One is hesitant to criticize Mad Men. By now, this portrayal of the fictional 1960s advertising agency Sterling Cooper is easily among the most prestigious shows on television, and it is one of my personal favorites as well, producing a deep and abiding calm in me whenever I sit down to watch. But as I watched the second season unfold week by week, I found myself increasingly uneasy. The plot seemed confusing and even random, especially when compared with the masterful construction of the first season.
But with the third season about to begin on August 16, I decided to rewatch the second season’s episodes in rapid succession—and I now realize that I was wrong. Admittedly, the second season lacks the clear narrative drive of the first, with its gradual revelation of Don Draper’s “identity theft”—his real name is Dick Whitman, and Don Draper a name he stole from a fallen war comrade. Nor does the second season have a breathtaking conclusion to match Don’s pitch for the Kodak Carousel slide projector.
Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks
The second season’s principle of organization is more subtle but arguably more interesting as well, focusing on the question of identity. Cycling through all the ways that one can gain and lose one’s identity, the writers don’t so much answer the question of Don Draper’s identity in the second season as displace and complicate it.
When season two begins, several months have past since the events of the first season, and Don is clearly still responding to the emotional consequences of having his deception unmasked and the life he has built under his assumed name jeopardized. His initial response to the trauma of his unmasking is simply to “move forward,” as he says often, without dwelling on the past—an answer that presumes that identity can be readily apprehended and subsequently controlled.
“Moving forward” effectively becomes Don’s life philosophy, and he advises both Peggy, the ambitious secretary-turned-copywriter who finds herself with an unexpected and unwanted child, and Roger Sterling, his partner at the firm and close friend, to follow it. Their results are ambivalent at best: Peggy struggles with the guilt of having pawned off a child on her mother and sister, while Roger is emboldened to seek a divorce that will likely lead to his financial ruin. But this is not surprising, since we had seen in the first season how Don’s attempt to “move forward” and cut his brother out of his life led to his brother’s suicide. Clearly, Don Draper is a dubious source of advice.
The first way he himself “moved forward” had been to come up with a compelling angle on the seemingly unpromising Kodak “Wheel” slide projector. Filling the projector with his own family photos, he delivered a dramatic pitch on the power of memory and nostalgia, renaming the product the “Carousel” to link it to the rhythms of childhood. He sells the slide projector as a “time machine” that can ease the pain of nostalgia, that can bring us “back home again to a place where we know we are loved.” It’s so effective that he himself is taken in by it. The result was more than a professional triumph. The Kodak Carousel pitch seems to provide Don with the content to fill out his newly refurbished, “forward-moving” identity: He can become a real family man, a devoted and faithful husband, a man of integrity. It provides him with a plan for integrating his work and home personae, motivating him to renounce his secret love affairs and to build his career on a foundation of loyalty and trustworthiness.
This approach is built on another of the phrases Don frequently repeats: “What do you want me to say?” It comes up most frequently as a way to defuse conflict with his wife, Betty, but it also reflects his overall self-concept. He doesn’t view himself as a salesman or even strictly as a persuader: He’s ultimately giving people what they want, even if he often has to tell them what they want before giving it to them. His entire “brand identity” as Don Draper is based on a myth of perfect transparency, the idea that others’ needs and desires are clear to him and he can act in such a way that they will see him as one who consistently fulfills their needs.
Already in the first episode of the second season, however, it is becoming clear that seeing and responding to what others want isn’t so easy outside the context of advertising. A romantic night with Betty—who enters the scene in slow motion, as though Don is seeing her for the first time and falling in love all over again—is spoiled by Don’s failure to perform sexually. (Serendipitously, the On Demand version of the episode cut to a commercial for Viagra after this scene.) Meanwhile, at work, his attempts to show loyalty to clients and fellow employees bring him into conflict with his partners in the firm.
Despite the closing drama of the first season, Don’s “ownership” of his assumed name is never seriously threatened in the second. Rather, it is control over what his name will mean, both to himself and others, that is at stake. At work, his new self-concept is first challenged when he is forced to inform a longtime client that Sterling Cooper is dumping them to pursue a bigger client in the same line of business—a move Don fought against unsuccessfully. The longtime client responds that he came to the agency specifically for “Don Draper” and now not only feels betrayed but also embarrassed that he allowed himself to be taken in by Don’s suave delivery. Though Don wanted his personal brand to be based on integrity, “Don Draper” now stands for betrayal.
Also contrary to his new self-concept, he ambivalently takes on a new mistress, seemingly unable to resist her advances. Things reach a crisis point when the mistress tells him that all the many women who have told her about “the Don Draper treatment” were completely right. While she means it to be flirtatious and complimentary, the comment enrages Don, who recognizes that he has again lost control of his name, which circulates freely in gossip. He ties his mistress to the bed and leaves, in a symbolic effort to reassert control. But where he wanted his name to signify devoted family man, “Don Draper” means adultery instead.