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In the first season of Mad Men, it is revealed that Don Draper was born Richard Whitman, but stole the identity "Don Draper" from a fellow soldier who died in Korea. The other soldier's body was not recognizable, so Whitman switched dog-tags with the dead man, and acted as if he was Don Draper from then on.

What was the motive for switching identities?

Was it just to cause his family to think he was dead? I understand he was ashamed of his roots, but it seems like he could just end contact and never go back. Why risk all of the hassle from stealing another guy's identity?

Or, was there something about assuming the higher rank of the other soldier, perhaps to go home from the war? I believe there was an episode where Don justified the identity theft by saying something like "I had to get out of there", but even that comment seems ambiguous.

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Richard "Dick" Whitman simply took the identity of "Don Draper" (synonymous with "Wear Disguise") as soon as he realized the opportunity existed. By performing this transformation/exchange, Richard fully escapes his prior life with seemingly no chance of ever being discovered. This allows Richard a free pass to follow a completely different life path, unburdened by his past. It has absolutely nothing to do with trying to assume the original Don Draper's actual past or ranking; these were things Richard wanted nothing to do with. He simply wanted a clean slate; a fresh start.

By giving his family Don's body identified as his own, he provides them with a dead end, and Richard assumed that by disappearing, it would be easier to deal with Draper's family than it would be to deal with Whitman's family.

Don was never revealed to be Richard until (1) Anna Draper tracked him down privately, and (2) his brother eventually found him during Season 1, having spotted Richard hiding when his casket (containing the actual Don Draper) was received. It was only after those incidents that Don's true identity was investigated.

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Thanks. I figured this was the story. Just seems like a not-well-thought-out decision, given the complications that Richard would face when he returned to from the war, and people started saying "hey you're not Don." But it's TV -- I need to suspend disbelief! – Shiz Z. Mar 5 '13 at 22:20
    
That's what's weird to me. How can you steal someone's identity at war and then expect to not be noticed when you go home? Wouldn't it have been easier to just stay Richard and never talk to Richard's relatives again? – Shiz Z. Mar 6 '13 at 1:24
    
I don't recall if Whitman served under Draper for a significant amount of time, but if that's the case and considering that they spent a lot of time alone (since Draper's previous subordinates deserted or got wounded or killed), it is likely Whitman learned that Draper didn't have many ties back home that could cause him trouble. Also note that Draper was close to competing his tour of duty. – BCdotWEB Dec 8 '15 at 11:16
    
I recall that Draper was close to getting out too, but I thought at the time that the "being short" was not a thing during the Korean War (?). – Yorik Dec 8 '15 at 16:01
    
@ShizZ. Of course it wasn't a well-thought-out decision. The opportunity presented itself (in a flashback he was mistaken for Draper,) and he seized it. And to him, it wouldn't have been easier to stay Richard. Dick was the illegitimate son of a whore with abusive parents. How could that person rise to prominence on Madison Avenue in the 50s? He wanted to create a new life and permanently divorce himself from his past. More than that, he wanted to become a new person, literally. – ghoppe Jan 12 at 22:57

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