Emotional Health · Film & Television · Health

‘Mad Men,’ Seriously . . .

donald-draper-mad-men-1920x1080-wallpaper-540Don Draper, man of mystery  (Photo Courtesy of AMC)

As the TV series Mad Men concluded this week after eight years, months of fevered speculation were brought to an end about the possible fate of Don Draper and his fellow Madison Avenue admen of the 1960s. The Internet exploded with wild theories that he would jump to his death or hijack a plane, ignoring the fact that all along this had been a meticulously written, character-driven drama whose every episode could almost stand alone as a short story. It seemed very unlikely that the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, would change course so ruinously in the final episode. But neither did he tie up every single loose end with a happy bow (though there were some ribbons). Like life, Mad Men remained complicated, imperfect, and true to character to the end.

From the very first episode of the series (“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”), the big question of the show has been “Who is Don Draper?” In that first hour we see him in a bar, trying to come up with a new angle to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes. Subsequently, we follow him through a night that he spends with a girlfriend in her bohemian Village loft, then through a day in which he reports to work at Sterling Cooper in the morning—and then, surprisingly, goes home on the evening train to Westchester to a wife and two children we’d had no hint of up until then. Over the course of the first season we learn that his name is not really Don Draper and his background is murky, and no one, including his wife, knows this. Though over the course of the series he makes strides toward opening up about his background, he never really comes close to gaining a sense of identity.

This is part of what fueled the speculation about the ending. It was a question that was never answered during the series, because it couldn’t be: Psychologically, he had no sense of self. Don (or Dick, which was his real name) was essentially an orphan, his mother having died in childbirth. His stepmother was rejecting and his father was an abusive alcoholic. Having no ties to a family, he runs off and joins the army, and runs from there (Korea) by assuming the identity of his dead commanding officer. His life is dominated ever after by an emptiness created by the longing for the mother he never had and a need to escape from that emptiness whenever he feels uncomfortable. Having no ability to form deep attachments to other people, he nevertheless has an understanding of their wishes and needs, and becomes very good at using that knowledge to manipulate others—first as a salesman, then as an adman.

At the end of Season One, in a celebrated episode called “The Wheel,” Don is pitching the Kodak Carousel projector (which he has named, presumably), showing photos of his wife and kids. He talks of nostalgia and the wish to be taken “to a place we ache to go again . . . back home again where we know we were loved.” Just his words alone in this meeting cause Harry Crane, one of his colleagues, to run from the room in tears because he has recently been kicked out of the house by his wife (due to some bad behavior at an office party). In contrast, Don himself has told his wife, Betty, to go off with the kids to her father’s home for Thanksgiving without him—he has too much to do. She explains to her psychoanalyst that he is like this because he doesn’t understand about family—“he never had one.” In another episode Don explains to Peggy, “You are the product . . . you feeling something . . . that’s what sells.” He intuitively understands this, even though he is unable to feel these feelings himself.

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