Mad Men Was Inspired By One Surprisingly Simple Idea

One of the core themes of "Mad Men" is identity. The series explores how people present different versions of their true self depending on their surroundings. Everyone is wearing a mask and no one is who they appear to be. One of the most important elements of a person's individuality is their name, and this plays a significant role in the character of Don Draper (synonymous with "Wear Disguise"), who is secretly Richard "Dick" Whitman. During the Korean War, Dick stole the name of his deceased officer.

In celebration of the series finale in 2015, the "Mad Men" cast gathered at Lincoln Center to screen some of their favorite moments from the series. One of the scenes they watched was from "The Gypsy and the Hobo," where Betty discovers her husband is not who he says he is. Matthew Weiner explains how the scene encapsulates the simple idea that inspired "Mad Men" (via IndieWire): 

"The thing that always strikes me about this scene is the show was always inspired by the fact that you can change your name. Who knows what you feel like when you change your name when you're an actor or performer? You create a persona and it's you, you don't care anymore. Woody Allen, do people who know him call him Allen? Do they call him Woody? It's such a part of our malleability. "

Dick Whitman's baptism by fire helped him escape his impoverished upbringing. Since Dick's family believes he's dead, he is able to forge his own path untethered from his painful roots. With his new name, Dick Whitman transforms into an entirely different person. The simple name change impacts how Dick Whitman, now Don Draper, presents himself to the world; he adopts a self-assured persona and is not afraid to chase his ambitions. In flashback scenes, Jon Hamm deftly communicates the subtle differences between the wide-eyed country boy and sleek advertising executive. Don Draper's dual identity also ties into the show's themes of classism. 

What's in a name?

Don Draper's backstory is very Gatsby-esque: he's a man who changes his name in order to transcend his destitute background. Growing up on a farm and in a brothel, Dick Whitman is made to believe he is just a lowly "whore child," the illegitimate son of a poor farmer and young sex worker who died during childbirth. He imagines being named after his dying mother saying, "I'm gonna cut his dick off and boil it in hog fat!" After his cruel father dies, Dick is left with his abusive stepmother who loathes him. 

When Betty discovers her husband has been lying about his lineage, her idealized image of Don is shattered, and she sees him as someone lower than her. Matthew Weiner elaborated on Betty's snobbishness, via IndieWire

"What I really felt when I watch this scene, and Jon and January both understood this, is that this is a class issue. What you get there right away when she says that thing about, 'You don't understand money,' and you feel it. Why did he want to be Don Draper? Because he got to put on that suit of armor. Why did she marry a man that she knew nothing about? Because he was that guy. Here, you strip it all away and you're from rural poverty. You're beneath me. You will never marry me and get into my class. Her aspirations are that, she feels incredibly duped."

Don hid his birth name and origins from Betty because he believed she would never love him if she knew the truth. 

Promise, freedom, and rebirth

SFGATE critic Tim Goodman considers identity to be the leitmotiv of "Mad Men." For Dick Whitman, the name Don Draper means everything to him: promise, freedom, and rebirth. The name allows him to achieve success beyond his wildest dreams, but he is also wracked with guilt for stealing it. Over the course of "Mad Men," the audience watches Draper "carry this existential angst through a fairy-tale life of his own creation."

Much like one of his advertising campaigns, Don Draper's life is a glossy surface image. No matter how hard he tries, Don cannot escape what lies beneath: the psychological wounds of his lonely, poverty-stricken childhood that constantly cause him to sabotage the new life he's built. The entire series explores how his name impacts his quest for a true identity, whether it be as Dick Whitman or Don Draper or a combination of both.