October 26, 2009

My family: Straight out of Mad Men

Here be spoilers…

Big fan of Mad Men, I am, and I thought last night's episode was particularly well done. Last week, Betty had found Don't magic box of identity-theft surprises, and this episode she confronted him. I loved that moment when she demands he unlock the drawer: He hems and haws and lamely tries to wiggle out of it, but even the famed Don Draper cool is no use here. His drops his hand to the desk, still clutching the keys, knowing that Bets had checkmate.

But if you care at all, you know all that. One line that stood out for me, during the big discussion, was Don asking Betty, "When? When could I have told you? The night we met? Our first date? Our wedding night?" (I'm paraphrasing). Because while yes, I had some sympathy for Don throughout this scene (despite the schoolteacher mistress just outside the house), this seemed like an especially absurd question on his part.

Don had a million chances to tell Betty in the ten-plus years they'd known each other, many of them far more honest than a decade after they'd gotten married, with three children to show for it. I've never felt that Don's identity theft was all that horrible a crime—the real Draper is dead, after all, and he clearly made peace with his widow—it's the fact that he won't be honest with those closest to him that reflects poorly on him.

I'm reminded of a chapter from my own family history. My grandfather, who died three years before I was born, was named Israel Wilderman—"Issie," he was called in his youth. Here's his passenger record, from when he came through Ellis Island, age of five.

Once he graduated college, the Great Depression was getting going, and he figured that a name like "Israel" wasn't much of an advantage for a guy trying to make it as a big shot in Philadelphia (he ended up an architect, and eventually became mayor of Tamarac, Florida). So "Issie" became "Bob." My mother insists the name change was primarily to score with girls (she believes he was Bob Wilderman to Jewish girls, Bob Hoover to gentiles, though I wonder how appealing the name "Hoover" was in those days). When he met my grandmother, he introduced himself as Bob. She got to know him as Bob. She probably assumed his full first name was Robert; it was only after they got engaged that her told her the truth. She was cool with it, they got married, they had two kids, they stayed together until he died. And yes, she and everyone else called him Bob.

Granted, this is hardly on par with Don Draper's deception, but I do find it instructive. I don't see why Don couldn't have come clean with Betty much earlier: before the marriage, before the children, before the years and years he spent constructing a persona distinct from that unsure farm boy Dick Whitman (who seemed to return as he was confessing the truth to Betty, don't you think?). I imagine if he had told Betty as soon as they got engaged, she could've handled it, and they could have moved forward into a happy life together (or as happy as these two can be with each other; the show obviously keeps that topic ambiguous). I guess that the idea is that Don didn't feel like he could have Betty by his side in his effort to become a new person. It was the '60s, after all, and he might not have thought such marital trust was truly possible, or practical.

Interesting to see where this goes in the next two weeks, as the season winds down. Till then, let's watch this awesome scene again:

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