Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Mad Men - "5G" (season 1, episode 5)

Friday, March 30, 2018

Mad Men - "5G" (season 1, episode 5)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Mad MenMost days (except Saturday) I am offering a short review of another episode until concluding the first season. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on July 26, 2007/written by Matthew Weiner; directed by Lesli Linka Glatter): Don Draper is not Don Draper. Perhaps I should say Dick Whitman is not Don Draper. When "Don" wins an industry award and gets his picture in Advertising Age, a strange young man (Jay Paulson) appears at the reception desk of Sterling Cooper. Don is so shaken that when he returns to his meeting, after sending the curious stranger out to lunch, he can barely speak and refers questions to colleagues. When they meet again at a nearby diner, we learn that this young man is Adam Whitman, Don's - or rather Dick's - kid brother. Dick Whitman supposedly died in Korea but Adam, a child at the time, remembers glimpsing his face from the window of their impoverished, abusive home, always wondering if it was a vision. Adam is not doing particularly well; his whole family is lost, he's working as a janitor in the big city, and he seems lonely and vaguely sad (there's also something strangely threatening about his pale, gangly visage and slight smile; it doesn't help that Paulson looks a bit like Mike White's creepy-friend-returned character in Chuck & Buck). Don shows more cracks in his stoic facade than we've seen before, but keeps trying to shake Adam until receiving an invitation to the room where his half-sibling is staying. Now the big brother has a decision to make.

Concurrent with this darker drama, there's a lighter but similarly troubled subplot with the younger members of the agency. Ken has just been published in the Atlantic Monthly (the series continues to have fun with the relatively confined artsy milieu of the period - what does it means for straight-arrow admen to harbor literary ambitions in this context?). This obviously inspires jealousy in Paul, who thought himself Sterling Cooper's resident man of letters, but it surprisingly spurs frustration in Pete too. Leveraging his wife's prior romance with a man in the publishing business, Charlie Fiddich (Andy Hoff), Pete's grand scheme is to crash the short story field with his masterpiece about a talking bear. He only succeeds in humiliating Trudy (Charlie was her first lover and he tries to initiate a new affair) as well as himself (the story will only be published in Boy's Life). And this places an icky strain on the marriage with the tacit understanding of both spouses that on some level Pete was pimping his wife for his own benefit. Meanwhile Don shows up for his illicit rendezvous (throughout the episode, implicit connections are drawn between Don's extramarital activity and this hidden family history, as if the latter is actually the bigger, more dangerous secret). It is heavily implied that Don has brought a gun to kill the troublesome Adam, but instead the gift he bears is a large amount of cash to pay off Adam, sending him away with the explicit warning never to make contact again. This may not be a physical assassination but it is an emotional one...or perhaps suicide is a better analogy. Dick Whitman is dead after all and it turns out our protagonist - whatever name he's called - is Don Draper. Or is he?

My Response:
I've said above that there will be no spoilers, and in most cases this is because I haven't seen the show before (aside from a handful of early episodes - I think this is the last of that bunch). In this case, however, it's because I'm purposefully withholding what I have learned through osmosis. Even aside from the hints in previous episodes, I already knew that Don Draper had a secret, alternate identity. I also know more about why he chose that name but I'll remain silent on that front for now. This is certainly a compelling angle for the narrative to incorporate, and I like how it complicates Mad Men's early niche as "that immersion in early sixties nostalgia" where the stories could just be excuses to indulge in the milieu for its own sake. Despite knowing a bit more than I should, I'm really curious to see how this storyline develops in future episodes, as well as how it dovetails with the larger historical context.

I also enjoyed the Pete-Trudy plot; as I've noted, every episode mostly breaks down to one man and one woman as the dual protagonists in separate stories and it was a pleasant surprise to see Pete's wife take that role this week. She's been depicted as shallow in previous episodes, but "5G" allows for more complexity between her less-than-perfect premarital past, at least by the standards of what was publicly acknowledged in 1960, and her feelings of betrayal by her husband. Suddenly it's Pete who seems like the dupe in this relationship if not something even worse. Like episode 5 (at least by the official numbering) of Twin Peaks, this episode 5 marks the directorial debut of Lesli Linka Glatter on a new series. The veteran TV director (maybe the best non-Lynch Peaks helmer) resumes her talent for digging away at secret histories and tangled personal relationships; compare Don's meeting with Adam to how she handles Jacoby's questioning of Bobby (also unveiling unspoken traumas), or the strange Charlie's pursuit of Trudy with several exchanges between Ben and Josie (both using office desks as battlefields). The simmering tension of two-character interactions always play to Glatter's distinctive strengths; with the show's own creator penning the teleplay, "5G" arrives ready to exploit that interpersonal element, all while questioning just who the "persons" involved actually are.

Next: "Babylon" • Previous: "New Amsterdam"


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