Wednesday, July 21, 2010

One more time with the MacGuffin

The virtues of mad men
The Gypsy and the Hobo
The thing about Don's secret identity is that it has always been there but nothing has ever turned on it. It's always looked like it might matter but in the end it has turned out not to matter. With this episode, it appears that something must turn on it and there is the problem.

As far as Don's motivation goes, the show has used his past to explain his motives for becoming Don Draper. It has never explained why that past is still there. Okay, that sounds mystical but here is a concrete example: Why does he continue to keep all the mementos of his past? It's not that it wouldn't be easy to come up with a  reason but the show never does. And why does he keep all that money in the drawer? Presumably so he can escape when he wants but the show never explores that. There is absolutely no background to justify using it as a turning point in this episode.

There is also the general problem of secrets from past lives. Everyone has them. Practically no one gets married a virgin anymore and you don't—not if you have any brains anyway—tell your spouse what it was like to be in love with someone else,

And even beyond that there are aspects of our past lives we don't share simply because they don't come up. In this episode Greg tells Joan about his father's nervous breakdown and then finds himself saying, "I can't believe I never told you that." This is a normal thing in most relationships. We all have things we do not talk about. The central question this particular episode has to answer to be credible is why exactly does Don's secret past constitute a betrayal of betty. Tellingly, it never does asnwer that question.

There are all sorts of good reasons for Betty to feel betrayed. Don has not only had affairs, he is in love with another woman. And then there is the money in the drawer. Why is that there? Was it an escape hatch so he could get out any time he wanted? If so, that is serious betryal. But how much of a betrayal is it that he used to be named Dick Whitman and now he is named Don Draper?

This gets underlined early on when Betty is talking with her family's lawyer on another matter and she asks him for advice. He gives her legal advice and then asks some blunt personal questions. Is she afraid of Don? is Don a good provider? There is nothing there so she is forced to go on and explain what the something else that is in the way might be. And there the thing breaks down. What is it about Don's past as Dick Whitman that constitutes a betrayal of Betty? The show has no answer to that.

Up until now, Don's secret past has always been a MacGuffin. It has been the thing that kept the audience focused until we could see that the real issue lies elsewhere. The show has always unconciously sided with Don's privacy. Will this episode be any different?

No it won't. It's odd because, as Ann Althouse has pointed out, no one, neither liberals nor conservatives, places a lot of value on privacy anymore. When some public figure's life is torn apart because their privacy has been exposed to all the world, we cheer. This show, however, always ends up siding with privacy. It may not even do so consciously but it always ends up coming down on the side of privacy.

The Gypsy and the Hobo
The title comes from the costumes that Sally and Bobby wear on Halloween but it has a double sense in that it also refers to Roger and Don. This is really well done because we might not have thought of Roger as a gypsy before this episode but his character takes that hue through a really great bit of retroactive context. We learn what Roger was like back in Paris before the war being romantic witha  woman who returns now to tell him that he was the only one she really loved.

It's a fantastic touch because it is pure Casablanca every inch of the way and yet it never feels false or faked. Roger denies it but we quickly see just how much he loved her and how much he was hurt by her leaving him.

She gets one very nioce line in about him, "You walked around like you were hoping to be a character in somebody else's novel." Well, a character in somebody else's TV show anyway.

In the end, Roger turns down his old lover but we can all see that it's because he really loves Joan not Jane.

The Hobo
We've known that Don was a Hobo since season one but now Betty gets to find out.

As I always say, what actually happens? When the big revelation comes, Don does not run. He's always run before and then come back. This time he doesn't even run. We have seen him develop the last few seasons. He has become Don Draper and there is no going back.

There are two challenges about Don's true history. The first is thatw e already know it. Dramatically, it won't do to have him go over all the details with Betty now that would be too boring.

The bigger problem is that it is an sad but inspiring story. Don is quite literally a self made man who has overcome personal tragedy and serious odds to succeed. His is a great American story. Does Betty have reason to feel betrayed. Yes but not in this past story. And we can see it in her face as she listens to the story.

When Don asks Betty why she needed to know, she comes back with "You don't get to ask any questions?" Well, why not?

The hypothetical underneath all this is would any of this is could a healthy marriage have survived this? The answer to that is yes. All sorts of families deal with crises like these one. There are secrets not unlike this in my family and people dealt with them. There probably are in yours too.

Betty says, You lied to me every day. I can't tust you, I don't know who you are.

Do you agree with her? You will if you believe authenticity, being who you really are, is important. I don't. I think becoming who you are supposed to be is what matters.

You could make a very solid argument that Don has failed in this. His infidelity for starters. But the authenticity doesn't relate. AUthenticity says it really matters that Don has not to his self been true. It's a compelling idea. I won't deny that. Lots of writers and intellectuals have thought authenticity mattered.

What I will say, however, is that it doesn't work here. When we look at what happens over the next few shows authenticity has nothing to do with it. It couldn't. For three seasons, Matt Weiner has had opportunity to set the ground work for authenticity to matter and has never done so. (I might note that for authenticity to be a virtue, we have to disallow any privacy. That is we have to disallow the notion that there is some private sphere where matters are just between us and God.)

Lots of people wil disagree with me and say that authenticity matters and that is why the marriage fails here. I don't think so and I think we can see that if we pay attention to what actually happens. Watch the next episodes carefully and you will see that Betty—like Rachel before her-runs and Don stays and faces his moral responsibilities. He is a long way from perfect but he is good. He shows real virue and she does not.

The turning point happens here in the dark, in the privacy of their home. n reponse to Betty's "I don't know you," Don says "yes you do," and she falters. She does know. She has revealed just how much she knows during this discussion. The ball is back in her court. That is what actually happens. And when she falters, Don takes over the control. he moves upstairs, he tells her to sit with him, he takes over the narrative.

And then they go trick or treating with the kids and neighbour Carlton says, "And who are you supposed to be?" We see it as a question for Don but it's just as much   question for everyone. Betty for example. Stick with me for the last two episodes and watch Betty run and watch Don rise to the occasion.

Major quibble: Domestic violence is not okay. It's not okay when a woman does it instead of a man. The scene where Joan smashes a vase across the back of Greg's head is repulsive. It would never, ever have been played the other way.


  1. OK, once again: Authenticity does not matter in a relationship with a co-worker, the bank teller, the mailman, or the girl at the supermarket checkout. But in the most intimate relationship in one's life IT MATTERS!
    Don was way out of his league with Rachel--she was light years ahead of him both morally, probably educationally, and in terms of psychological health. Running from him was THE ONLY HEALTHY OPTION FOR HER!! Should she have stayed his mistress? Should she have become his shrink? She deserved better than that. Healthy people don't stay with sick people, remember?
    Don is not a moral hero here, he's an anti-hero maybe even a tragic hero. I like the guy, but not someone I would or should model my life after. And BTW, my family--and I would venture to say most families--have no secrets as grave or egregious as his. I think you're minimizing just how grave a secret it was.

  2. There are no moral heroes here. Least of all Betty.

    But here is the question: What is best thing for him to do for Betty, to be the authentic Dick Whitman or to be Don Draper? She didn't marry Dick Whitman and she wouldn't have wanted to. That is the authenticity question: Are you supposed to be something authentic deep inside of you or is it better to be the person you choose to become?

    I go with the second every time.

  3. I think you're confusing his core values or one's core values with the circumstances of his/one's birth and his/one's outward identity. Don Draper's core values are the same as Dick Whitman's because he is Dick Whitman. He rose above the circumstances of his birth to the point of creating a new outward identity because he didn't think the old one would be accepted where he wanted to go. Maybe he was right, but with all that talent, as Bert Cooper said, "Who cares?" But his core values remained the same, because they were formed by the experience of growing up as Dick Whitman, you cannot separate the two.

    No intimate relationship can survive without honesty, unless its dysfunctional, co-dependent, etc. And intimate and other relationships are integral to becoming the persons we want to become. Don chose Betty because she looked good on paper, i.e., from the outside. He didn't consider what she was like inside because that wasn't even on his radar. If you think about it, when they married they were very well-suited to each other, like Barbie and Ken, all style no substance, both shallow. Betty might be a child, but her sense of betrayal and outrage at finding out the truth about Don was real, and entirely justified. How could he not tell her, the love of his life, the truth about how Dick Whitman became Don Draper and at least given her the option of going along with his ruse or not? That's what Authenticity means.