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Mad Men: The Twin Within
May 28, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 3 comments
 

Mad Men
has always explored the lurking subconscious within, and the last couple of weeks have been a Freudian romp for many characters — mainly, of course, for Don Draper. He's the man with everything to hide and little he wants to reveal, even though his big secret, his stolen identity, has been known to a few for a couple of seasons. Now, it's his true character, his feelings, that can't get free, although recently they've been leaking out in all sorts of unintended ways.

(Spoiler Alert: we're about to go into the two most recent episodes of Mad Men, and plot points are revealed.)

In the most recent episode, "The Better Half," we saw Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm, top, left) the new co-creative director at the still unnamed merger of SCDP and CGC, become more of a doppelganger of Don (Jon Hamm), making them a coin with two heads, (or tails, maybe). Ted became more ruthless, and more able to dismiss and easily compartmentalize his past feelings for Peggy (Elisabeth Moss, below right).

As Peggy watches Ted and Don simultaneously march off to opposing, respective offices she realizes she has followed, and trusted, essentially the same person, via two different men. (At the episode's beginning, she's graphically split in a blouse that's geometrically divided down the middle.)

This doubling revolved around an innocuous plot-line involving an ad campaign for Fleischmann's margarine, and the finer marketing points distinguishing it from the higher-priced butter. They're two products that look the same but, of course, have completely different ingredients and levels of quality.

When asked his opinion on the differences between Don's pitch about taste and Ted's pitch about price, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) blithely jokes, "I feel strongly both ways."  He notes the flip sides of the pitch, as we must note the co-pairing of Don/Ted and Don's continual sinking of his true identity and any authentic feelings for his wife or his children.

In reverse, Don's young wife Meghan (Jessica Paré) a daytime TV actress, struggled to consciously to manufacture a character within. She couldn't seem to make the split into her evil-twin character clear enough for the director of her soap. He demanded retakes and complains. She replies, "that they're two halves of the same person, they want the same thing, but they're trying to get it in different ways."

The genius of Mad Men, aside from its taut scripting and design, has been the depth of the character studies — a TV equivalent of a complex, 1,000 page Russian novel, or at least, a Freudian primer.

As a cultural history, Don's back-story has mirrored the movement of psychoanalysis during the mid-20th century, arguably represented by Roger Sterling's recent treatment as he lay on his analyst's couch earlier this season. That method, like much of the post-war style and sociology, collapsed at the end of this all-important decade. (Roger once quipped: "Psychiatry is just this year's candy-pink stove.") It gave way in an upheaval of social change — including America's declining geopolitical influence, the erosion of the nuclear family and the popular mainstreaming of more nuturing psychotherapy in the form of self-help books such as I'm OK, You're OK, which was published in 1967. Don and all the characters are hurtling towards these cultural earthquakes of the '70s within the series' main themes of consumerism and manufactured, mass-media desire.

In a surprise turn during "The Better Half," Don continued his infidelity and sexual conquests (i.e., his primary experience) but this time, in another reversal, he cheated with his ex, Betty (January Jones) as the two went upstate for a parents' weekend at their son's summer camp.  Don had hidden his true identity (and any real feelings) during their marriage, but now, as exes, they meet in a deeply honest, authentic moment. Betty knows that Don cannot associate acceptance and understanding with intimacy and love. She lay in bed with Don and muses on her true affection for him, his impenetrability and Megan's current plight: "That poor girl, she doesn't know that loving you is the worst way to get to you."

The doubling theme, as nuanced as it was, focused on the inner selves that struggle, but often come close to being unified. This directly opposed the tone of the previous episode, "The Crash," which excavated the monster within — the unhappy child — but still dwelled in psychoanalytic reversals.

In that episode, Draper's back story — the child of a protitute who died during childbirth, then raised by cruel, violent father and resentful stepmother — gave us a look into how Don came to be the brilliant, over-achieving impostor we know.

"The Crash" went deep into adults as children and vice versa. The creative team at the new SCDP/CGC, increasingly pressured by unreasonable deadlines being set by Chevrolet, go on a weekend amphetamine-laced bender trying to manufacture a winning creative strategy, running around the office and behaving like crazed kids.

And, inversely, as Matthew Weiner and the creative Mad Men team so often do, so well, the children had to meet the adulthood crashing in on them in similarly, dangerous ways.

Don had to go hard up against some Mommy issues with repeated flashbacks to his adolescence — becoming ill and being nursed not by his dismissive stepmother, Abigail, but by a prostitute living in the brothel being run by Abigail and her partner, "Uncle Mack."

Don eventually loses his virginity to the prostitute, and is beaten and cursed by his stepmother when she learns of the tryst. Suddenly, his extramarital affair and obsession with Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini, left), a like-appearing brunette prone to similar loud rages — and the one who's now rejecting him — made perfect sense. He can only associate love, or real vulnerability, with the furtive trysts, abuse and suffering he knew as a child.

The revelation is punctuated with Don's obsession over finding artwork for an old ad campaign he did ten years before for a food client. Convinced that the campaign will inspire the current creative team, he sends Peggy to the store room look for it, promising that "you'll know it when you see it, and it will crack this thing wide open." The artwork, which has nothing to do with the auto pitches they have to have finished by Monday morning, is simply a child sitting at kitchen table being served by a smiling, nurturing mother.

It didn't crack the problem of the car ad, but it did take the lid off Don for all of us to see. Completely.

Deepest and darkest of all, the Draper children, having been left alone at the Manhattan apartment as Don works the weekend and Megan parties with Broadway producers, confront a house-breaker in the middle of the night. She's an elderly African-American con-artist, claiming first, to be their Grandma Ida, then simply as someone having helped raise Don when he was a boy.

Sally confronts the dangerous, pseudo-mother figure as she's methodically going through the cabinets looking for anything of value. It's a tense scene where things seem likely to go terribly wrong at any minute, but do not. It's up to Sally, a young girl, to divine whether the adult in front of her is lying, or, because she knows so little about her mysterious father, telling the truth. When Sally finally picks up the phone and calls the police, the woman convinces the authorities that Sally is merely playing a childish prank, then makes her escape.

"The Crash" was maybe one of the best, certainly one of the edgiest Mad Men episodes to date. (The children are shown briefly watching Patrick McGoohan's enigmatic and mind-tripping landmark 1967-68 series, The Prisoner, where the anti-hero is unsure of who his real captors are.) But assuming that it is the best that Matthew Weiner and the Mad Men team can do is probably a trap. It's certain there are gallons more left in the tank, and while it's impossible to predict where they will go next, they will likely continue to mine the psychological touchstones of the culture shifts they're excavating.

Maybe the real question of Don's outcome, as he falls each week from a Manhattan high-rise in the opening sequence, is whether that fall is his demise, or the low-point, the bottom of his spiritual crash, from which he will remake himself and rise into an integrated, full being.

As Don marches back to his office at the close of "The Crash," realizing the futility of his unintended speed-addled search for self-knowledge, he tells Ted he's no longer going to pitch Chevy, but will just review the team's work before it goes out to the client. He tells Ted, "I'm sorry, but every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse."

 
 
 
 
 
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3 Comments
 
 
Kathleen
Eric- this is brilliant. Do you have a compendium of writings about MM? How many times do you watch an episode to extract the nuanced meaning? I love what you're doing for my experience of MM. I want more!
Jun 1, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
Marlark
Great essay, Eric! So much has been written lately about these doppelgängers, but the psychological overlay you provided was very insightful. Newcomers to the series say they just see a sparse looking soap opera; your read on things bring to light the deeper layers. (And I LOVED that "Prisoner" touch).

Who is Bob Benson's doppelgänger? And, quite frankly, who is Bob Benson?
May 28, 2013   |  Reply
 
 
Kate
"Roger Cooper?"
May 28, 2013   |  Reply
 
EG
Kate - Bullseye! Thanks! –EG
May 28, 2013
 
 
 
 
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