Emotional Health · Film & Television · Health

‘Mad Men,’ Seriously . . .

Throughout the series we see Don with woman after woman, and they seem to have little in common except that they are all strong or tough. Though most are sexual partners, what he is really searching for is a mother, but his dependency needs are so strong and primitive, he defends against feeling them, because he is afraid of being overwhelmed by the pain.

An example occurs in “The Suitcase,” considered by many to be one the finest episodes ever produced. Early in the hour, he gets a message from Stephanie to call California. He knows that this is probably about Anna Draper, the ex-wife of the “real” Don, a very warm and nurturing woman whom he is as attached to as he can allow himself to be. Yet he is easily dissuaded from staying in California to care for her when she gets sick (much as he is readily persuaded that being absent from his children while Betty is dying is a more “normal” state of affairs than being present). He can’t bring himself to make the call, and instead spends the night with Peggy, harassing her about an ad for Samsonite, drinking, and eventually falling asleep with his head in her lap before he is finally able to make the call at dawn. At which point she is dead, of course.

Another example is his impulsive decision to ask Megan to marry him. Though he has recently been dating Dr. Faye Miller, another fairly well grounded woman, he has a one-night stand with Megan as well. Don, stuck without a sitter (Betty has cruelly fired Carla, her longtime housekeeper and nanny, for selfish reasons), hires Megan at the last minute to accompany him and the kids on a trip to California. Clearly entranced by her easy, warm manner with the children, in contrast to Betty’s harshness and Faye’s awkwardness, shown in previous episodes, he proposes to her at the end of the weekend (producing, significantly, Anna Draper’s ring as if he had been planning it), shocking the audience and Megan herself.

By the time his marriage to Megan ends, it has deteriorated to such an extent that their final breakup occurs over the phone. But the breakup that gives Don the most trouble is the one with Sylvia Rosen, his downstairs neighbor. A woman (slightly older, perhaps?) who lives in his building, whom he visits in her little back room, Sylvia comes closest to reminding Don of the one source of warmth, or at least human contact, in his childhood: the prostitutes whom he lived with at Uncle Mac’s. At one point he even tries to master this unconsciously, employing a common defense mechanism of victims of trauma and abuse: turning “passive into active” by keeping Sylvia “captive” in a hotel room all day, forcing her to do his bidding whether he is present or not. Sylvia soon realizes the neurotic flavor of this game and puts a stop to it and ends their affair.

Don has trouble accepting Sylvia’s rejection, however, and lurks outside her door, recalling scenes from his boyhood when he behaved similarly at “home.” This is a pivotal point in the series, marking a major turning point in Don’s decline, accelerated by Sally’s catching him in flagrante delicto, causing a major rift between them. In short order his drinking increases, Don’s work deteriorates to the point that he is asked to take a leave, and Megan decamps to California, beginning a separation that will lead to their divorce.

Though Don eventually pulls himself together and goes back to the agency, he never again establishes a stable relationship with a woman. We watch at the beginning of the final part of Season Seven, as Don and Roger are out with a trio of party girls. Roger eventually finds a woman, Marie Calvet, who, while she is a bit “crazy,” in Don’s words, is a strikingly suitable match: a sharp-witted sybarite close to his own age. Don, however, is seen chasing phantoms: the literally deceased Rachel Menken, perhaps the strongest of all the women who once loved him, and Diana, the ghost-like waitress at the diner. Fans were driven wild by the introduction of a new character during the final episodes of the series, especially a character as dour as Diana, but Matthew Weiner was trying to drive home the point of Don Draper’s quest for a mother: Here was a mother who had literally lost her child—a perfect match.

Of course, it didn’t work. And Don can’t abide being trapped in a sea of corporate bodies at McCann, so he takes off. We see him traveling across the country, shedding his adman identity, and the audience is wondering if he will stop and “hang his hat.” In the final episode, Weiner answers us in the group therapy session: Don is brought to tears not by the woman who was abandoned by her mother. He is too defended to feel that; he identifies with the man who feels like a product on a shelf. He both is that man and treats other people like that. The man, Leonard, says he realizes that “people are trying [to love him], and you don’t even know what that is.” It is at this point that Don breaks down and hugs the man.

Good writers often have an instinctive understanding of psychological types, defense mechanisms, neurotic patterns, etc. Shakespeare is full of them. Here I believe that Matthew Weiner (together with the wonderful Jon Hamm) has given us a beautifully rendered portrait of a kind of narcissistic type known as the “as if” personality disorder. In a paper published in 1942 by psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch, this type of person is described as someone who gives the impression of normality, and is often talented and gifted. What they excel at is reading others’ emotions, and they have a “plastic readiness” to emulate their feelings while lacking genuine emotional connection themselves. They can be charming and very convincing, and because they lack an inner life or a moral compass, they can become very good at reading others.

Whether or not Weiner and his collaborators are familiar with this concept, Don Draper represents a great case history. He can’t do “person to person” except on the phone, or at an occasional encounter group. Emptiness is his primary emotion, escape and denial are his fallback defenses. Stripped of his usual false self—Don Draper, adman—he falls apart as he moves farther and farther west, landing on Stephanie’s door. She’s not in great shape herself, but she easily reads the signs of trouble, and drags him along to Esalen, which he greets with his usual resistance and cynicism, until—guess what—Don adapts to encounter groups, too. Not only does he have a breakdown, he has one followed by insight. We see him the next morning meditating peacefully. A bell chimes and we see the light bulb go off in his head. Don has incorporated Esalen into the only self he has: adman. It may not be much, but it’s all he has. And we love him for it.


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