Mad Men: California Dreamin'

On a trip out west, Mad Men's Don Draper shifted back into Dick Whitman, but when disaster wrenched him back, he returned to his pattern of destructive behavior—and dragged another down with him. And our beloved Joanie cried!

Last night's episode was all about the characters' true identities peeking out through the personae which they have created. It was like the clouds parted and the sunlight shone through, but the light was too intense, and the clouds shuddered back quickly to keep everyone from going blind. For Don, it occurred when he went to visit Anna—his sorta ex-wife—in California on his way to Acapulco for New Year's. Anna married the real Don Draper before he went off to Korea and was killed, which is when a little upstart named Dick Whitman took his dog tags and assumed his identity. Anna found out about it and confronted him and they started a very strange, non-sexual relationship where they lived together for a spell and remained married. Don asked her for a divorce to marry Betty, but she continued to live in the house he bought and to live off of money he sent her. This all went down in season two, for those who don't remember.

When he arrives in California, Anna starts calling him Dick, and you can see the trappings of "Don Draper" start to fall away. He seems more relaxed and ready to laugh, he wears a tweed jacket and chambray shirt rather than his severe grays and whites, and he seems like he's back to the sort of man that he really is at his core. Of course there are some traits that both Don and Dick share. They both love to drink and they are both total pussy hounds. Don can't resist trying to score with Anna's college-aged niece Stephanie. I'd like to think that his conquest for the young woman has something to do with recapturing his youth or trying to regain a sense of emotional and intellectual purity that can only be found in nubile post-adolescents, but knowing Don, he just really wanted a hot piece.

The niece doesn't relent, but does tell him some very important information: Anna has cancer and she is going to die soon (does that make the joint she gave Anna medicinal marijuana?). Even worse, her meddling sister hasn't even told her about the cancer, because they figure she'll enjoy her last days more if she doesn't know. This news is strong enough to kill Don's wood and he returns to Anna's house to sit on the couch in the same pose and smoke the exact same cigarette for about 8 hours while she sleeps. When Anna's sister returns the next morning, the two have a confrontation, but by now, Dick Whitman is starting to fade in the background as Don Draper takes over.

Dick Whitman is a hillbilly from the middle of nowhere who is literally the son of a whore. Don Draper is the rich and flashy man that has replaced him, one who seems to have traded his caring soul for a bad attitude and a stocked bank account. He is the sort of person who insults Anna's sister about her "limited means" and accuses her of bumbling Anna's cancer diagnosis. Regardless of whether or not you think Anna should be told about her condition, this is no way to treat a woman who was there while Don was living the high life in New York.

But she snaps back with a cutting remark of her own, saying Don is not family he is just "a man in a room with a checkbook." She couldn't be more right, but the sad thing about Don is that Anna is really the only family he has. His parents are dead, his brother killed himself (possibly because of Don refused to talk to him), and his wife left him when she found out the truth about his identity. The one person he has left is this woman who isn't even related to him by blood or marriage. She's the ex-wife of the man whose identity he stole in one of the most successful long cons in fictional history. Not only that, but she's one that he supports and pays for. She's like some sort of emotional hooker, a woman he pays to be there for him, and now he's about to lose all that.

He sits her down to tell her about her cancer, but he can't. He heeds her sister's advice and decides to leave instead. We all know that Don Draper has a problem with the truth.

I always thought that Don's relationship with Anna was very strange. Sure, it makes sense to pay off the lady who keeps your secret, but why be so close to her? Especially because Anna seems to be this sort of sainted martyr. She's so cool and forgiving and understanding, always telling Don how great he is and how he can conquer life so easily. It's like when your mother tells you that you look really good. You appreciate the compliment, but you don't really believe it because it's your mother. Maybe that's the point. Anna has the blind devotion to Don that family members share, even though she's not really his family at all. Even at the very end, she's comforting Don, saying, "You'll get through this." Of course she means the split from Betty, but Don interprets it as her eventual death. She is there to help assuage even that sadness.

What is important about her to Don is that she knows the real "Dick" and never judged him for it. He tells her that as soon as Betty found out about the roots he kept hidden from her, he could tell that she never wanted to talk to him again. Because he loathes his lineage so much, he assumes it's because she didn't want to marry some poor hick from Nowheresville, PA. Oh really, Dicky baby? Maybe she hated you because you married her and lied about your identity for close to a decade? Do you think that might have had something to do with it?

Anyway, Anna is the only person who knows Dick Whitman and she is about to die. That means Dick Whitman is about to die as well, and that is what the creature we know as Don is really mourning when he leaves that house in California for what will presumably be the last time. He is leaving behind Dick Whitman forever, particularly what seem to be his good qualities: his openness, his ease, his authenticity. In the cold, harsh, artificial light of the plane—headed back to New York, not Mexico—he is and forever will be "Don Draper" all over again, ringing in the new year in despair.

Another person having a sad new year is our dearest Joan. At the start of the episode, we see her in the gynecologist's office and we learn that she's had a few abortions in the past (which, come on, duh) and that she's worried about conceiving. Joan is my favorite character and it made me a little sad that strong, serious Joan—who is never more happy than when she is making the machinery of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce hum with a smooth efficiency—wanted to have children. But it makes sense. Joan wants nothing more than the things she is supposed to want: a rich husband, a life of leisure, a house full of kids. But, like always, her perfect illusion of a life is threatening to crash around her.

She's still having problems with her husband Doctor Rapist, but this time it's about starting a family and his inevitable deployment to Vietnam. We find out last night that she's having him rearrange his schedule so that they can get some time away together. I thought this might be to coincide with her ovulation so that she can conceive, but did they even do that back in 1964? After all, her OB/GYN counsels her with "if it's going to happen, it's going to happen." If she went to her doctor now, he'd put her on hormones, have her take her temperature everyday, help her plan sex dates with her husband for her optimum window of fertility, and tell her to light a candle for Ishtar the Babylonian goddess of fertility. Maybe it was just to get some time away before he goes off to basic training. Maybe she wants to get knocked up now before he dies?

In order to arrange this getaway she has to ask Lane Pryce for some time off, which he is loathe to give her and is kind of a jerk about it, telling her that, unlike all the other men in the office, he can't be swayed by her feminine wiles. He then tells Joan, "don't go and cry about [not getting time off]." Oh, hell no! First of all, Ms. Joan is not one to ever go cry about anything, and if she did it would be one silent tear in a stall in the ladies' room. Second of all, you do not talk to Joan like that. What you don't know is that isn't really a pen she wears around her neck. It is a dagger, and she will take it out and stab it in your jugular and kill you in an instant. Then she will turn on her heels and arrange for the blood to be cleaned off the carpet and it will look even better than before.

To make up for their fight, Lane sends Joan flowers, but when she reads the card, she is scandalized because he professes his love for her. Come to find out, it's a silly mishap where he sent flowers to both his wife, whom he has been fighting with (more on that in a bit) and Joan, and the switched messages make it seem like Lane is coming on to Joan and the one his wife gets makes him look like he's apologizing to his mistress. Of course Joan immediately fires his secretary for the mishap. (See, that is why you do not fuck with Joan.)

Back at home, Joan and Doctor Rapist have a fight about just about everything. She doesn't want him to leave for the war, he won't admit that he is definitely going to be shipped out (and probably killed), he doesn't want her to work, she's not willing to give up her identity as the do-gooder at SCDP. It's a mess. To make up for it, she does what Joan does best and puts together an impeccable themed brunch that would make every editor of Martha Stewart Living swoon with delight. But while slicing an orange, she also slices open her finger.

If I were Joanie, I'd want to go to the hospital too, since Doctor Rapist is such a shitty doctor that he couldn't be a surgeon and had to enlist in the Army. I wouldn't let him anywhere near me with a needle! But even worse than that, Joan's tough exterior finally cracks. Doctor Rapists says "Everything will be OK," and Joan sobs, "When?" Fundamentally, Joan is a striver. She wants a perfect life and an elevated station, and she's done everything she's supposed to do to get there: she got the right job, she bedded the right men, she found the right husband. But still, the pieces aren't falling into place for poor Joan. She can master the office with all its people and politics, but she can't master her life. What she's crying for is the illusion of her future. When is it coming? When will she get what she wants?

More importantly, it's a crack into Joan's soul. But it's very brief. Doctor Rapist says, "Joanie," and she knows what he means. She twists her face up, dries her tears, and puts her mask back on. With the nod of her head and sigh, she's back in control again. The same old Joan, muddling through and pretending like everything is perfect. It is both heartbreaking and moving.

It's a surprise that Lane and Joan aren't better friends since they are both "keep calm and carry on," kind of folks. And Lane is going through a tough time of his own. We could see the split with his wife coming as soon as the end of last season, when she made it very well known that she did not want to stay in New York and it was obvious that he did. She returned back to England for the holidays and, after the switched flowers debacle, she is not coming back. Lane has the buttoned up exterior that we stereotypically assign to everyone with a British accent, but now that his wife is gone he has good old Donnie Draper to usher him into a life of depravity.

Back from his disastrous trip to California, Don goes to the office to drown his sorrows in work, which is also Lane's current drug of choice. They soon find a new drug, booze, and they go out on an adventure together on New Year's day, getting drunk at a Godzilla movie, going to a fancy restaurant, and then, well, arranging a little rendezvous.

Yes, Don has convinced Lane to hire a hooker! The most amazing thing about this is that in 1965, a hooker only costs $25! Damn, they should be hiring the world's oldest professionals everyday!

Seriously, the most important thing about their conversation is what Lane says about the man he once knew who was like Don. He was someone that everyone followed, a charismatic visionary. He didn't set out to lead, but he did based on the magnetism of his aura. This is what Don does at the office. Of course Lane's friend eventually died in a motorcycle accident. Don has been very self-destructive lately as well with all the booze and hookers and office liaisons. He's on the motorcycle, and a tree is on the horizon.

Don thinks that Lane needs the same thing as well, and drags him into his underworld. It was so funny watching Lane make out with his paid escort. While Don would undo his tie, rip it off his neck and throw it to the floor, Lane merely loosens his half Windsor just a smidge. He can unclench a little bit, but he can't let himself go entirely. But in the morning, when he's sobered up and calmed down, his stiff upper lip is firmly back in place. He leaves Don's house impeccably dressed with the same "Hip, hip, cheerio" demeanor that he always has.

But not Don. Don is a wreck in his kitchen waiting for the coffee to percolate. His long nights are getting harder to recover from, and while it may seem like he has freedom, he has anything but. He's divorced, owns his own company, and the ties from his old life are about to be dissolved forever, but he's still haunted. Sorry, Don, but the ghosts stick around until you exorcise them, and getting wasted and sleeping with hookers isn't nearly enough to do the trick.

And the episode ends with such a sad irony. Don, Lane, and Joan (along with Roger and Pete Campbell) all sit around a table and Joan cheerfully pipes up with, "OK, gentlemen, let's start 1965." It's such a sad tableau, with all these miserable people sitting around a desk together trying to pretend like everything's perfect. And it just might be, as long as none of them leave the office.

Previously:
Mad Men: Back to Business
Mad Men: The Ghosts of Christmas Past