“The Return of the Prodigal Son”
It may have taken five episodes, but Mad Men has finally hit its stride. For the first time since the pilot, everything falls together perfectly. As I’ve said before, the action is in the interaction.
Character combinations that had been underrated and underused now crackle with chemistry. Likewise, the whole episode has a calming sense of unity that had been missing in the previous installments. In a sense, “5G” sets the standard for the rest of season one.
At first glance, it will appear that the episode is still reveling in low-stakes entertainment — Peggy and Joan engage in some accidental office gossip, while account executive Ken Cosgrove gets a short story published in The Atlantic, sparking intense jealousy in his co-workers. But then Mad Men delivers a sudden plot twist that surprisingly elevates the episode to a higher plane.
The biggest revelation of the series occurs when a man named Adam Whitman shows up to the Sterling Cooper office claiming to be Don’s half-brother. He found Don’s photograph in a newspaper and is overjoyed to find out that “Dick Whitman” is alive and well.
Like seeing a ghost, he remarks.
There have been hints and clues about Don’s mysterious upbringing, but Mad Men has remained steadfastly tight-lipped. The revelation that Donald Draper is actually some AWOL orphan boy named Dick Whitman adds a whole new dimension to what was already one of the most complex character arcs in TV history.
Who is Don Draper? Suddenly, Mad Men’s defining question is a double-edged sword: Who was Dick Whitman?
In retrospect, “5G” is a much sadder episode than I initially remembered. Adam, who was only eight when Dick “left” the family farm, is elated to reconnect with his long-lost older brother, yet Don wants nothing to do with him. Don’s stone-faced rejection of the only lifeline left to his childhood is heartbreaking to behold. And it’s even more frustrating to watch him sit there in angry denial. He can’t even look Adam in the face.
“Did you even miss me?” Adam tenderly asks. Don pauses for a few seconds before giving an answer that may or may not be genuine: “Of course I did.”
On rewatch, it’s easier to see things from Adam’s perspective. The persona that Dick Whitman has created over the years — the suave, charismatic businessman who calls himself Donald Draper — is a sham. He’s nothing like Adam remembered.
This means that Don’s entire life is predicated on a lie. Can we trust anything he does? The way he acts and carries himself — the character we’ve grown to love — is he even real?
In what will be their final encounter, Don gives Adam $5,000 to start a new life and never contact him again. It’s one of the most moving scenes in the entire series and also one of the most tragic.
Don hates where he came from, but he hates what he’s become even more. Can he ever change? Mad Men now has a clearly defined end goal: our main character will never reach true inner harmony until Don Draper and Dick Whitman are united as one, person to person.
For the time being, however, to which persona does he truly belong?
For now, Don stands alone. His encounter with Adam is a tragic display of heartlessness that completely alters how we see him. Has he lost our respect? Yes. Has he become more compelling and mysterious and multifaceted because of it? Most definitely.
As goes Donald Draper, so goes Mad Men. That’s why “5G” is easily one of season one’s defining episodes.
MERGERS & ACQUISITIONS
- With this episode, Ken Cosgrove becomes the most likable character out of the junior executive supporting cast. The other guys — Paul Kinsey, Harry Crane and Salvatore Romano — have all been, for lack of a better description, insufferable douchebags.
- Pete Campbell, fresh off his humbling and humanizing performance in “New Amsterdam,” has unfortunately reverted back to his despicable, loathsome self. In order to get his own short story published, he arranges a meeting between his wife and a magazine publisher that she used to date. It only goes to show that Pete’s just as selfish and inconsiderate as Don when it comes to family.
- Peggy accidentally eavesdrops on a particularly graphic phone call between Don and Midge, meaning that she knows about his extramarital affair. When Betty brings the kids to the office for a family portrait, Peggy panics and asks Joan for advice. She learns that her most important job at the office is to cover for her boss. She also learns that her boss isn’t someone to look up to. Another illusion shattered for our favorite naïve secretary.
- Also: is this the only time in the series that Betty and Peggy meet? I can’t remember if they have any other encounters throughout the series.
- Midge calls Don’s office using the name “Bix Beiderbecke.” She also listens to Miles Davis post-coitus. If nothing else, Midge has great taste in music. Unfortunately, Don has never heard of Beiderbecke, the trumpeter who made the second best song of the 1920s.
- A particularly heavy-handed moment occurs early in the episode when Don leaves his house for work, and the horseshoe on his advertising award falls upside-down. Matthew Weiner isn’t being too subtle.
- Out of Mad Men’s seven seasons, the debut has the strongest focus on Don’s past. His encounter with Adam Whitman lays the groundwork for the season’s central mystery, which will be expanded upon via flashback throughout the entire show.
- Although Don is hesitant to talk to Adam, he asks a few questions about “Uncle Mac” and his stepmother “Abigail,” to which Adam replies that they’re both dead. Their identities are left ambiguous, but it’s clear that there was plenty of mutual contempt between Don and Adam’s mother. When he learns that she died of stomach cancer, Don has a cold response: “Good.”
- The episode’s title refers to Adam’s apartment number. ‘5G’ also refers to the amount of money that Don gives him.
- “5G” was written by series creator Matthew Weiner and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter.
- “I want you to pull my hair, ravish me and leave me for dead.”
- “She wasn’t my mother. She never let me forget that.”