Mad Men: 5G (S01E05)

5GA small reminder: I’m making my way through all of Mad Men before the last episodes premiere next spring. The plan is to do two episodes a week, with reviews going up Mondays and Wednesdays, but the schedule might vary a little bit. 

“5G” , if not quite a great one, is a very important episode in the history of Mad Men. The first three episodes of the series seemed to be very interested in raising the question of  who stands behind the polished exterior of Don Draper. Up to this point we’ve gotten a number of abstract answers, getting somewhat of a glimpse at Don’s inner psyche. “5G”, however, presents us with a surprise, announcing that the question of “who really is Don Draper” could be answered in a far more literal way than we’d expected.

In true Mad Men fashion, though, the episode raises as many questions (if not more) as the ones it answered. The plot is a callback to the opening moments of “Marriage of Figaro“, in which a man recognizes Don on the train and starts calling him Dick. What we find out here is that Don is, in fact, Dick. Or he was, at least, until he changed his name to (apparently) escape his past. We learn all of this thanks to the arrival of one Adam Whitman (Jay Paulson), who sees a picture of Don in the newspaper and recognizes his long-lost brother. The introduction of Adam is one of the pivotal moments in the history of the show, and one of the most important moments in the show’s early characterization of Don. This development not only seems inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but announces its intentions of being somewhat of a spiritual successor to that great novel. Although Mad Men is a period piece, it is in many ways trying to explore modern America in a similar way to which Gatsby explored the America of the 1920s.

Don Draper and Jay Gatsby have similar pasts, but they are not the same character. In fact, we still have a lot to learn about Don’s past, because “5G” doesn’t really get into the details of it. I remember I was truly perplexed by what I had seen the first time I saw the episode. I didn’t really have a critical opinion whether the episode was effective or not, because I could only wonder about what direction the show was going to take next. I must admit, though, that back in 2007, Don’s backstory ended up being one of my least favorite parts of the first season. Now that I have the power of hindsight I can see all the many wonderful things the show did with this storyline, and am very curious to see how I react to that aspect of the first season during this rewatch.

In the case of “5G”, I’ve come out not being a huge fan of the episode. Like I said above, it is undoubtedly a critical moment for the show’s plot going forward, and a lot of great moments in the show’s future come right out of what happens in this episode, but in my opinion, it just doesn’t work all that well as a unit of television. It seems more concerned with teasing us with glimpses at what Don’s backstory might be than with being the show Mad Men was evolving to become. It doesn’t help that Adam Whitman is a very lacking character. Jay Paulson plays him as well as he can, but there really isn’t very much to Adam beyond his excitement to have found his brother. At this point Adam is more the representation of a concept than an actual human being. He is a plot device, and that’s something about the character that has always bugged me.

That is really the main reason why I’m not a fan of “5G”, which always leaves me a little cold. The ending, in which Don denies his brother (and begins a long tradition of throwing money at his problems) doesn’t land quite in the way I think the writers were expecting. It is such a sudden development, and one motivated by such a clunky character, that it feels like something that we feel is and important moment because the show’s cues tell us it’s supposed to be an important moment, and not because we feel the moment’s importance.

Also in This Episode:
To counter-balance the bleakness of Don’s storyline, we get a couple of pretty funny developments in the office. First, Peggy gets her own private Three’s Company episode when a series of misunderstandings have her learning about Don’s extramarital relationship with Midge, and then trying to keep it all a secret when Betty suddenly pops up at the office.

Meanwhile, a much more substantial story-line comes when Ken Cosgrove is revealed to be a published writer. This seems like the show trying to better define the personalities of the supporting character that inhabit the office, as Kenny becomes less of the douche-bag we met in the first few episodes of the show and more of the effable guy he will be for the rest of the series. Similarly, Paul Kinsey’s jealousy makes him emerge in the role of pedantic asshole that suits him so well. Last, but not least, the show decides to remind us that Pete Campbell is pretty much as despicable a character as you’d find in terms of his ruthlessness in doing whatever is necessary to get what he wants. And this coming after an episode that painted him in a relatively sympathetic light. He too is jealous of Ken’s success, and is willing to go as far as pimp out his wife to become a published writer himself.

Random Thoughts:

  • “An award for horsees?” Kiernan Shipka is adorable as Sally.
  • Joan’s personality still doesn’t show itself. She’s still very catty and more of a foil to Peggy than anything else. I wonder if the character’s evolution was a course correction of the writer’s part or more of a natural progression of the character. I guess I’ll find out soon.
  • Joan on why Don hasn’t noticed her: “probably because he is so good looking he can leave the office to go wherever he wants”.
  • Betty’s comment about Sally looking fat in the family portrait is just the first glimpse into what a horrible mother she is capable of being.
  • “Kenny, I know I’ve been a bear.  But I’ve been competing neck and neck with  people in this place.  I didn’t know I was competing with you, too.” “You lost.” What an awesome burn courtesy of Ken Cosgrove.
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