It’s always been hard to talk to my father. There are many reasons for this—little time spent together because of the demands of his job, not sharing many interests, our quick tempers, and a seemingly insurmountable gap in perspective due to a forty year age difference and him growing up half-way across the globe. My father is a good man; he’s compassionate, funny, fiercely intelligent, and inspiringly hard working. He came to this country with $300 in his pocket and made his mark on the place. But that doesn’t make it any easier to talk to him. We share equal blame for not making enough of an active effort to remedy our relationship. We’re both busy. It takes time and work. The fact remains that there’s a fundamental disconnect between us, and I’m not certain if we’ll ever make up the difference before it’s too late.
Watching movies and television together (with my mother) often makes things easier between us, because it’s a superficially democratized experience. We’re both consuming the same thing at the same time, and we’re doing this mostly in silence. When we disagree on something, it’s about a film or a show and not about something “real,” even when it is. It’s simple. It’s peaceful. It’s devoid of any familial complications.
I remember watching the Mad Men pilot when it first aired because every bus stop on the walk home from my friend’s house had the image of Draper’s shadow staring into white space plastered on the side of it. It looked cool. About ten minutes into the pilot, my father, who was on his way up to bed, stopped in the living room to see what I was watching. “What’s this?” he asked. “Some show called Mad Men,” I replied. “It’s about advertising.” I expected him to walk away after a couple minutes, but instead he kept watching. Then he sat down in his chair at the commercial break. My mother came in from the other room and asked what we were doing. “It’s some show called Mad Men,” my father said. She sat down. We watched the rest of the pilot. “That was great,” my father said, and then he went up to bed. Needless to say, we all watched that first season together every Thursday at 9 p.m.
It’s funny to remember that the mystery of Draper’s secret past drove much of the first season because about halfway through it’s easily the least compelling question the series has to offer. Mad Men is a rich character study, not a show driven by mysteries the audience has to solve, and the way Draper’s past affects his present was always more interesting than the actual particulars of his past. It’s important we know that the image of “Donald Draper,” name and all, is constructed; that he came from no money or family to speak of, except for a half-brother that he routinely lets down; that he ran away from something that he wants to forget. These are events that greatly inform Draper’s perspective, but I didn’t really care if I never knew the exact story. The point was that as much as he comes off as confident and cool, Draper is “a coward,” like Rachel Menken says. He runs away because it’s easier than trying to fix something; a second chance is always more appealing than cleaning up the mess of the first.
But nothing about his past changes the fact that Draper is a damn good ad man. Nothing about his past makes him any more or less competent at his job. This is what my father and I more or less remarked at the end of “Indian Summer,” the antepenultimate episode of the first season. Pete Campbell had by accident acquired Adam’s package of childhood photos and dogtags that he posted right before hanging himself. Draper’s secret was out, and it was clear that Campbell was going to use it against him sometime in the future. “I just don’t know why anyone would care,” my father said. “I wouldn’t care.” “Well,” I suggested. “I guess it reflects poorly on his character.” My father scoffed, “Come on, it doesn’t erase the work.” I think we were both silently dreading the show teasing out Pete’s leverage all the way to next season. Draper’s personal life is a goddamn mess, but his professional work had been stellar (up to that point in the series, of course) and to saddle the narrative with weak “will Pete, won’t Pete” tension honestly seemed like a dumb idea.
I can say for sure that I didn’t see “Nixon vs. Kennedy” coming. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t aware of “prestige television” tropes or basic cable storytelling, but I didn’t think the show would basically blow up the narrative hook that it had been peddling all season long. I didn’t really think Bert Cooper would say, “Who cares?” While Mad Men had been really good in its first season, it hadn’t been that good. It hadn’t done much of The Sopranos’ narrative zigzagging, leading you down one path only to illustrate that the path was irrelevant or bullshit all along. I didn’t expect at all to see Pete confront Don, Don confront Pete, and then Don and Pete both confront Bert in a very tense sequence all to have that tension quickly vanish with two words in one episode. Maybe I was naïve, but I just didn’t see it coming. I had clearly underestimated the show.
It’s interesting how little else I remember about that episode before I re-watched it in full last night for the first time since it aired, including the 1960 election at the center of it. I forgot that much of the first half consists of short scenes at Sterling Cooper with the employees drinking, carousing, and putting on Kinsey’s shitty one-act play on election night (“Tollifson is the hero. He thinks. Galt’s a thug born on the wrong side of the tracks. You don’t want to be Galt,” Kinsey hilariously mutters to himself after Sal expresses misgivings about the casting). I forgot about Peggy’s emotional crisis and her scene with Don. I even forgot about the flashbacks to Korea. I only remembered the three scenes with Don and Pete, the relationship-ending scene with Don and Rachel, and the scene in Bert’s office. To me, that was the episode. It was Don realizing he was backed into a corner and couldn’t run away this time. It was Don selfishly projecting his weak desire to leave his life, because “people do it everyday,” onto Rachel, only for her to call him on his bullshit. “We’ll start over like Adam and Eve,” Don says pathetically. “What are you 15 years old?” she replies, ultimately rejecting him and his wish to blow up the present in favor of a bright, yet false future. It was Don taking a chance on his personal character, even if it is a mess, because he would never use a man’s name for blackmail, and didn’t want to see someone rewarded for doing so.
Watching the “Who cares?” moment live, and the tense scenes leading up to it, is one of my fondest television moments because, consciously or not, I was watching it through the eyes of my father. I remember him sitting at the edge of his seat as Don tells Pete he “hasn’t thought this through.” After Pete whines that he deserves the head of accounts job, I remember that he clapped in agreement when Don sneers back, “Why? Because your parents are rich?” But that scene in Cooper’s office when he said to Pete what my father and I had been thinking all along was a singular moment that connected us, even if we didn’t realize it at the time. I believe we both assumed what Todd VanDerWerff explicates in his recent review of the episode, that this “revelation” would have “world-shattering consequences,” because that’s how a lot of television works. It’s the cost of doing business. Characters keep secrets, they’re revealed, and then everyone reels from the revelation because it obviously has a profound effect on everything. But Cooper shut this down so shrewdly and quickly because, honest to God, who cares?
He’s never said this to me, but I think the one characteristic my father most loves about the United States, at least when he emigrated here, was that it didn’t really care where you came from, only what you did when you got here. It’s the belief that, at least for most people, your present matters more than your past, and, especially in a professional setting, your output always matters more than who you really are. It didn’t matter that my father wasn’t born here, it mattered that he was here and he was working. My father’s occasionally-strained relationship with me had absolutely no bearing on his work, and nor should it. “This country was built and run by men with worse stories than whatever you’ve imagined here,” Cooper says dismissively to Pete, and it’s fundamentally true. Draper’s closet has plenty of skeletons, but we all have skeletons, and there’s weight to the argument that those skeletons shouldn’t be our ultimate defining characteristic. Mad Men would later illustrate that Draper’s past, like all of our pasts, hangs over him like a ghost that just won’t quit, but it doesn’t change the fact that a man is whatever room he is in.
Do I really know my father? I do insofar as anyone knows anyone, but I’m not sure if it’s my place to try to uncover the mystery. I know some stuff about his childhood and his family, but life (obviously and thankfully) isn’t like television and there’s no guarantee you will get a three-dimensional portrait of someone, including family members. But it’s important to hold onto the stuff you do know, like when I turned to my father after “Nixon vs. Kennedy” was over and I saw a smile on his face. “Wonderful,” he said. Then he went up to bed.