least twice) and basically showing a lack of interest in pleasing the casual viewer who, presumably, is necessary for guaranteeing the networks their larger audiences. But who knows, maybe those casual viewers -- you know who you are -- get their own kinds of pleasure from watching casually, which I only wish I knew about. I find the show to be a kind of reverse guilty pleasure at this point, pushing me to invest in its symbols and references, its dense thematic interconnection of episodes. I almost wish I could watch it in a state of innocence, just to find out what will happen next.
PS I never thought Don was really going to make it to Acapulco in this episode, and I'm still not sure why they decided to call this one "The Good News."
(updated to add a title to the post)