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How Suicide Has Haunted Mad Men Since Season One

Photo: AMC

This week’s Mad Men, “Commissions and Fees,” was Matthew Weiner’s chronicle of a death foretold. This whole season has been full of death imagery, of characters’ suicidal ideation, mired in a swampy, ominous sadness and anxiety. This isn’t the show’s first time at the emotional agony rodeo, though: Mad Men’s fascination with suicide and secrets goes back all the way to the show’s first season, and knowing what we know now, some of those early episodes take on a new sense of import. Season one’s “5G,” “Indian Summer,” and “The Wheel” in particular resonate with the most recent installments, and for good reason. Those are the episodes where we meet Don’s real brother, Adam Whitman, who attempts to reconnect with him. You remember Adam: He’s the first guy to hang himself on Mad Men.

Rewatching 2007’s season one is to at first be shocked by how different everyone looks. “5G” (episode five) is set a little more than six years before “Commissions and Fees,” and Sally is so, so little; Don and Betty seem incredibly young. Peggy looks pasty and oily and terrible, and compared to the chic, bright SCDP offices, the old Sterling Cooper haunt seems especially claustrophobic and oppressive. (A theme!) “5G” is an early episode, before we really know who Dick Whitman is, before we really know who any of these people are. It’s before Peggy’s “basket of kisses” stroke of genius. (That comes in the next episode, “Babylon.”) And yet a lot is the same, even before we get to Don and death.

In “5G,” Don, Betty, Sally, and Bobby pose for a family portrait, but Betty decides she doesn’t like the photo because Sally “looks fat.” Not only has season five seen the arc of “fat Betty,” but when Sally wants to be nasty to her mother, she mentions that Megan lets her eat whatever she wants. In “5G,” we see a 1960 Pete coldly tell Trudy, “You don’t want me to have what I want,” and he convinces her to sort of seduce her ex-boyfriend so that Pete can publish a short story in a magazine and thus keep up with Ken. This season, Ken’s short stories have been very present, as has Pete’s casual attitude toward pimping and his ongoing conviction that Trudy is a chronic impediment to his happiness. And then there’s Peggy: In the first season’s eleventh episode, “Indian Summer,” she negotiates to be a part-time copywriter, and she asks for a raise, from $35 a week to $40. Recall that her new gig, the one she left SCDP for this season, is paying her $19,000 a year, which is ten times her old salary. Up, up, up.

But these settings and circumstances matter less than how Don moves through them: Mad Men is, after all, a show about how Don in particular navigates and interprets the world. He’s not the most forthcoming guy, and this is a pretty involved show, so oftentimes the best way to get inside Don’s head is to listen to his pitches. The big pitch in “5G” is for secret bank accounts — the hook being that men can keep these accounts as separate ledgers, a way to shield one’s wife from one’s “business,” but mostly from one’s adultery or shenanigans. No surprise, Don nails the pitch, dubbing it the “executive” account, wowing his banking clients with his panache. That’s the Don of 1960: He’s selling secretiveness, and at the time, he might have been the world’s leading expert in keeping secrets. In this episode alone we see him with Midge and Rachel, but coming home to a cheery and doting Betty. He’ll do anything, even turn away his own brother who thought he died in Korea, to protect his secrets.

Don’s not pitching secrets in 1967, though. These days he’s pitching reliability. When America needs it, it’s Dow. His angle has changed as he’s tried to change from a liar and cheat to the stable, forthright guy he wants so badly to be. He’s different now, it’s different now — and yet the result is the same as it was in the first season. He can wow the room with his pitch, but someone still dies. He wanted Adam to keep his secret, and Adam killed himself. He tells Lane he’ll preserve Lane’s own secret, and Lane kills himself.

After Don rejects him in “5G,” Adam Whitman seems like he’s obeyed and gone away, up until “Indian Summer,” where we see him hang himself in a boarding house bathroom. In that same episode, Roger has a second heart attack, and Bert makes Don a partner in the agency. And what do we have in season five? A newly minted partner and a suicide by hanging. Who knew these two things went together so well.

When Peggy is having a difficult time coming up with a tagline for the Relaxicizer in “Indian Summer,” Don advises her, “Just think about it deeply, then forget it.” He gives the advice as if it’s the most easy, obvious thing in the world, to think hard about something and then stop. (In the same episode, he tells his lover Rachel Menken that he just chooses not to think about how difficult their relationship is.) Other people don’t have that kind of control over their emotions — and thank God, because Don’s distaste for his own feelings borders on psychopathy. When he fires Lane, he really does think that he will be able to forget it, to move on. Don really is surprised that other people can’t manage what he’s managed.

These three season-one episodes drive at Don’s worst fear. Not that people around him will die, though they do, and not that he has caused intense, lasting pain to those who care about him, though he has: Don’s afraid that he isn’t like anyone else, that he really is always going to be alone. He fought so hard to keep his secret life secret, to craft a perfect, picturesque life, only to have his wife hate the actual picture. He tries again in Season 5 in a new way, as a new man, honest with his new wife, and it’s still not quite right. Don’s correct that he’s not like other people. He tells Lane in “Commissions” that the lightheadedness Lane feels upon being fired is the sensation of relief, but Lane is not relieved at all. Only Don feels relieved whenever he gets to start over. He’s energized by getting to pitch Dow Chemical after all this time because he gets to start from scratch, again. He races home at the end of “The Wheel,” desperate to turn over a new leaf with Betty and the kids, only to discover that he’s too late and they’ve left for vacation without him. In season four, Faye tells Don that he “only likes the beginning of things,” and that’s close to true. What he really likes is the reinventing of things, the restarting. Don gave Adam $5,000 and really thought that would be enough for him to start a new life. He gave Lane what he thinks is a free pass, the chance to make an “elegant exit,” because Don thinks that’s an option. It just turned out that Lane (and Adam) had a different idea of what an elegant exit might look like.

How Suicide Has Haunted Mad Men Since Season One