One way to describe the underlying theme of Mad Men, if you look at the stuff that Matt Weiner says, is that it’s the dark side of the American Dream. What is the American Dream, you ask? It’s the self-made man, rise from nothing, become Somebody. Humble origins. Put your belongings on a wagon train and strike gold. In a word, it’s Don Draper.
Don is the ultimate self-made man, because he made not only his success, but his very identity. But what is a secret identity?
Mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent is secretly Superman. This is an ancient story: Stammering Moses is secretly God’s Chosen Prophet. But there’s another version, opposite to this one.
While Clark Kent’s secret identity is Superman, Spiderman’s secret identity is Peter Parker. For Superman, his authentic self is the hero; invulnerable and awesome. The bumbling reporter is just a put-on. But for Spiderman, the science geek with girl trouble and a nagging aunt is his true self; when Spidey looks in the mirror, who he sees is Peter Parker. It’s the hero that’s the put-on.
The question is, who does Don see in the mirror? Is it Don Draper, or Dick Whitman? Maybe the real dark side is that he himself does not know.