For a good chunk of Mad Men’s run, the driving force behind each episode was the question of “Who is Don Draper?” Now, with Don seemingly content in his marriage to Megan, strangling the harlots of his dreams in some sort of subconscious war with the old Don’s womanizing ways, it seems that the question has evolved. Now, the question is, “Who is everyone else?”
“Signal 30” and Mad Men’s new preoccupation with late '60s mass murderers drove this point home faster than Don and Megan’s nookie-laden commute back to the city after their Saturday night in the suburbs with Pete and Trudy Campbell. (Loved the jacket, Don. Hope you bust it out at the SCDP Halloween party this year. You’ll make a lovely test pattern.)
Charles Whitman’s August 1, 1966 rampage at the University of Texas at Austin provided the latest horrifying backdrop to a Mad Men storyline and while the shootings in Texas didn’t have quite the same impact on everyone as the nurse murders in Chicago appeared to last week, the purveying feeling of a massive societal unbalance continued to touch the margins of everything.
In some ways, Whitman’s rampage was more jarring due to his seemingly upstanding image. He was a former Marine, an engineering student, the product of a middle-class upbringing, and the handsome husband to a beautiful wife. While there is no justifying his actions, it’s impossible to tell his story without mentioning the brain tumor that was discovered during autopsy, thought by many to explain why he seemingly snapped. While it isn’t a complete pardon for his crimes, it certainly humanizes him, rationalizing his actions as something that he couldn’t control. He becomes a sick man, rather than an evil man, someone that society can at least attempt to understand.
The high-class world that Don, Pete, Roger, and Lane occupy on Mad Men is carefully constructed around a strict adherence to roles. It would be dizzyingly easy to topple the structure if someone chose to act out: We got a taste of this last season when Don’s drinking began to overshadow his golden touch. We see it in the ongoing attitude toward African American secretary Dawn, in the sentiment that she doesn’t really belong on Madison Avenue, that she is unworthy of such an “illustrious” position. And in Betty’s struggles with her weight, what she perceives as fading beauty, a loss of status on her part. We saw it last week as Peggy debated the masculinity she's been forced to adopt in order to succeed as a female copywriter at SCDP, and Joan’s decision to ditch married life, despite the fact that the role of housewife was one that she seemingly pined for in Mad Men's early storylines. And finally, we saw it again in “Signal 30” with Ken’s struggle to balance his dual roles of account manager and writer, Pete’s difficulty in navigating his life in the suburbs, and Lane’s fish-out-of-water routine in trying to woo an account of his very own with Jaguar.
Don, for once, seemed to be in his comfort zone, which in and of itself was a jarring visual. We have spent four previous seasons with the hard-drinking, heavy-smoking, banging-everything-that-moves Don Draper and suddenly, he is the wise old man giving marital advice in the back of a taxi to a disheveled Pete Campbell. It was weird for us, as an audience with a set concept of what Mad Men norms are, but for the character of Don Draper as he exists in the Mad Men universe, he seemed very much at ease. For now, Don knows who he is, further rejecting any confusion by correcting one of the women at Pete and Trudy’s dinner when she mispronounced Charles Whitman’s last name. Technically, they share a last name, the mass murderer and Don, and it’s a last name that Don Draper has spent most of the series trying to distance himself from. He said it without flinching, without a speck of nervousness, essentially “othering” it by giving it over wholly to a man who had recently struck fear into the American consciousness. THAT man is a Whitman. Don is not a Whitman. THAT man was confused. Don is not confused.
Of course, TECHNICALLY Don is a Whitman. And honestly, Don is often confused about who and what he is. I don’t want to say that he’s going to snap at some point this season, but I certainly won’t be surprised when/if it happens. But I will be a little bit sad. After all, much like Charles Whitman, Don Draper/Dick Whitman is not a monster at heart.
1. Did everyone else heave a sigh of relief when Pete DIDN’T get to bang the high school girl?
2. Who were you cheering for in the Great Partner Meeting Smackdown of ’66? Pete or Lane? Did anyone share my hivemind and think it would devolve into a slapfight? Were you disappointed when it didn’t? (I was.)