Note: I’ve created a TV Episodes page to round up the television critiques I’ve been writing. I know a handful of people enjoy these, so now there’s a central repository. Hopefully this will grow considerably in the coming months. Or years!?
“5G” sees Mad Men get a little too cute with an episode title for the first time. The eponymous 5G here represents both the apartment number of a face of the past that threatens to shatter the new and illusory life Don Draper has created for himself as well as the price he’s willing to pay to ensure his privacy: $5000.
Contrived or not, this narrative collision offers the first real glimpse we’ve had into Don’s true past. It follows immediately, as is ever the way of serial drama, on the heels of the first glimpse we’ve seen of him truly happy and relaxed: Stumbling home with Betty after winning a major award for Sterling-Cooper, pleasantly drunk, he downplays the significance of his success but clearly is pleased with himself. Even the next morning’s blaring hangover can’t mute his good cheer.
But his award — which takes the form of a horseshoe-shaped trophy that falls loose and flops upside-down in a slightly too-on-the-nose visual — brings about his potential undoing after a photo featuring him and Roger Sterling accepting their prize shows up on the front page of Advertising Age. “Nobody reads [Ad Age],” Don remarks offhandedly, which may be true — but at the very least, night janitors at the Empire State Building scan the front-page photos. Unfortunately for Don, one of those janitors happens to be his half-brother, Adam Whitman, who immediately recognizes him and follows up on the present whereabouts of the former Dick Whitman far more tenaciously than the former comrade-in-arms Don bumped into on the commuter train not so long ago.
Adam tracks “Dick” down to Sterling-Cooper and shows up unannounced to meet with his long-lost brother. Don practically jumps out of his skin at hearing Adam’s name, but while he may be able to bluff his way through the impersonal halls of Sterling-Cooper on a daily basis, his flimsy pretense of failing to recognize Adam gets him nowhere. Eventually, it becomes clear that Don won’t be able to fake his way out of a confrontation, so he shoos his unwanted guest out of the office to meet up at a nearby diner.
As Don struggles through the fallout of unwitting print appearance, his coworkers look to their own publication track record as a matter of interoffice bragging rights. Ken Cosgrove (who until now has been given “tall, lecherous, bad at basketball” as the sum total of his character development) manages to get a slice-of-life short story printed in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, inspiring jealousy among his peers. While Paul Kinsey is content to simply haze Ken in front of the ladies from the steno pool, Pete Campbell bristles — presumably because Ken’s success elicits vocal praise from Sterling, recognition that Campbell desperately covets.
Campbell’s desperation to make it into print isn’t the only thing that paints a powerful contrast between him and Don here. “5G” goes to great lengths to present Campbell as a petulant, self-involved child; while the previous episode explored the unhappy reality of Campbell’s family life, we see here that an upbringing that has combined privileged status and skinflint parents has shaped him into a miserable young man who feels entitled to whatever he wants while feeling like the world at large is out to spite him.
“You don’t want me to have what I want,” he sniffles at his new bride, Trudy. That in itself would be despicable enough behavior on its own, but what makes it truly appalling is the fact that he says it in reference to the fact that she chose not to literally prostitute herself to a publishing agent in order to get her husband’s mediocre short story into a more respectable magazine than Boy’s Life. Where most men would presumably be reluctant to let their wives spend time with a former lover who still carries a torch, Campbell is aggrieved that she wasn’t faithful to him sexually in order to appease his ego.
Several times Campbell is contrasted to Don through scene cuts, and in each instance Pete is presented as a child compared to his boss. First we see Don in bed with his mistress Midge, followed by Pete in bed with Trudy. The former caresses his lover’s breasts and talks sensually as their bodies entwine; the latter sits several feet from his wife with a stack of cookies and a tall glass of milk on the bedside table. Later, Pete’s petty outburst at Trudy for her failure to sell her body for his sake leads into a shot of Don and Betty at dinner. Don sits with his back turned to the viewer, in shadow, out of focus, as the camera slowly zooms on Betty’s face. Don and Betty face one another fairly intimately, but Don’s posture relative to the viewer speaks to the truth of the man’s relationships with others.
Even as we learn more about Don — the fact that he grew up with an unloving stepmother and an adoptive uncle he despised, the way he vanished from his family by pretending to be dead (though Adam saw him fleetingly as he skipped town on a rail) — the deceit and mystery he’s spun around his present-day life grows ever thicker. Adam threatens to be the blade that cuts through the Gordian Knot Don has used to tie away his past, which is precisely why the latter pays his brother to go away, giving Adam every cent to his name (“Five thousand dollars,” he says. “That’s all there is.”). In the short time Adam lurks at the fringes of Don’s life here, his presence nearly undermines Don’s private affairs. His fling with Midge nearly to come to light when Betty comes to the office unannounced as Don shares a cold, unwelcoming conversation with Adam at the diner without telling his secretary Peggy of his whereabouts — leaving Peggy to assume he’s with Midge, whose dirty, flirty phone conversations she had recently overheard. And hours after emptying his personal coffers to pay Adam to go away, Betty broaches the idea of them buying a summer home based on her impression that Don had enjoyed a successful year at work — a correct assumption, but one Don can’t cop to without revealing his darkest secrets.
As usual, of course, Don’s own musings and needs drive his excellence at the office. He comes up with the brainstorm of a private, secret savings account for husbands — separate from the family bank book — by recognizing his own desire for financial duplicity. Don’s “private bank” consists of a locked dresser drawer rather than a more secure depository, something that seemingly weighs on his mind even before his brother turns up and threatens to lay bare the truth of Dick Whitman.
By far the most important sequence in the entire episode isn’t Don’s brusque meeting with Adam at the diner but rather his decision to travel in the middle of the night to Adam’s apartment and pay him off. We watch Don muse for a while before burning a battered photo of himself and his brother from years before. Don reaches deliberately into his locked drawer and places something into a valise, which he opens ominously at Apartment 5G to reveal… no, not a weapon, but a wad of $20 bills. This is the moment at which we see just what kind of show Mad Men will be. Turns out it’s not the kind where the de facto protagonist pulls a gun on his own half-brother in order to preserve his secrets… but it is the kind where the protagonist will pay his brother to go away. He’s not a nice or kind man, but he also isn’t violent or mean.
Ranking right up there is Betty’s first encounter with Peggy as she attempts to make little jokes about Don that have too much basis in her own sense of isolation to come off as anything but wistful. “You probably know more about him than I do,” she admits sadly, and a look of discomfited sympathy comes over Peggy — Peggy, who stumbled into the truth of Don’s infidelity quite by mistake.
Though Don makes it clear he wants nothing to do with Adam, in the end he gives his grieving brother a genuine hug. You get the sense that Adam may have been the one part of Dick Whitman’s life he didn’t hate. But in order to close the book on all the bad things, he has to cut his brother loose as well. Unlike Campbell’s petty treatment of his wife, Don’s callous dismissal of his brother elicits a twinge of sympathy.