(S P O I L E R S)
In which I’m sorry your life is in a million pieces.
“Midge: I like that you come in here, acting like somebody else. It must be so intense above 14th street, then you shoot down on the train. That look when I open that door. Sometimes you’re preoccupied, but then you always…well, you always…change gears.
Don: I don’t even think about it.
Midge: I know. I like being your medicine.”
And now we come to the time when things get dark. Really dark. Painfully dark.
In six and a half seasons of Mad Men, Don Draper has done some reprehensible things. Some of those come with the territory, the narcissistic, hedonistic behavior common to the jet set ‘60s ad world. But some of them go much further.
In those six and a half seasons of bad behavior, there have only been a few instances that have caused me true pain and discomfort. Like a knife in the gut. One of them takes place midway through the Dante-inspired Season 6, in an episode that, if it’s not the ninth circle of Hell for Don, surely must be close to it. What he does in this episode is so morally and ethically repugnant, it almost marked a point of no return for me. (I know that I spoiler tag these posts, but I don’t want to reveal anything more about the episode to which I’m referring. If you haven’t made it to Season 6, do so. If you have watched it, you might know what I’m talking about.)
But the other truly painful instance comes in “5G.” And it’s probably as close to a moment of original sin as Mad Men gets. Because it’s in this episode that Dick Whitman, dressed in his very well-tailored Don Draper suit (apologies to Hannibal), gives his long lost brother Adam $5,000 to leave his life for good.
$5,000. Nearly $40,000 in 2015 funds. Enough, as Don tells Adam, to start an entirely new life. Enough, as it turns out, to destroy one life for good.
Much of the Don/Adam action takes place in a temporal haze. The only other character to interact with Adam is Peggy (and maybe Allison the receptionist.) When Don returns from meeting Adam in the lobby, the sound drops out of his perception of the staff meeting, his cigarette striking his lighter the only ghostly echo. The climactic moments of the episode, in which Don visits Adam’s apartment to deliver the money, seem like a late night fever dream, the kind of voyage into the dark night of the soul whose reality you long to deny.
Even the masterful construction of these climactic moments is meant to confuse the audience. After burning the old photo that Adam sends him, Don’s call to the hotel is vague. As he hoists his satchel onto his desk, the camera cuts to a low angle of him pulling something from his desk drawer. A slight click is heard. The camera cuts to a low angle shot of Don carrying the satchel in the hotel. His conversation with Adam is laced with innuendo. When Adam tries to pay him a compliment (“Of course Uncle Mack thought you were soft. But you’re not, are ya?”) Don’s reply of “No I’m not”, coupled with his icy death stare, seems like the precursor for him pulling a gun out of the bag.
Of course, it’s not a gun that’s in the bag. But a gun might’ve been a better fate for Adam. At least his death would’ve been instant. Don’s attempt to pay off his only living relative is a far worse fate than a bullet.
Give all the credit in the world to Jay Paulson, whose deeply sympathetic, heartbreaking portrayal of overgrown manchild Adam paves the way for the emotional devastation of that climactic hotel scene. At first brush, Adam can seem almost autistic in how guileless and open-eyed he acts. But his demeanor stands in stark contrast to the hardened cool of Don; this kid from the Midwest, relocated to New York to try to find his way…he’s the normal one. Don Draper: Master of the Universe is the warped individual in this scenario.
It can be easy in all of this to forget about Don’s pained perspective. He’s the hatchet man in this episode, but he’s also driven by those Fitzgeraldian hot whips of panic. During his lunch with Adam, his cold dismissal of their mother’s death from stomach cancer (“Good”) is tempered by the pain he alludes to when he reveals to the audience that she wasn’t his mother. And when Adam asks if he missed him, Don’s choked response proves that none of what he is about to do ranks as pure formality. His attempt to make Adam disappear is meant to protect his new life (the foundations of which, we see, are already starting to crack), but it’s also driven by one unescapable fact: Adam’s genteel nature is almost a mirror reflection of what Dick Whitman must have been like. Future episodes (and seasons) will show just how insecure and frightened a human being Dick Whitman was, and how his one in a million chance to literally become someone else led him to flee to the opposite end of the spectrum. To the sleek, cold, powerful, comforting confines of Don Draper.
Through six and a half seasons, the adult Adam Whitman has only appeared three times. One of those appearances is his suicide, which serves as the brief intro to Episode 11: “Indian Summer.” But his shadow looms large over Don for the rest of the show’s run. His third appearance, as a vision in the final episode of Season 5, also helps pave the way for another emotionally devastating final scene. But that’s another episode for another day.
But, of course, it’s Don’s attempt to keep all of the conflicting facets of his life separate, the epic juggling act of a man bound to eventually drop everything, that is the backbone of this theme. For the first time, the audience has confirmation that their antihero is literally not who he seems. And it’s apparently the first time in a long while (outside of the opening scene of “Marriage of Figaro”) that he’s had to face his actual past. As he shifts from celebrating his award with Betty, to sleeping with Midge (who, when she calls him at the office, offers the first breach of Don’s sacred barriers in this episode), to reuniting with Adam, to getting the family photo with Betty and the kids, his demeanor becomes more and more frazzled. As evidence by his conversation with Midge (highlighted at the beginning of this essay), he’s long been the master at switching between these disparate worlds. But even a master can only stay that way for so long.
Once again, we close with a few stray threads:
*During kitchen conversation with Francine, Betty complains about her visit to Sterling Cooper by saying “When I go to his office, I expect the royal treatment.” It’s the first indication, albeit a subtle one, the series gives us that she’s not entirely a babe in the woods.
*When Don tells Adam “I’m not buying your lunch, because this never happened,” it echoes Peggy’s declaration to Pete after he returns from his honeymoon. Of course, Don will repeat this advice to Peggy in Season 2, Episode 5’s flashback to her time in the maternity ward.
*For an episode that’s so dark, the opening sequence of Don and Betty returning home from the awards banquet is a nice glimpse into the genuine affection they have for each other. Of course, they also wake up with hangovers (and to the echo of Don’s veteran smoker’s cough.)
*”He came back all greasy and calm” (Peggy)
*”I just think it’s odd that the bear is talking” (Trudy)
*Requisite teaching anecdote: the tension in the room when the students thought that Don was bringing a gun to the hotel was electric. And yes, most of them loved poor Adam.
And in one final note, “5G” has one of my favorite edits of Season 1, as we cut from hubba hubba Don perched over Midge in bed to Pete and Trudy in bed. As you can see from these stills, the comedy is self-evident: