One of the things I’m loving about AMC’s new series Mad Men is how close to the vest just about everyone plays things. The first couple of episodes didn’t waste a lot of time explaining who all these characters are, instead rewarding our patience by doling out information as it becomes necessary.
It also cultivates the idea that these folks have something to hide, and boy did that hit home in Thursday’s episode.
(We’re upfront about things here, though, so let me tell you now that you’re likely to be spoiled on some pretty key points in the coming paragraphs.)
Secrets, and the ability or inability of various folks to manage them, were the subject of the night. In keeping with the way the show works, we still don’t know everything that’s happening. But we know more, and we know some important things. Insofar as a show can have a pivotal episode five weeks into its life, this felt like a pivotal episode.
At the center of everything, of course, was Don Draper. Jon Hamm, who is the very definition of square-jawed, is playing the heck out of this character by so very consciously underplaying. It could have become an off-putting way of working, but given the events last night it now makes perfect sense.
There was a hint back in the second episode, when an old Army buddy greeted Don with a different name, that Draper is not who he says he is. The incident passed without comment on the show until tonight, when we met Don’s brother, Adam Whitman. And suddenly, a number of pieces fell into place.
So that’s why Don doesn’t like talking about his war experience, and that’s why he never shares other personal information or talks about his past: He’s been on the run from it for his entire adult life.
We still don’t know where he got his new identity — he likely assumed the name and record of a fellow soldier killed in action — but that’s almost beside the point. The greater issue is what living this way, while at the same time selling a vision of life that, if not entirely made up, is at least idealized, does to a man’s psyche. It also helps explain his ability and need to compartmentalize, and maybe why he carries on his affair with Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt), who noted tonight that Don’s life "is in a million pieces." That’s probably true, but you get the sense that when he spends time with her he can take the mask off.
Hamm is letting us see little cracks in Don’s facade, such as his entreaty to Midge not to phone him at work and wincing reaction when the Liberty Capital Savings executive takes such glee in his "executive account" idea. I think on some level Don knows what he’s doing is really, really wrong, but he’s buried that so deeply within himself that he can offer his brother $5,000 to get out of his life.
The rest of the episode, too, was concerned with secrets, from the other account execs’ chagrin that a colleague had actually followed through on the dream of being a published writer, to the increasingly oily Pete holding his wife’s secret — she wasn’t a virgin when they married — over her head to get something he wants.
And then there’s Don’s secretary Peggy, on whom I have yet to get a good read. Overhearing Midge and Don on the phone seems to titillate her, but then she panics and tells Joan (who laps up every word) when Betty Draper and the kids come to the office to meet Don for a family picture. I can’t decide whether she’s just overwhelmed, or trying not too successfully to forge a new identity of her own, or what.
I know for sure, though, that Mad Men has me good and sucked in to its time, its story and its characters. I’m in for the rest of the ride.
What about you? Share your thoughts on the show.