One of the recurring themes of Mad Men’s early seasons is the postmodern belief that the past is fungible. George Orwell’s 1984 explored the concept on a mass scale, with Winston Smith toiling away in the bowels of the Ministry of Truth to manipulate the past, Soviet-style, to suit the current whims of his political masters. Mad Men looked at the concept from the individual point of view.
As every fan of the show already knows, Don Draper, Mad Men’s hero (or rather anti-hero) is of course, secretly Dick Whitman. Whitman is a supremely ambitious social climber, who heavily airbrushed his past growing up dirt poor in a Depression-era whorehouse, and deserting his Army service in Korea. He accomplished the latter, by switching dog tags with the commanding officer he accidentally killed — and thus assuming his name, and as he later discovered, his wife — to become Don Draper. A decade later, at the apex of the show’s first season, after a rival threatens to out Don’s past to his boss, their employer’s classic response is contained within the scene that defined Mad Men’s solipsistic philosophy:
The climax of the first season of Mad Men, set at the dawn of the 1960s at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, is actually a brilliant anticlimax—a revelation swiftly followed by a re-veiling. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a clumsy striver at Sterling Cooper, attempts to topple the resident alpha dog, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), with what looks to be a career-ending disclosure: Draper, the firm’s dazzling creative director, is living under an assumed name; he’s a fraud, likely a Korean War deserter, and possibly worse. Campbell blurts it all out to the avuncular overlord, Bertram Cooper [Robert Morse], while Draper stands by silently, poker-faced, hands steady enough to light yet another cigarette. The elder statesman Cooper considers, waits an agonizing long beat, and makes a purely utilitarian reply.
“Mr. Campbell, who cares?” Cooper asks calmly, his voice burring with pity and disdain for the youngster’s naive theatrics. “This country was built and run by men with worse stories than whatever you’ve imagined here.”
“The Japanese have a saying,” Cooper continues. “‘A man is whatever room he is in’ — and right now, Donald Draper is in this room.”
Perhaps the ultimate example of this philosophy occurred in the following season. Peggy, Don’s young protégé as a secretary turned advertising copywriter abandons her baby in lieu of her career. Don shows up in the hospital shortly after she’s given birth, and given up the child for adoption, and tells her, “Peggy, listen to me, get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”