Like most red-blooded American males, I think Mad Men is one of the finest shows on television. It’s a time capsule brought to life, a nostalgia-tinged journey through the Sixties. The costumes, the attitudes, and the smoke — the smoke! — create a world both alien and familiar. And it has some of the best writing on the planet.
Only one thing gets me, and I wonder if the writers knew what they know know about the show’s success, would they do things differently? It has to do with Don Draper’s back story. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Don is the hard-drinking, hard-smoking tough-as-nails creative director of the ad agency. He’s the star of the show, and he’s far from perfect. Donald Draper is mesmerizing that the show suffers whenever he’s not on camera. It’s precisely because of his flaws that he becomes such an intriguing character. Gifted, brilliant, and capable of self-destruction — if his iron will ever cracks.
Don harbors a secret which was there from the beginning. I’m going to tell it to you, so avoid reading further if you plan to watch the series from scratch, but I’m really only spoiling a few episodes of Season One.
Don Draper is not this man’s real name. He is actually Dick Whitman, a deserter from Korea, who managed to steal the identity of another fatally wounded soldier and create a different life for himself on Madison Avenue. Don/Dick is haunted by his past, and it informs several episodes with different plot lines.
But the series didn’t need it.
I suspect that the show’s creators really didn’t know what they had. The stolen identity angle sounds like an idea for a series pitch meeting, something to provide a bit of intrigue, when what you’re really selling is the mystique and flavor of a lost period of Americana. A show set in an office building probably doesn’t sound too dramatic on paper. Like the characters in their story, the creators needed an idea to suck people in. In this case, TV executives.
Once the show found its tone and hit its stride, the Dick Whitman plot just seems superfluous. Mad Men is at its best when it showcases Don, Roger, Pete, Betty, Peggy, and Joan struggling to keep clients, navigate relationships, generate the next new idea. A thriller mystery thread just diverts attention from the real action.
It’s not that the Dick Whitman back story is poorly executed. It just doesn’t fit as well as everything else. And I think this pertains to all back story. In the end, only what’s happening to the characters right now really matters. The rest belongs on the cutting room floor.