“He loves to tell tales about how poor he was. But he’s not anymore.”

The anecdote about Uncle Mac and the toaster which as good as opens Severance counts as the second time a season premier has hit us with the sucker punch of Don opening up about his past. Caught by surprise it’s easy for us, the viewers, to miss what was said. Not that people didn’t pick up on the substitution of “boarders” for “prostitutes”, Mad Men’s fans are too skilled at close analysis for that, but I think many of us may have overlooked the meaning of this scene – exactly why Don is telling stories like this in the first place. Because it’s the form not the content that matters.

And the form is a joke, a shaggy dog story designed to please the women around him, to draw them in, the end goal sex or at the very least seduction. It may be a tale drawing from Don’s experiences in the brothel he grew up in, but it is a highly selective, rigorously edited, narrativised version of those experiences with all the painful bits left out. Compare the peals of laughter at his punchline and general intimacy of the scene with the last time Don decided to bare all in front of a room full of strangers.

The scenes are the polar opposite of each other. In In Care Of Don is compelled to speak by deep grief and alienation, whereas in Severance everything is calculated and rehearsed. Roger’s response (quoted above) tells us that this is one of many tales Don’s now spinning about his prehistory, and possibly one he’s heard before around similar tables, hemmed in by a clutch of other equally forgettable, beautiful women.

Don’s motivations, I admit, may well be more complex than I have allowed. By bringing it to bay in the form of a joke, he may be exhibiting a desire to control his past, a past which has historically always been a volatile place, erupting here there and everywhere with disastrous consequences. Don may also have become addicted to the adrenal hit that comes with sharing, the light headed “relief” he describes to Lane after catching SC&P’s doomed Finance Officer in the act of embezzling from the company. He may just want to apply the corrective of laughter to the tragedy of those years, and who can blame him? Frankly it’s probably all of the above.

What it isn’t, however, is confession. When all’s said and done we know Don’s past can’t be contained or managed, rather it has to be deeply felt and understood if he’s ever to truly, in the words of one of his famous catchphrases, “move on”. What Don’s getting here is the thrill of sharing with none of the danger, none of the emotion so vital to the healing process. His new life, all that money and freedom from responsibility to a partner, has turned even his traumatic childhood into a playground. It isn’t though, and I hope somewhere in his need to repeatedly touch on the wellspring of his pain there’s a subconscious recognition of this fact. That despite appearances Dick Whitman, repressed for too long, still wants to get out from under Don Draper’s thumb and announce himself to the world.

*William, In Care Of

Leave a Reply