One of the dominant themes of the first season of Mad Men is Jewishness. In the very first episode, Sterling Cooper is courting the Jewish department store Menken’s, which is trying to convert to a more mainstream luxury format under the leadership of the owner’s daughter, Rachel Menken. When they seek out a Jewish employee to attend the initial meeting, Don joins in with the casual anti-Semitism of the era, declaring that they haven’t hired any Jews “under his watch.” But as the season goes on, the Jewish motifs continue — they try (and ultimately fail) to get the Israeli tourism account, Don takes up with Rachel (at one point using the Israeli tourism connection as a pretext to meet with her), and there are also little touches (such as the delicatessen served to the Lucky Strike representatives who are nervous after Roger’s heart attack, an interesting counterpoint to the shrimp cocktail served at the original Menken’s pitch).
On one level, this is a misdirection. The audience knows Don has a secret, and the writers are luring us into the trap of assuming that Don is a secret Jew — when in reality he is just a poor Southern boy, the orphaned son of a prostitute. But one of the key techniques of Mad Men is to “sublate” apparent misdirections into deeper truths. The most obvious example comes in connection with the death of Adam Whitman. When Don makes up his mind to go visit him in the dead of night, the audience is given several misleading hints that Don is intending to kill Adam. The camera never shows us the money that he’s actually putting into his bag, leading to the impression that the mysterious item is a gun. Only at the last possible minute is it revealed that Don is trying to buy Adam off — but of course, Don’s actions ultimately do wind up driving Adam to suicide, so that the original suspicion is in a sense true.
I believe the same can be said of the misleading clues that Don is a Jew — it’s not literally true, but it is formally true. Don’s experience is structurally parallel to that of a Marrano, “passing” in Christian society without ever truly belonging to it. The symbolism in the flashbacks to the “origin story” reinforce this connection. Before the attacks that kill the real Don Draper, Dick Whitman is digging trenches and is standing in an approximately grave-sized hole. Lt. Draper then gets into the grave with him during the initial attack. Believing themselves to have avoided death, the two men get out of the grave just as the bomb that will kill Lt. Draper falls, and then Dick throws his own dogtags onto the dead body before stealing Draper’s. It’s a death and resurrection in a sense, but a botched one — Dick Whitman is resurrected, but it’s someone else‘s resurrection, one he can never take on as his own. (In another misdirection, we are led to believe that the reason Don feels so close to Rachel Menken is because her mother also died in childbirth — but her Jewishness seems to be a deeper factor in the affinity.)
This theme is far from abandoned in later seasons, though it becomes more muted. I’ve written elsewhere that the theme of season 2 is Don’s attempt to assume his own identity — and he appears to succeed at it after a symbolic baptism while visiting Anna Draper. Yet even this apparent security in the Don Draper persona is quickly undermined. His triumph over Duck in the merger comes only because of his insistence on remaining distant from his own identity (by not having a formal contract) and his marriage is only saved when Betty becomes unexpectedly pregnant. The dynamic repeats throughout later seasons, where his “baptism” as Don Draper is constantly threatened and needs to be reasserted. In season 3, he is forced to reveal his secret to Betty and loses his family and home — but re-baptizes himself through the bold move of starting the new agency, with his name on the masthead. In season 4, he chooses between two lovers, one of whom (Faye Miller) wants him to come clean about his false identity and the other of whom (Megan) will allow him to “reboot” his self-image as a family man — and we know which one he choses. In season 5, he makes every effort to live out the renewed identity that Megan has given him, but it ultimately winds up hollowing out as Megan’s ambition winds up corrupting her and he is revealed, in the final scene, to be “alone” once more.
I can only expect that the current season will present us with a similar challenge to Don’s identity, which he will somehow provisionally overcome. An interesting new element in this season, however, has been an extension of the “passing” theme to the African-American experience — through the focus on Don’s black secretary, Dawn, who feels at home in neither the black nor the white world, and the break-in of the elderly African-American woman who claimed to have been Don’s nanny. Lili Loofbourow points out the vaudeville or minstrel elements in the episode where everyone is high on speed, which she rightly links to Bobby’s naive question after the African-American woman claims to be his grandmother: “Are we Negroes?” Again, they aren’t literally that, but they have no idea the degree to which their father is an interloper (Sally explicitly states that she knows nothing about Don’s past when he calls to apologize for leaving the door unlocked — she had apparently always assumed it was basically like a rich white man’s past). Will Don have to face the humiliation of revealing his secret to his children? Betty has threatened that before in season 5, telling them about Don’s “ex-wife” Anna — though in that case, Megan covered for him.
Perhaps one can read this expansion of the Marrano theme to African-Americans as an oblique commentary on the contemporary world, where our first black president is not entirely unlike Don Draper — able to move between worlds without ever fully belonging to either of them, audacious in seizing opportunities but marked by an ambition that often translates into an uncritical embrace of the conventional wisdom of the system that promoted him, etc. While Obama is not hiding anything in his background (indeed, just the opposite, he has written on it extensively), the suspicion always lingers among our more paranoid fellow-citizens that he’s hiding something, that he’s not who he says he is. Certainly racism accounts for much of that, but I wonder if that racism is inflected through a kind of “formal” anti-Semitism, which would view Obama as the rootless cosmopolitan who is only “passing” as a proper American.
Yet here we should turn to Bert Cooper’s response to Pete’s revelation of Don’s secret, where he dismisses Pete’s concerns — but then moves on to say that America was built by men like Don, people escaping their sordid pasts and posing as someone they’re not. Perhaps America is all surface, “all the way down.” Perhaps we’re all “passing,” perhaps the truest Americans are the most rootless cosmopolitans. Perhaps we could expand the analysis by placing the emphasis on the word men, seeing the masculinity of the show (whether the frat-boy horseplay of the younger men or the “strong, silent type” portrayed by Don) as an elaborate put-on as well, always threatening to give way to humiliation and panic.
Of course, this isn’t all that’s going on — the question “Are we Negros?” doesn’t apply simply to passing, but to the pervasive theme of prostitution, the buying and selling of people’s creativity, integrity, and even literally their bodies (in the case of Joan, for instance). But I’ll stop here for now.