Richard Whitman Shrugged: The Merging of Identities in ‘Mad Men: Season 4’

[3 April 2011]

By Quentin B. Huff

“Who is Don Draper?”

That’s the question that opens, and energizes, the fourth season of Mad Men, AMC’s sharp and angular take on ‘60s Madison Avenue culture. The show’s first season referenced Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s philosophical novel populated with prime movers and titans of talent. Atlas Shrugged opened with a similar query, namely, “Who is John Galt?”

Donald F. Draper, Mad Men‘s central figure, is depicted as a multi-faceted, often contradictory, cut of a man through Jon Hamm’s dynamic portrayal.  Draper might not be as singularly focused as Galt, who dedicated himself to leading an underground rebellion of skilled visionaries against society’s complacent acceptance of mediocrity.  He is, at best, a composite of two Atlas Shrugged personalities: John Galt (the wellspring of creativity) and Francisco d’Anconia (the apparent playboy).  Otherwise, as individual characters go, the more appropriate Ayn Rand comparison is between Don Draper, the sometimes brilliant and unpredictable advertising executive with a seemingly unyielding sexual appetite, and The Fountainhead‘s Howard Roark, the brilliant and unpredictable architect who’s no slouch with the ladies himself.  These men—Galt, Draper, and Roark—are secretive, driven to excel in their trades, and productively self-interested.  The characters that inhabit the world with these men are continually searching to understand them, to decipher their actions, and locate the intersection between who these men are and what their actions say about who they are.

cover art

Mad Men: Season Four

(AMC; US DVD: 29 Mar 2011)

Don Draper, ad man and ladies man, is dealing with an identity crisis, the seed of which was sewn in the first season and has grown intensely in season four to occupy a significant theme in the show’s growth. That Draper is the creative fulcrum of his newly formed ad agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, remains clear. When Draper is edgy about securing new business in season four’s first episode (“Public Relations”), account man and rainmaker Pete Campbell reassures him that a competitor poses no creative threat, “You know why? Because you don’t work there.” Yet, it’s Draper’s advertising work that prompts the season’s opening salvo, “Who is Don Draper,” and it comes from an Advertising Age reporter.

Afterward, the interviewer inadvertently reveals his prosthetic leg, the significance of which, other than inviting the sardonic wit of agency partner Roger Sterling (“They’re so cheap, they can’t even afford a whole reporter”), is that it hints at the areas of his life Draper would rather keep secret: his numerous past affairs, his current divorce, and of course the truth of his identity.  “What do men say when you ask that?” is Draper’s response to the question of who he is.  He ultimately says nothing substantial about himself, which turns out to be bad for business.  Basking in the accolades from his innovative commercial for Glo-Coat, the interview turns out to be a missed opportunity for Don Draper to advertise himself and continue to build his young company’s reputation.

Thus begins season four’s thematic touchstone, as the show continues to shake the relative stability of the business and personal lives of its characters. At the end of season three, Draper founded a new ad agency with colleagues (and their clients) from his old firm: industry veteran “Bertram Cooper” (Robert Morse), account men “Roger Sterling” (John Slattery) and “Pete Campbell” (Vincent Kartheiser), copywriter “Peggy Olson” (Elisabeth Moss), television specialist “Harry Crane” (Rich Sommer), finance wizard “Lane Pryce” (Jared Harris), and office manager “Joan Holloway” (Christina Hendricks). 

By season four, viewers understand that every reference to Don Draper’s identity brings forth the possibility of his back story being publicly revealed. In Episode 10 (“Hands & Knees”), Draper’s fear of this jeopardizes a much-needed account with North American Aviation.  An application for a government security clearance brings the FBI to town for a background check—on “Donald F. Draper”!  FBI agents start with Draper’s ex-wife, “Betty” (January Jones), asking her about his affiliations and political leanings before completely unsettling her with, “So, do you have any reason to believe that Mr. Draper isn’t who he says he is?”

Here’s the reason why she was unsettled. Don Draper was not always a successful advertising executive. In fact, he wasn’t even “Don Draper”.  His given name was Richard “Dick” Whitman.  His mother was a prostitute who died in labor.  His father was physically abusive.  He went off to war in Korea, and while he was helping the real Don Draper with a field hospital, an explosion occurred, killing Draper.  Since Draper’s body was beyond recognition, Dick Whitman saw an opportunity and he took it. He swapped his identification tags for Draper’s and, after receiving a Purple Heart, Dick Whitman lived his life as Don Draper. The shortened version of his name speaks to his veiled origins, the nickname “Don” doubling as a verb, meaning “to wear” or “to dress”, while his last name brings to mind a “curtain” or other covering.  Draper worked in sales, hawking cars and furs, before developing into the go-to advertising agent we see in the pilot episode. 

Don Draper—the creative force behind Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce—is a popular man, in the Mad Men microcosm and beyond it. In addition to thorough and insightful commentaries for all 13 episodes, season four provides an intriguing extra: “How to Succeed in Business Don Draper Style”, narrated by business and advertising experts. Thanks to Draper’s cool demeanor, innovative spark, and results-oriented decision making, some folks in the business world are supplementing Sun Tzu’s The Art of War with yet another query, “What would Don Draper Do?” 

That’s Don Draper.  Nobody’s asking what Dick Whitman would do, but every move “Don Draper” makes now is Whitman’s.  By the end of the third season, the truth about Don Draper was known to a select few: Pete Campbell, Bertram Cooper, Betty Draper (married to Dick Whitman reinvented as “Don Draper”), Anna Draper (widow to the real Don Draper), Dick Whitman’s half-brother Adam (who committed suicide shortly after reconnecting with Dick/Don), and loads of television viewers. It’s a little amusing, then, that the DVD extra, “How to Succeed in Business Don Draper Style”, lists “Know Who You Are” as its first piece of advice. By season four’s midpoint, Anna Draper (the lively Melinda Page Hamilton) succumbs to cancer, but a new confidante emerges in consumer psychologist Faye Miller (Cara Buono).

The fact that so many of us are calling Dick Whitman by his assumed name, in spite of what we know, proves that the image of “Don Draper the Ad Man” is Dick Whitman’s greatest advertising campaign of all. Sometimes, it’s not altogether clear that he realizes what he’s done. There’s an ironic thread in Episode Seven (“The Suitcase”) where Draper remarks that boxer Muhammad Ali has a “big mouth”.  “I’m the greatest,” he mocks the champ. “Not if you have to say it.” The irony is that Draper has adopted a new name and lifestyle yet continually calls the boxer “Cassius Clay” rather than his preferred Muhammad Ali.  Refusing to call him Ali seems perfectly accurate for the time period—I know people who still refuse to call him anything other than Cassius Clay, whatever—but, here again, Draper is well acquainted with the importance of names, identities, and fresh starts. It’s funny that he mocks something he knows so well.
In a 13-episode story arc that mirrors its inaugural season, Mad Men unpacks its central character, serving up more cracks in his veneer where he had previously come across as so smooth and self-possessed.

His temper costs him clients.  Same thing goes for his identity theft, in addition to scaring him half to death with worry that he’ll be incarcerated for deserting the military.  Kudos to Hamm on playing the panicked side of Don Draper so very well. 

His unconventional thinking enabled the power play that gave rise to his new company.  It also placed him in a partnership with an overreliance on a single client (the “Lucky Strike” cigarette brand) and a relatively unproven track record.

His excessive drinking causes him to pitch a borrowed idea to a client, and he has to hire the originator, “Danny Siegel” (Danny Strong, who you might know from the Yale era of Gilmore Girls), cousin to Roger Sterling’s wife, to rectify the error. 

His debauchery haunts him in the form of ladies for hire whom he pays for sexual favors, including sadomasochism, not to mention a past flame (Rosemarie DeWitt’s “Midge Daniels”) who looks him up in search of money to feed her drug habit. 

His, and Betty’s, parenting problems receive scrutiny, as his daughter Sally misbehaves, at home with Betty and at Draper’s office. Impressively, Kiernan Shipka plays Sally as an inquisitive, complex ten-year-old struggling to make sense of divorce, non-traditional family structure, and her own maturation.  Much like her father, she is an unpredictable force that eschews rules and boundaries but is capable of tremendous compassion and empathy.  Episode Nine (“The Beautiful Girls”), in which Sally runs away from home and finagles her way to Draper’s office, dramatizes the collision between Draper’s personal and professional interests. As if cued to Sally’s distress, the DVD set offers a three-part feature about divorce in the ‘60s, including statistics and legal aspects.

Draper is not the only character to experience the merger of personal and professional spheres. Roger Sterling, the dismissive and cavalier successor to his father’s fortune, brings his mental scars from World War II into the workplace, tossing insults and bluster at executives from the Japanese-owned Honda corporation, a potential account (“We don’t want any of your Jap crap!”).  Elsewhere, he has suffered personal setbacks, from the two heart attacks impacting his health to what he views in season four as his lost romantic opportunity with Joan Holloway (now married to Army-enlisted doctor Greg Harris). After the two are mugged one night on a dimly lit street, the trauma and adrenalin cause Joan and Roger to rekindle their affair (on the same street as the mugging no less!). Later, Joan discovers she is pregnant. I called him dismissive a second ago, but the gentle manner in which he approaches Joan’s pregnancy highlights his caring and nurturing side.

At the same time, Roger Sterling has taken to reflecting on his life as he dictates audio for his memoirs, which reveals his long ago affair with “Miss Blankenship” (Randee Heller), a now elderly woman who steps in as Draper’s secretary. It’s supposed to say something, I think, about Sterling’s perspective on himself and his accomplishments that this woman, who sat at a personal and professional intersection for him, has aged somewhat ungracefully.  As Draper’s secretary, she is comically forgetful, mistaken about announcements, and slow to act. Her death in the office leaves Sterling pondering his own demise, “Damn it, I don’t want to die in this office… If it looks like I’m going, open a window. I’d rather flatten the top of a cab.” Further, the company’s loss of the lucrative Lucky Strike account has Sterling’s partners wondering what it is he actually does for the business. Sterling embarks on a series of omissions and lies designed to mislead his partners about his advance knowledge of Lucky Strike’s defection.

Peggy Olson Is the Primary Conduit for Social Issues

And then there’s Peggy Olson, the 25-year-old female copywriter.  Her first season fling with Pete Campbell quietly rears its head when she learns that Pete and Trudy are having their first child. Her personal life expands this season, as she makes friends in the office building and courts boyfriends outside the office.  “I have a boyfriend,” she says to deny another woman’s advances at a party (Episode Four, “The Rejected”).  Met with the response, “He doesn’t own your vagina,” Peggy, over the loud music and crowd chatter, answers, “No, but he’s renting it.”

When she meets Abe Drexler (Charlie Hofheimer), a writer with a vigorous political and social viewpoint, she is attracted to him but is challenged by his pro-Civil Rights leanings and his anti-corporate stance.  It’s not that she’s challenged in the way that Roger Sterling might be—let’s not forget he once dressed up in blackface at a party—it’s more that Peggy has become increasingly mindful of her position in the corporate world, dealing everyday with men who unabashedly flaunt their maleness and their contemptible opinions of women.

Her working relationship with Don Draper is a factor in this, which is explicitly brought to the fore when Draper wins a CLIO Award for the Glo-Coat commercial. She contributed to the project but received none of the accolades. Feeling pressured to work late, on her birthday, she raises this point with him. Draper’s response is explosive but instructive, “It’s your job! I give you money, you give me ideas.”  A woman, it seems, must be a team player, if she wants to play at all. Men get to dictate the terms of play.



In another example, Peggy and Pete orchestrate a stunt to stir interest in a client’s product, a brand of baked hams. Their scheme is to pay actresses to stage a fight over the last ham at a particular store.  The fight becomes personal, and the actresses land themselves in jail, demanding bail and hush money, to which Don Draper reacts to Peggy, “I try and stay away from these kinds of shenanigans. But I guess you knew that or you would have told me.”  Yet, when courting the Honda account, Draper has no problem employing trickery to give himself an edge against a rival. As a side note, it’s a curious tidbit that Peggy Olson still doesn’t know the truth about Draper’s past, compared to the coworkers who do.

The show has always used real events as the backdrop to the onscreen action.  Such events have included the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Medgar Evers. Along these lines, two of season four’s bonus features delve into iconic historical moments. One involves the Ford Mustang. The other provides actual footage from the 1964 Presidential Campaign trail, associated political commercials, and President Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration.

This season, Peggy is the primary conduit for social issues, particularly on the topics of race, gender, and sexual orientation.  In the background, when the true focus is plot development and character shaping, Mad Men handles these issues relatively well. The show’s DVDs have included smart and pertinent historical extras. But when the issues are thrust to the foreground, the results are not always stellar.

I like Peggy Olson, the character and the actress who plays her, which is why I choose to see her spat with Abe as her attempt to sort out her identity, as a corporate woman, not so much as an argument about the merits of Civil Rights.  “Most of the things Negroes can’t do, I can’t do either and no one seems to care.” She also feels like Abe is being condescending. “There’s no Negro copywriters, ya know,” he tells her. Later, he adds, “I’m just sayin’, they’re not shootin’ women to keep ‘em from votin’, that’s all.”  Clearly, they weren’t having a great date.

I can’t help but acknowledge the authenticity of their exchange, even as it jolts me out of the fictional world and into the real world consequences of realistically portraying this show’s time period. Their discussion brings to mind the fact that the show doesn’t really have recurring “black” characters.  As of season four, the “Carla” character (Deborah Lacey), the longtime maid for the Drapers, has come the closest to presenting a real black character on Mad Men, and she hardly has much to do, despite being quite good in her scenes.  The show handles issues of sexual orientation far more often, and with richer complexities.

Much discussion has been generated about why there is so little diversity on Mad Men. A plausible explanation is that “diversity” isn’t a reality in the world inhabited by these characters, and not completely in ours. That’s fair enough, I suppose, except that this “world” is fictional, created, so we naturally want to say, “Hey, you’re not making a documentary. Use your imagination.” It’s like when Dennis Haysbert played “President David Palmer” on 24, the reality was that there hadn’t been a “black” United States President.  There are arguments that Haysbert’s portrayal made an impact in this regard.  What if the show had conformed to the “reality”? We would have missed out on Haysbert’s gripping performances.

On the other hand, maybe it’s too daunting a task to incorporate this material, which isn’t meant as a slight.  Rather, I mean to emphasize that race, gender, and sexual orientation are tricky, thorny subjects that are often difficult to handle in fresh, but believable, ways. It’s kind of like Draper’s response to Peggy’s inquiry about doing business with a company refusing to hire black employees, “Our job is to make men like Fillmore Auto, not Fillmore Auto like Negroes.” The task is to craft credible and compelling stories. Doing so will make viewers take notice of any number of important issues.  Or, at least, that’s my theory.  So, are we talking about increasing the nonwhite representation on this show, and many other shows? Or are we talking about the presentation of issues? Maybe it’s less complicated than all that—maybe TV writers haven’t been any good at writing diverse characters, specifically “black” ones, so they shy away. At any rate, there’s a perfectly adequate “black” mugger in Episode Nine.

But, we have to ask: is “diversity” something the show really needs? Even if it is, would it work? Consider the side story with the ever-prudent Lane Pryce. Split from his family by an ocean and marital trouble, Pryce sparks a relationship with a “bunny” at a Playboy Club, “Toni Charles” (portrayed by Naturi Naughton, an R&B singer in the group 3LW who also played rapper Lil Kim in the Notorious B.I.G. biopic).  Pryce’s father Robert has come to town to reunite his son’s family, to help him put his “house in order.” 



For some reason, Pryce thinks it’s a good idea for his father and Toni Charles to meet at the Playboy Club, amongst liquor and the club’s flirtatious atmosphere. Why he thinks this, I can’t figure, but when he later challenges his father, “Are you more distraught that I found someone I love, or that she’s a Negro?”, I laughed when his father whacked him in the head with a cane. The same man who is so careful about wasting office supplies is suddenly so careless about introducing his father (and the audience) to his mistress? And Toni Charles calls him “dashing”!

Aside from some nightlife influence on Lane Pryce from Don Draper, this is odd behavior, mainly useful to illuminate Pryce’s upbringing.  The episode commentary suggests Lane Pryce is “acting out”. But, ultimately, Toni Charles operates within Lane Pryce’s fantasies and processing of the world, as nonwhite characters so often do for their counterparts. Also, the normally crisp and snappy dialogue felt a bit flat and unnatural in this storyline. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s commentary reveals that there was a deleted scene with Toni Charles and Lane Pryce interacting without revealing her occupation, and prior to Pryce’s father’s involvement.  Such a scene might have helped.

Shows have crashed and burned trying to force “important issues” into storylines that were organic and plot-oriented at the outset. I am, however, intrigued that season four raises Peggy’s awareness of multiple issues simultaneously, and with varying degrees of intensity. Depictions of these issues are not always overlapping.  This, in spite of the fact that, in her haste to compare gender issues to racial ones, she takes the common position of ignoring the dual identity of being both “nonwhite” and “female”, not just one or the other. 

Season four’s focus on identity bodes well for season five. When Anna Draper first met Dick Whitman/Don Draper, he was just a car salesman using her husband’s name. They later became close friends. In the flashback of Roger Sterling’s first meeting with him, the Ad Man Formerly Known as Whitman was selling fur coats (Season Four, Episode Six, “Waldorf Stories”).  How removed is he from his humble and meager origins? How does he move forward with his business? How should he resolve his tumultuous relationship with his recently remarried ex-wife? 

In the past, Draper’s sexual dalliances touched his workspace, but it was usually tangentially, like when he cavorted with a female client (“Rachel Menken”, played by Maggie Siff of Sons of Anarchy) or the wife of a client (“Bobbie Barrett”, played by Melinda McGraw).  This time around, he’s sleeping with his secretaries (but not Miss Blankenship!). He’s also sleeping with business associates, like “Faye Miller”, from whom he expects a windfall of fiduciary information, further blurring the boundaries between home and work. All of this sets up a finalé in which he proposes marriage to his secretary, “Megan” (Jessica Paré).  His engagement is to the woman as well as to the stability married life represents, although the significance of him proposing with the deceased Anna Draper’s ring might evoke less optimism.

That’s the question we’re left with when season four ends:  can he truly be happy with stability, or is Dick Whitman, a.k.a. Don Draper, destined to be a man in flux? At his core, is he the man in Episode 10 who’s sick to his stomach with terror that the government will figure out who he is and punish him for his transgressions? Is he the super-confident advertising man who, upon his client’s rejection of his campaign for a two-piece bathing suit (“So well built, we can’t show you the second floor”), abruptly ends the meeting and orders his guests out of his office immediately (“You were wondering what a creative agency looks like. There you have it. I hope you enjoyed looking in the window”). Or maybe he’s the season finalé‘s passionate, attentive lover who proposes to Megan, confessing, “I don’t know what it is about you, but I feel like myself when I’m with you—but the way I always wanted to feel.”

We will have to keep watching to see if he knows what the truth is and, if so, whether he’s telling it. We’ll also find out how his truths affect the people around him.

Quentin Huff is an attorney, writer, visual artist, and professional tennis player who lives and works in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In addition to serving as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, he enjoys practicing entertainment law. When he's not busy suing people or giving other people advice on how to sue people, he writes novels, short stories, poetry, screenplays, diary entries, and essays. Quentin's writing appears, or is forthcoming, in: Casa Poema, Pemmican Press, Switched-On Gutenberg, Defenestration, Poems Niederngasse, and The Ringing Ear, Cave Canem's anthology of contemporary African American poetry rooted in the South. His family owns and operates Huff Art Studio, an art gallery specializing in fine art, printing, and graphic design. Quentin loves Final Fantasy videogames, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, his mother Earnestine, PopMatters, and all things Prince.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/138997-richard-whitman-shrugged-the-merging-of-identities/