Sunday, February 13, 2011

History Gets in the Way

Retrospectives, Part One:

I'm rewatching old episodes of our favorite drama in its hiatus, having gotten through the first season and half of the second so far. It's quite thought-provoking to look back, knowing what I know now, so it seems some retrospective reflections on different themes are in order. At this point, the show seems to me to be about the tension that emerges from a constant living on one boundary or another--or on multiple boundaries at the same time: that between the conformist 1950s and the rebellious '60s and the accompanying relentless pressure to do and be what is expected versus the expanding possibilities for self-creation; the boundary between a diverse Manhattan, where experimentation and innovation--as peurile as some of it is--can occur and the stifling, ever-watchful suburbs; the boundary that is the brink of the gender revolution. This boundary has on one side the office--sexist, crude, and male-dominated, but a place that at least has men and women working side-by-side and in which a talented, ambitious, and determined woman like Peggy can push herself ahead if there's a man like Don who's willing to sponsor her. On the other side of the gender revolution is the home in the burbs--a segregated women's world of children and child-like women who have their "girls" to take care of them, a world in which men never seem comfortable. America on the brink of gender revolution has its rules that allow the men to live in two worlds, while their wives live only in one.

One of the themes that stands out to me is that of the ability to create one's own identity in tension with the lurking presence of one's past in the corners. This dynamic is illustrated most with Don's story. He has literally constructed a new identity for himself out of the ruins of the explosion in Korea that took his commanding officer's life. Dick Whitman--abused child, unhappy and conflicted man--is able to escape the identity that shackles him to a group of people who are unloving, unloved, and not really family (except Adam) and create a new persona out of the ashes of Don Draper's demise. The past--he hopes--can be erased. Don expresses the desire for pastlessness (to coin a word) at multiple places in the series. In "Three Sundays" (2.4) he projects this onto American Airlines and America itself. In an attempt to create a campaign that can resucitate the airline's image after a plane crash, Don argues "American Airlines is not about the past any more than America is about the past." Yet later at home, Bobby challenges this in his own way. Bobby has been acting up and then lying about his actions. Betty has been harping on Don to discipline him, more specifically to spank him, which Don won't do. After Boby keeps playing with a toy at the dinner table, despite his mother continually telling him not to, he spills a glass of milk when the toy bangs into it. Betty loses it, demanding Don do something. Don grabs Bobby's toy and hurls it at the wall, then storms away from the kitchen. While Don is sitting on his bed, his small son comes to the doorway to apologize. Don tells him that sometimes dads get angry, which prompts Bobby to start asking Don about his father. Sweetly, he says, "What did your daddy look like?" Don replies that his father looked like him, but taller. "What did he like to eat?" Bobby wonders. This prompts Don to think and he gets a faraway look on his face as he remembers a kind of candy his father enjoyed that Don clearly hadn't thought of in a long time. When Don confirms for Bobby that his father is, indeed, dead, Bobby asserts, "We need to get you a new daddy." Bobby, in his naivete, realizes what Don wants to forget: that we need a history (as represented by our parents, as sad and regretful as those parents and the history they represent might be); more, we can't get away from that history. It is part of what molds us, even if we try to construct new identities and ways of being for ourselves. Later, as they're lying in bed, Don tries to explain to Betty why he won't spank their son: "My father beat the hell out of me and all it did was make me fantasize about the day I could murder him." It doesn't matter that Don has cast away the identity of Dick. It's still Dick's father who has shaped how Don is as a father.

Later, in Season Four, the new self-reflective, keeping-a-journal Don recognizes all this explicitly when he writes, "When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him." He seems for awhile last season as if he's going to integrate Don and Dick, but then he dumps Faye--the lover who knows about his past--to become engaged to Megan, who doesn't. Does Megan represent a renewed desire to escape history? Is his engagement to her a return of his pendulum to forgetfulness? It will be interesting to see where the writers take Don and Megan next season and whether this theme continues to play itself out.


  1. I like the idea that Don chooses Megan to once again avoid his past. I also like your point that he flirts here and there with integrating his two selves, but only goes so far (not very). That definitely seems relevant to his choice of Megan. And yet there is that more positive side to Megan as a choice, exemplified when the milkshake gets spilled. I guess we'll find out more about Megan next season.

  2. Megan is definitely a good choice for Sally, Bobby, and Gene. And Don is at his best, I think, when he's with his children and trying to do right by them. Some of his most poignant scenes have been when he's trying to be a good father to the kids--I think of the scene when Gene is still a baby and Don is rocking him in the middle of the night. The look of love he bestows upon that child is remarkable. Ditto in Season Four when he asserts his right to come to the baby's birthday party and picks him up after Betty has told him to "Go to Daddy." And, he wrestles with his own history through his intereactions with his children as in the example with not spanking Bobby that I cited above. I think he probably has chosen Megan in part for her good mother qualities, but also for her Lethe qualities. I look forward to seeing what the writers do with that relationship in Season Five.