Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has been running from his past through the last six seasons of Mad Men. At least, he’s tried his best – amidst flashbacks and his brother’s return. To me as a psychoanalyst, there’s no doubt he’s a traumatized man. A man using various methods, mostly affairs, and alcohol, to convince himself it’s possible to forget what’s happened to him, even who he really is. His steady and sad decline shows us he is wrong. The lines he quotes from Dante’s Inferno at the beginning of Season 6 reference the very type of hell he lives in and where he finds himself at the end: “I went astray from the straight road, and woke up to find myself alone in a dark wood.”
Flashbacks & Running from a Traumatic Past
We meet Don at Midge’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) house in Greenwich Village only to find later that he’s married – avoiding the reality of his life. We learn why over many episodes of unexpected encounters and flashbacks into his troubled history. An old army buddy on a train into the city recognizes him as “Dick Whitman”; our first indication Don isn’t who we think he is. His past starts to haunt him when his brother, Adam (Jay Paulson), wants to re-enter his life.
Flashbacks are a key indicator of trauma and Don starts having them; the first back to the day Adam was born. Memories and feelings are what he tries to erase as if his childhood could disappear. It can’t. Here is Adam, the younger brother he loved but had to abandon by pretending to be dead – his only escape from a desolate life.
With Adam’s return, Don, once again, tries to make his past go away, telling Adam to forget him. Adam isn’t so capable of forgetting. He’s lonely, has no one, and just wants to be a part of Don’s life. When Don rejects him, Adam hangs himself – for a moment bringing Don face to face with his shame.
Shame & A Stolen Identity in Mad Men
Shame is a terrible thing. Don begins running faster and harder than before. But, his past is delivered in a box when Adam kills himself. His memories won’t leave him alone. He’s once again in the trenches; terrified. And, we see how during a different war than the one he’s fighting inside himself, the real Don Draper dies and Dick Whitman decides to take over his identity.
Early in the series, we find Don Draper age 36, smoking 2 packs a day and drinking 5 glasses of hard liquor – on the run with substances and women. Reading Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations In An Emergency”, Don writes a message on the title page and puts it in the mail to someone we later understand is Anna Draper, the only person who really knows him.
As he enters Anna Draper’s house, we hear “In The Hall of the Mountain King”, from Peer Gynt, played by one of her piano students. The words to this song are the story of Don’s dilemma. Living a lie can drive a man mad:
In a land caught between
Time and space
Where the books of life lay
This castle of stone
The mountain king roams
All alone in here
But he’s not the only one
Forever hidden from the sun
In the Hall of the Mountain King
Too Many Losses & Guilt
More flashbacks take us to Anna finding Don’s theft of her husband’s identity. She accepts him and understands, more than anyone will or ever has. She listens. He tells her his guilt about his brother, knowing his need to lie is the cause. It tears him apart. But it takes 4 more Seasons for him to begin to turn this around. When Anna dies in Season 4, Episode 7, “The Suitcase”, he weeps with his head in Peggy’s lap. Don has too much grief, old and new, but feeling his sadness with Peggy is short-lived.
Don begins to crack. Betty’s divorced him and he’s alone. He’s coming to work drunk and ruining business opportunities. For a brief moment, we see what Don thinks he deserves. A prostitute slaps him repeatedly in the face, telling him this is what he wants. Yes, Don Draper believes he deserves to be punished. He doesn’t deserve love. And, when he falls in love with Megan, he destroys that, too – escaping from his fear and shame into another affair – more blatant than the others, with a neighbor and friend’s wife, Sylvia Rosen.
What Don Draper’s Cheating Is Really About
Is Don’s cheating what it appears? Merely an insensitive callous man, caring only for his own hedonistic pleasures? Or can we understand his affairs in an entirely different way? Don may live the “double standard” of many men of that era – but his cheating is not, essentially, about his arrogance or chauvinism as a man. He needs to control women. Because he couldn’t control the loss of his mother or his stepmother’s hatred. In all his sexual conquests, Don’s trying to prove what a young, hippie tarot reader says well: “Your question is, ‘Does someone love me?” Don doesn’t believe anyone does.
Don makes women want him. He creates the desire, the one in control. Sylvia Rosen is a good example. He locks her in a hotel room and tells her: “You are only here for my pleasure”. It looks like he’s controlling Sylvia, but he’s really controlling his fear of needing anyone who might leave. Remember his attempt at a clever ad campaign for Hawaii? A man’s clothes in mid-air, with no man inhabiting them? That’s Don: the man who isn’t there. Like he needs nothing and no one.
Old Hurt & Fear of Love
That’s not the true story, though. He’s hungry and deprived. But, allowing love? That’s way too risky. He’s certain, without a doubt, that he isn’t really wanted. When Sylvia leaves him, early rejections are aroused, especially his stepmother yelling: “You’re trash”. She never wanted him – the child of her husband’s prostitute who died in childbirth. The way he coldly pushes everyone away? That’s what was done to him.
Don’s compulsive cheating comes from hurt. But, it certainly doesn’t solve problems. It creates more. The most shameful and worst moment of his life is when Sally catches him in the act with Sylvia and he must face the effects his cheating has on his daughter. This is the beginning of his real downfall – but maybe his redemption as well.
Beginning to Face His Past
As Season 6 ends, Don Draper has pretty much hit bottom and he begins to face his past. Not only that. He’s honest about it. A meeting with the firm’s Hershey’s chocolate account might not be the best venue to bear his soul. Then again, maybe it is. Hershey’s chocolate was the only sweet thing in Don Draper’s childhood. Yet, it came with a serious price. Chocolate was the prize given him by one of the whores, for stealing from her “John’s.”
Is it too late to find sweetness in his current life? Not keeping secrets any longer is a start. He’s almost destroyed all his relationships. But, as Joni Mitchell’s 1967 song “Both Sides Now” plays in the background, Don Draper opens a door he’s kept closed. He shows his children the whorehouse where he really grew up – the place that made love impossible.
Terror can’t be navigated alone. But how can Don trust anyone with the sad, lonely, beaten down child he was, still living inside him? A child kept walled off and fed on pittances of alcohol and un-committed sex – a poor but safer substitute for love. It will take an unlikely leap of hope for Don to give those self-protections up and let people in to help and love him.
Is Change Possible for Don Draper?
I wish I thought it probable, but I know the challenges. Yet, perhaps, living a lie is worse than fear of love. With Sally’s devastation and distrust, Don knows for a fact how his seemingly necessary lies have pushed every single person away, even his own children. He has to face, now, how much his dark aloneness is of his own doing.
Can Don learn that the past wasn’t his fault? Face what he’s done in the present? Forgive himself enough to allow himself to love? We see in the finale of Season 6, “In Care Of”, how he tries, in spite of his very strong tendency to run the other direction, to be honest about a past that has caused him such shame. Is there hope for Don? Can he turn his life around? Maybe. Only Season 7 will show us whether the fruits of his honesty can override his fears and shame.