Here’s a trick: Find a person you love and offer them something no one has ever seen, that no one will ever see again. Admire their astonishment. Then, produce a peanut. It could be anything in a shell—an oyster, say, but that’s messier to share. Crack it open, and each eat one of the nuts. Now you have a secret, a little conspiracy locked forever between the two of you.
Lies make secrets too. And every secret doubles the world. Something shared, something hidden. It works the same even when you are alone. Just crack the peanut and keep it for yourself. No matter if that lie is horrid, helpful, harmless, or forgotten. Something told, something held back. Large features of our lives, fantasies and shames and unbidden memories, remain secret only because no one ever asked. In that case what gets doubled is loneliness turned on itself. But spoken or held all alone, a lie becomes a twin, an image of truth, or a shadow, like a ghost. A phantom.
(This is Part 2 in an ongoing essay on Mad Men. For Part 1, see here: Everything’s Exactly the Same. Yes, there will be spoilers about earlier seasons, if that sort of thing bothers you.)
Don Draper’s greatest secret and phantom is his origin story. On Mad Men we learn snatches of it, in occasional flashbacks. For example, we learn how Dick Whitman was able to trade places with the real Don Draper, the first Don Draper as they say in the comic books, after a grisly accident in the Korean War.
This is the device that springs Don’s double identity, his escape hatch out of Dick’s miserable early life, but it doesn’t explain anything about how he became Don Draper, the imaginative genius, the versatile shapeshifter. Dick Whitman was a boy who didn’t talk much, who hated his family, his surroundings, and was utterly powerless to change any of it. Don Draper makes up things that make people move. His words can change what masses of strangers do, what they choose. Think about how much power that must have felt like in 1960, or any period.
This is the secret that’s more meaningful anyway, at least to those of us without false IDs. How to take control of our lives? But other flashbacks to Dick’s childhood offer some hints.
In a sequence from the first season Don visits his bohemian mistress Midge in her Greenwich Village apartment and ends up encircled by hipsters, smoking weed and listening to Miles Davis. Drug experiences contribute a vital part of Mad Men’s mystical lore, and in this case the marijuana combined with a perhaps-disingenuous bonus he’s been offered that afternoon trigger his memory of an indigent wanderer visiting his family’s farm during the Depression.
As young Dick helps set up his campsite, the man advises him to mind his mother.
“She’s not my Mama. I’m a whorechild, ain’t ya heard?” You don’t hear a lot about whorechildren these days, in the United States anyway, so this seems like an unusually conversant thing for a kid to say, but Dick’s awkward “status” must have been a somewhat-regular predicament among poorer classes before widespread contraception and legal abortion.
Anyway, the hobo answers, “We all wish we were from someplace else, believe me.”
“You don’t talk like a bum,” Dick tells him.
“I’m a Gentleman of the Rails. For me every day is brand new. Every day is a brand new place, people, what have you.” This begins to sound like instructions for the adult Dick Whitman to make up life as he goes along in disguise as Don Draper. “One morning I freed myself with the clothes on my back. ‘Good-bye.’ Now I sleep like a stone. Sometimes under the stars, the rain, the roof of a barn. But I sleep like a stone.” Indeed, the bum eventually teaches Dick some of the tricks of transient survival, a secret language of glyphs hobos use to share information learned about opportunities and dangers in the migrant landscape.
“This is how we talk to each other. On the front gate of every house there’s a mark. It’s a code just like you heard on the radio.”
Speaking of codes, this simple dialog is quite rich in its references. “Brand new” and “codes on the radio” describes the layered language of marketing—brands—that Don later masters. Radio codes were an innovation of the era to bind children’s loyalty to programs and products. A sponsor might offer in its product packaging or catalog a code book or decoder ring that kids could use to decipher codes delivered during adventure or espionage serials, say, and feel like they were playing along as a secret agent or junior crimefighter. To keep up they needed to keep listening to the sponsored shows, and keep their parents purchasing, and so on.
Of course Don Draper does not end up sleeping like a stone exactly, but the encounter with the hobo traces the roots of Mad Men’s mythology into the massive economic upheavals and migrations of 1930s America. The Depression, for one thing, was a time of great want. Advertising involves the manufacture and manipulation of want, a theme the series plays with to clever and deliberate effect. Back in 1960, Don grows impatient with Midge’s beatnik friends, whose politics resemble the vaguely paranoid social justice concerns of certain Facebook posts. They gang up on Don, the ad man, who gets defensive: “Make something of yourself,” he says.
“Like you?” says one of the hipsters. “You make the lie. You invent want. You’re for them, not us.”
But the hardships of the 1930s likewise increased radicalism and counterculture as disenfranchised populations—uprooted families, unemployed workers, foreigners and minorities—lived illegally in railway cars and Hoovervilles, explored unionism, Communism, and fought literal battles with strikebreakers, railroad bulls and U.S. Army soldiers sent to demolish shantytowns or clash with “Bonus Army” World War I veterans agitating for benefits. Out of these struggles developed a subversive folk history considerably at odds with the industrialized values spun by the post-war mainstream of the following decades.
A 2004 novel, Oh, Play That Thing, by Irish writer Roddy Doyle, features its hero, Henry Smart, like Don Draper, trying to hide from a war-torn past. This book is actually the second part in a trilogy, the meat in a narrative sandwich or, if you like, the man in a sandwich-board advertisement. Henry’s exploits in the Black and Tan War, the conflict for Irish republican independence from Britain, form the first volume, A Star Called Henry. The sequel, Oh, Play That Thing deposits Henry in exile from his homeland, in Prohibition New York City. Like Don Draper, Henry has to use an alternate name to avoid detection. Like Don Draper, Henry fancies fedoras and discovers himself irresistible to women, with his shoulders in a well-cut suit. And like Don Draper, Henry uses his ingenuity and his care for words to make a living in the new American frontier of advertising:
The skin you love to touch. It was the words I’d sold them. I was never going to be the man who sold soap. The words, not the product—the story, the spell. And sex appeal too, the Big It. The present tense, and happy ending. The skin, uncovered and waiting; the intimacy and hugeness of you; the thrill of touch, the held hand, the sin, excitement; and love, in the middle, fat with sugar and immortality. The skin you love to touch. It was the words, and the clear, honest eyes of the man who’d spoken to them, and terrified and rescued them.
…I was still only twenty-two, but I’d been inspiring and provoking with words and more than words long before most New York ad men knew what they were for. It was soap now instead of freedom, cash they were after instead of votes and safe houses, but it was the same thing, the same approach and tactics. Sell the words, sell the goods and the life. Sell the need, and the salvation. Smile with the consumer, suffer with her. Little Dry Sobs through the Bedroom Door. Terrify the man—Dandruff!—then save him—End Dandruff. Create the hole, then offer to fill it. Let me carry your Cross for Ireland, Lord. I am your best friend. Blow Some My Way.
I was late arriving. I wouldn’t be joining the club—the ad men and consumption engineers, the princes of ballyhoo. And I didn’t care. This was the land of the itch. The ad men and their clients had it salved and numbed, ready for slicing. They were hacking away goodo, and had been for years. America was huge—mass—and it was shrinking—market. But there’d always be more. The ad men had the walls and airwaves, the water and air. I had the sandwich boards. They were after the woman with the dollar. I’d go after the woman with less. They had the land behind the doorbell. I had the streets, the alleys and tenements, the land behind the doors with no bell. I had everywhere else.
This fresh market proves profitable. He recruits other young men with broad shoulders to carry his boards while he devises new slogans. “Levine’s Dry Goods. You’d be wet not to buy them.” And new techniques. “$5 $4.” But street corners are still street corners, and the territory grows cutthroat. Rival advertisers hire men to beat up Henry’s boys. Gangsters move in on Henry’s corners, try to control the production of boards, even the hands that paint the boards.
Eventually, Henry gets ambushed wearing just a three-cornered hat while posing for pornographic illustrations for a dirty edition of Moll Flanders (Doyle’s book is seriously as sexy as Mad Men). Henry has to run again, ends up in Chicago. There Henry’s new African American girlfriend, fair enough to pass for white and move between segregated worlds, introduces him to Louis Armstrong as the virtuoso’s star begins to climb. This alliance covers most of the book: A fellow outsider and good on his feet and with his fists, the immigrant Henry becomes Louis’s bodyguard, confidant, and petty criminal accessory. But Henry’s past catches up with him once more and he ends up a Gentleman of the Rails himself, jumping boxcars across the nation just as the Dust Bowl famine and stock market crash throw millions of Americans into the same straits.
For some reason, Henry never again tries the marvelous command of ideas, the charm that brought him success off the boat in New York. It seems like with his wits and strapping looks he could have carved a new identity again somewhere; I guess he had to keep his head down. But his destiny is not Don Draper’s and comes much later, in the third installment. Oh, Play That Thing instead spans the 10 years of the 1930s in 20 pages. “Good novels are being lost on every page of the epilogue,” as Norman Mailer once said about a Tom Wolfe bestseller.
The upshot is that Henry Smart absorbs the wounds of the Great Depression: the clusterings and dispersals of the starved, the beatings by railroad bulls, the limbs lost to shearing steel wheels of the locomotives. In so doing, and ever searching for his lost wife and children, ever a step behind, he becomes a fabled figure among the hobo “jungles” on the outskirts of cities. Just like in the Irish war, the tall tales of his deeds move beyond and ahead of his path: at once enlarging and endangering him. Henry becomes “One-Leg O’Glick,” after his alias, joining the likes of Big Bill Haywood and Wobbly martyr Joe Hill in the radical dissident lore and music, or as Zora Hurston called Big John de Conquer in her WPA survey of swamp folkways “part of a hero cycle yet unfinished.”
Don Draper’s affinity with the hobo and adoption of his covert tradition, recollected during the session with Midge and the hipsters, stakes Don’s origins in this bygone (or dormant) underworld with its fireside mythology of large men working great feats.
And yet his own work inhabits the overtaking framework of American consolidating wealth and power to which he also undeniably aspires. These currents met with the national narrative during World War II, when many a former transient found new work (and more authoritative codes of conduct) by enlisting as soldiers—a trend not covered by Doyle but related by the misfit Stockade prophet Jack Malloy in James Jones’s 1951 Pearl Harbor epic From Here to Eternity. Mad Men references the famous 1953 film adaptation (and indirectly this same clash of cultures) when Roger Sterling asks Don, upon his return from Hawaii in Season 6: “Did Ernest Borgnine chase you down an alley with a switchblade?”
The era portrayed in Mad Men is not far removed either from the low-tech advertising of Henry Smart, as reflected in the common parlance. Don Draper crosses Midge’s path several seasons later and, finding her strung out on heroin and desperate broke, buys a painting from her with all the cash in his pocket. “I don’t even have carfare,” Don realizes. Midge suggests he walk across Central Park carrying the painting, “like an advertisement for me, like a sandwich board.” By the end of Season 6 Don spontaneously unravels in a presentation with a client, canceling the positive vibes of his salesmanship by describing his wretched childhood. “That man who talked to Hershey?” Roger scolds him. “I’ve seen him walking the streets, wearing a sandwich board saying, ‘The End is Near.’”
By ushering an age of science and Atomic Doom, World War II even while synthesizing the experiences of some members of the underclass with the public war effort* also helped disintegrate their old heroic modes illustrated by the legends surrounding Henry Smart/O’Glick—in favor of a new vision of illustrated hero.
Indeed the vocabulary of Sterling Cooper has already updated to the more contemporary brand of cultural mythology: When asked about Don Draper’s personal life in the third episode of the series, Harry Crane says, “No one’s ever lifted that rock: He could be Batman for all we know.” In Season 3, the financiers of the new Madison Square Garden request a marketing campaign to ease New York voters’ anxieties over replacing the Romanesque Penn Station: “He wants you to see these new drawings. Apparently they’re right out of Metropolis!” At Pete Campbell’s dinner party in Season 5, Don quickly sheds his buttoned shirt to fix a blown sink nut in the kitchen. The assembled wives giggle, “Look: It’s Superman!”
Along with the Depression, decoder rings and Dick Whitman, the 1930s had brought the advent of the modern American superhero comic. The earliest versions of Superman appeared in 1933, the official ones in 1938. Batman debuted in ’39. The folktales passed among the bum settlements of that period—like the oral heritages linking those communities’ heroes to 19th- and 18th-century legacies such as Molly Pitcher and Paul Bunyan, and in fact all human history and prehistory—made legend a means to immortality. Now the archivable media of cheap newsprint and celluloid film offered a different sort of immortality—plus the advantage of immediate large-scale distribution. Although most comics in those days were obscure or considered delinquent, substandard art, almost instantly in the postwar climate, with the old verbal embellishments supplanted by visual, technological fantasies, popular comic books and movies started supplying the foundation myths of the new consumer America.
Promises of space travel and nuclear energy produced imaginations no longer astounded by merely big men or tall tales, old-time magic and works of trickery. Comics and science fiction answered with technological mastery or catastrophe: images of transformation and transcendence via chemical enhancement, alien intervention, genetic restructuring. You don’t meet the devil at a crossroads anymore. You get hit by a radioactive meteor.
Wielding such unearthly powers, and sometimes stalked by governments or archvillains whose experiments produced them, or other enemies or media figures who might target or expose them, these new superhuman heroes often sought refuge in double lives. Like the more-traditionally lucky and skilled Henry Smart, they developed methods of disguise and dissembly for living among ordinary folk. Even the commonplace technologies of mass communication and photographic reproduction operated reflexively upon the comic book heroes by making it difficult to escape public notice within their imaginary worlds. Works of wonder become no longer subject to rumors by which legend lives; they end up in the newspaper or surveillance recordings. As Harry Crane reminds us, one of the key features of Batman (actually in his case the mask is the only differentiating “power”) is the Gotham public doesn’t know who he is.
So alter egos serve practical purposes in superhero stories, a way to switch between the otherworldly and interpersonal scales on which these narratives run. But they also tap into another midcentury innovation, the emerging science of psychology’s description of neurotic, divided selves: “If they had lived in a period and in a milieu in which man was still linked by myth with the world of the ancestors, and thus with nature truly experienced and not merely seen from outside, they would have been spared this division,” Carl Jung hypothesizes about those so afflicted. He’s talking about a real-life condition, but comics heroes speak to (or for) this new psychological type. The masks and costumes these figures use to split their representations of themselves may be cause or consequence of negotiating through such troubles, these exploding psyches, or to hide or retreat from them. A hero’s mortal or mild-mannered identity can be his native persona, like Spider-Man’s Peter Parker, or a false front like Superman’s Clark Kent. Either way it demands secrecy, and usually a change of clothes.
You’re for them, not us. In Midge’s apartment, Don Draper dissolves the confrontation with the hipsters by saying their fear of an orchestrated campaign to manipulate public trust is itself an illusion. “There’s no system. The universe is indifferent.” This bums the beatniks out, so Don donates them his bonus and excuses himself. But there is a police action outside, some neighbor getting arrested. The hipster who had challenged Don now warns he can’t go out the door, because of the cops. Don says, “No, you can’t.” This is the first sense we have that Don’s outfit, the salaryman’s business suit, which until then had been conventional attire for his office context, is a kind of disguise that lets him walk across the surface of the world: a costume. Don’s affiliation with the underground hobo brotherhood shows that, not only does he have to hide Dick Whitman’s name as a formality for covering his personal shame, he is an outsider and doesn’t properly belong to that surface. But he does successfully conceal himself: He walks right by the policemen in the hallway questioning a raggedy neighbor, while one cop doffs his cap, “Good evening, Sir.”
Feeling thus vulnerable, Don comes home in the middle of the night, wakes up his toddler son Bobby and submits, “Ask my anything,” like he’s compelled to confess his whole story. But the child rubs the sleep away and says, “Why do lightning bugs light up?” This is an incredible question! The child has searched his inventory of mysteries and delivered from the core of curiosity this gem of slam soul. Don deflates, disappointed; a missed opportunity, but also an ego crushed. He is so far out from his son’s world but he had thought he eclipses it. “I don’t know,” Don says, and so we get a kind of confession anyway. And then a lie: “But I will never lie to you.”
This shows us Don Draper’s problem is he has devised a costume he doesn’t know how to take off, even when he’s trying to bare himself (maybe that’s why he takes his pants off so often hey!). But the tension surrounding Don’s firmly established secret gives the series a feeling much like a familiar superhero story, all the dashing out of doorways and sneaking in windows. In fact, Mad Men’s loosely-linear episodic structure owes as much to comic book storylines as picaresque folktales and ancient myth cycles. The series is a sequential visual art form with constantly rebooting continuity. Don Draper even has the alliterative name of a ’60s Stan Lee creation (Reed Richards, Matt Murdock, Scott Summers, et c.) to go with Clark Kent’s Harold Lloyd face.
Don Draper has something like a super power, too. His power is his imagination, as I said before, which makes him about the most powerful person on Earth. We see him able to make his own future and environment—when he doesn’t get derailed by his alter ego, which we all do all the time anyway, or the other way round.
At one point, in Season 2 while Don is living apart from Betty and the kids after she kicks him out, he tries to come home and they end up haggling in the doorway about what the schedule might be for return or visiting. “We have to tell them something,” Don says. “Like what?” Betty asks. He says, “How about I’m working on an account? They’re putting me up in Philadelphia, but I’ll be home every weekend?”
Betty says, “Jesus! Did you just think that up?” The response is so detailed, so prismatic, as so often the dialog on the show is. Betty might be impressed by his resourcefulness, his quick thinking, and it’s not even such a wild idea that he suggested. But to Betty it’s like, how practiced is Don at making up stories explaining why he won’t be home, and it’s sad and funny to think of the way this conjuring ability of Don’s that makes his power as an ad man manifests also in his parallel character as a lying adulterer—as well that she only now fully recognizes it, giving her, too, a kind of double identity by revealing self-deception as another form of deluding alter ego. Then, exemplifying at once his experience at this and his verbal dexterity, Don pivots to assert himself: “Or I could come home!”
This theme presents itself over and over with Don at its shaded heart, of course, but maybe more revealing becomes how frequently the show explores the supporting casts’ secrets and the ways these evolve into varieties of artifice and false presentation, concealment and costuming. Betty is a good example, the way her prim manners shelter both surreptitious motives and hidden abilities. People who hate Betty think she’s all selfish sniping and retrograde femininity, like she’s not steering her own ship, but she releases powerful bolts when she wants to and that signals a more-deeply held control over a personal other. Remember when she aims a rifle at the neighbor’s birds? Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell harbor similar volatilities behind stereotypical façades, and so are both regular shadow peddlers at work and at home. But think also of Lane Pryce’s embezzling, Joan’s fibs about her husband’s prestige, Sal’s closeted sexuality, Ken Cosgrove’s SF pen names, Bob Benson’s everything, Sally’s mischief. Duck fucking Phillips.
That’s just scraping the top to demonstrate range. During Seasons 4 and 5, when Don Draper’s behaviors grow less cloaked, if only because he’s between wives and has fewer boundaries to trespass and then later during his first year with Megan he tries to stay faithful, the series dips deep in these other characters’ penchants for duplicity: Glen Bishop starts calling Sally’s house using an assumed name; Peggy and Ken conspire to collaborate on new business; Roger begins handing out bribes and secret assignments at the office; Michael Ginsberg claims to be from Mars; Megan withholds that she’s going to acting classes; Pete goes behind his fellow commuter’s back; Betty cheats on her diet—all of these involve not just simple dishonesty but active cultivating of dual lifestyles—and still Mad Men finds ways to toy with Don’s fractured persona, like when Megan blurts out in the middle of a spat, “Why don’t you call your mother?”, or he hallucinates a phantom mistress in a fever dream, or we see his petty sneaking, for example in Ginsberg’s files to try to gather intel on how to upstage the young phenom.
Being a liar doesn’t make you a superhero; for sure, but the show takes care to examine the stakes of these ruses, no matter how apparently superficial. The powers gained and lost in the forms of cover these men and women devise for their indiscretions, and how the tiniest maneuvers can require complicated masks and often-involuntary battles within the self. Something told, something held back. Occasionally, this is courageous. You can see Joan physically prepare herself for another role often, as if in front of a dressing room mirror (or in a phone booth) but just in her shimmy and her face, when she gets ready to absorb the junior executives’ leering sass, or confront her husband’s spinelessness, or approach an underestimating client. It’s the raw embodiment of becoming somebody else, even if it’s your creation, somebody less soft and exposed, somebody with a shield. As the poet Kate Tempest says, “We are still mythical/Still permanently trapped somewhere between the heroic and the pitiful.”
It’s cool to think of Mad Men as a stealth superhero show but also not too far out from noticing Mad Men is a grownup Harold and the Purple Crayon. What else can we do from this perspective? The explicit comic book references are mostly tongue-in-cheek nods to the borrowed genre traits, not some sort of decoder ring for the series. At least as often, other characters guess that Don is a spy or an astronaut. The affair with the Defense Department security check is like the parody espionage version of Mad Men; all the intrigue of Don’s secret life, none of the psychology.
But with the recent revival of comic-book inspired movies sprouting related television properties high and low, from Gotham to S.H.I.E.L.D. to planned series like AKA Jessica Jones, Titans and Luke Cage, I do think it’s worth considering Mad Men a model for a naturalistic superhero show where the special effects and world-saving occur off screen and out the windows. A show which restricts its interests to the human implications and expediencies of living life with that fabulous burden and secret—or the consequences of honesty for a certain kind of vigilante endeavor. What would this show be like?
For one thing, it should have the active sex life that Mad Men includes. Not only would this be a sensationalizing element to help sell the show to a network and get people watching, almost everyone’s sexual identity already amounts to a world of private secrets and activities literally undercover, a sort of double life even without matching Don Draper’s promiscuity. I would love to see a Batman series that delights in Bruce Wayne’s efforts to balance his nighttime socializing with his after-hours adventures, and see the show parallel his character’s appetites for desire and submission with the typical crimefighter’s fare in deduction and triumph. Rather than Gotham’s Batman-vacuum Rogues Gallery, we would get a lively Gotham City when Batman’s not being Batman.
I would suggest the same for seeing corporate undertakings at Wayne Enterprises. Even if we don’t wear our workplace dress as a costume of upward mobility like Don Draper or as a figurative beard like Batman, each of us is familiar with the kind of identity crisis that comes when containing separate work and home lives. Whereas Bane in The Dark Knight Rises says, “No one cared who I was until I put on the mask,” I’m interested in a Bruce Wayne who asks, like Mad Men’s Freddy Rumsen, “If I don’t go into that office every day, who am I?” These shows are improbable with the existing Warner Bros/DC property, but you get the example.
In some respects Mad Men tells us more about the inner conditions of superheroes than the other way round. Think of that late-night moment between Don and Bobby Draper and the lightning bugs. For Don, it’s all about reconciling yourself after an extraordinary experience, and the emotional difficulty of coming home (Harold is about this too). How many times must that same collapsing of identities and desire for opening up recur for a costumed hero with any kind of family or domestic alter ego? In the comics, Jessica Jones has a child, so we may see that dynamic play on the stream.
What Mad Men proves is how excellent dialog and plotting can make the interworkings and ordeals of a tedious environment and tenuous marriages seem epic and sexy, not just at best goofy or sweet or melodramatic. The 1990s series Lois & Clark tried some of those touches within its Daily Planet setting, but it was more romantic comedy and comedy of errors interspersed with laser beams, clone weddings and a lot of green-screen composites with cape-rippling flying. I’m talking about a superhero show as done by David Simon, which relishes in the inconvenient details and unsavory compromises of the job. I will never lie to you. But Mad Men is in so many ways already that series, and likely something we’ll not see again.
(*“Synthesis” in this case involving actually the sacrifice of many lives, so replacing could be another word choice, but I’m talking at the level of mass consciousness which is always a process of melding as generations revolve.)
Lars Russell lives in the middle ground between magic markers and permanent ones. He has written for SPIN, the Stranger, the Onion and Eyeshot. He is the editor of Beat Valley.