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Mad Men Character Study: Dick Whitman’s Last Stand

The last moments of season 6 suggest that in season 7, Don/Dick will try to synthesize the person he invented with the person he was born.

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Jaimie Trueblood/AMC

Mad Men’s season 6 finale, “In Care Of,” ended on a Joni Mitchell song, “Both Sides, Now” (albeit the Judy Collins version). But I couldn’t help thinking of a second Joni song, a ’70s Joni song from just over the horizon of Mad Men’s approaching end: “I wouldn’t want to stay here / It’s too old and cold and settled in its ways here / Oh, but California!”

California, the place and the idea, has always loomed large in Mad Men’s world and in Don Draper’s, a place with a promise of endless do-overs. It’s where Dick Whitman returned to remake himself after the Korean War, wearing Don Draper’s identity and befriending the real Draper’s wife Anna. It’s where he returns periodically, in episodes like the dreamlike “The Jet Set” and “The Mountain King,” where he feels somehow different than his suit-bound Manhattan self. After a lonely, drunk, despairing spiral in season 4, it’s where he journeys to Disneyland and returns with a new wife.

Given so many things to escape now—an awkward merger at work, a failed affair and failing marriage, a daughter who hates him—it makes perfect sense that Don would seize on one more California Dream of flight and reinvention. After he first dismisses L.A. as “Detroit with palm trees,” Don comes to see the idea of a SC&P satellite on the West Coast as the new equivalent of the getaway cash stashed in his home-office desk, and he sets about, essentially, doing unto Stan as he did unto the original Don Draper in Korea, claiming his self-reinvention from him, less lethally but more intentionally this time.

There was almost something vampiric in Don’s Dick move here, as if by swiping Stan’s dream he could somehow plunge his fangs through Stan’s fringe jacket and suck the youth out of him. And the idea of Don going off to California for the show’s final season was, for the few minutes the episode dangled it, intoxicating. The ’60s are guttering out; California is where, for better or worse, the ’70s will largely be born. In retrospect, we can see it’s where much of the country cultural center of gravity will shift in the coming decade, a frontier removed from old, suffocating New York and Don’s old, suffocating entanglements. (I can only imagine the alternative-universe Mad Men spinoff in which Don and company went off to wear leisure suits and discover EST in ’70s Los Angeles, while Peggy took over the Manhattan office. Call it AfterM*A*D.)

But this time, it’s not for him. The idea of Don’s personal California has already started to sour for him, as we saw already earlier in this season, in his visit where the Warren-Beatty-Shampoo-style Hollywood Hills party replayed his Jet set adventure this time as farce, leaving him face down in a pool hallucinating a vision of death. The California Don encountered in “The Jet Set” was alien too, but in a way he was able to adapt himself too; now, he’s like a lost traveler too old to learn the language and customs. There was a time Don might have found one more new start in California, but that time is past.

I spent a while after watch “In Care Of” trying to decide what it was that impelled Don first to make, then unmake, this potentially life-changing decision all in one episode. There was his heart-to-heart with Teddy Chaough, there was his decision to try to go dry, there was, of course, the news about Sally’s drinking and the implicit realization that he needed to stay and try to clean up the mess he had made of her parenting.

I wonder, though, if Don knew he couldn’t go to California from the moment he said he was going to go there, that he didn’t have one more reboot left in him. The impulse to head off to L.A. and try to create something new and great from “one desk”–more borrowed words from Stan–was a classic, almost clichéd, mid-life crisis gesture. The decision to stay after all (while not necessarily less selfish, at least toward Megan) is in a way the opposite of a midlife crisis. It was a kind of midlife acceptance: acceptance (and we’ll see how long it lasts, since this is Don Draper) that his life was his life now, he had roots and responsibilities, and he needed to stay where he was and see it through.

And thanks to his confessional bio-dump in front of the folks from Hershey’s, it looks as though part of his challenge will be to see through his life as Dick Whitman: to be more open about who he his, and what made him so, and without the support of Don Draper’s status. Don has been able to stay in his job for years despite his lie—”Who cares?” as Bert Cooper famously wrote it off early on—but in many ways he’s also stayed in his job because of the lie; his ability to lie is what makes him so good at his job. And continuing to lie is part of the deal, which is perhaps why his breaking character in front of Hershey was the one screw-up his partners could not forgive.

Like some other Mad Men turning points–for instance, Joan’s sleeping with sleazy Herb from Jaguar—Don’s Hershey collapse and subsequent “timeout” felt like events happened because a character needed to arrive at a certain endpoint, like the result determined the preceding actions rather than vice versa. It was brilliantly executed, for sure. Dramatically, it was terrifying. Emotionally, it was moving. And mechanically, I see how Don went into that room in a vulnerable state of mind.

But over the years Don has hit many “rock bottoms” that always turn out to have another rock bottom in the subbasement beneath them. (Linda Holmes makes a good argument against believing that Don has really, really changed this time.) I’m not sure that the Don we saw last night was more desperate, say, than the red-faced puke-y Don of “The Suitcase.”

Maybe the difference was that there was no difference—except that this time he was older, more tired, and out of reserves. As I wrote when reviewing the season 6 premiere, “The Doorway,” with its wall-to-wall hints of mortality, Mad Men, like The Sopranos, may be a show in which people don’t change, “Even when a character returns to form year in and year out, his circumstances change. The times change. His body changes. Yes, the pattern continues, but all around there is proof–changing fashions, growing children–that eventually (to quote The Sopranos’ Carmela) ‘everything comes to an end.’”

In any case, the change is intriguing enough as a setup for season 7—and season 6 felt largely like a set-up for the series’ final run—that I’ll take it, and hope that Don’s forced hiatus from himself shakes something loose. For a while on Mad Men, it seemed like the question of Don’s false identity was settled and in the past. Season 6, with its repeated, jarring visits to The Worst Little Whorehouse in Pennsylvania, showed that it was not settled at all.

The end of “In Care Of,” with Don bringing his kids to visit his own childhood, felt like it could have been a fitting last scene of the series. Instead it suggests that season 7 will be about Don/Dick trying to synthesize both sides of his life, the self he created and the self he was born into. I’m not yet betting he’ll succeed, but if he did, it wouldn’t be a bad decade’s work.