We’re left to wonder: what will become of Don Draper (Jon Hamm)? As Coca Cola’s hilltop jingle ends Mad Men Season 7 Finale, we have questions that don’t have answers. Has Don changed? Or, is he just the quintessential ad man – a man who escapes into his stories because they’re better than his personal reality? Don’s early trauma has had some devastating effects. If Don has changed, there’d be some very specific signs.
First, though, to understand how he’d change, the crushing effects of Don’s childhood trauma must be highlighted:
Don doesn’t trust love
Don was neglected, abused, and abandoned. His mother died at birth. Don’s stepmother hated him because of his origins, his father’s visit to a prostitute. She wished he wasn’t there. His father was abusive too. Children made to feel unwanted by troubled parents can’t trust. They particularly can’t trust love. Worse, they feel what’s happened to them is their fault; that there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. Don believes he’s unlovable.
Has irrational feelings of guilt
Feeling unlovable makes Don believe everything must be his fault, even if it’s an accident – like the real Don Draper’s death. Or if he has done something hurtful because of his problems, he believes he can never make up for it. This makes Don act callous. As if nothing and no one matters – even when they do. When Betty reminds him of how little he sees his kids, he runs away from his shame and guilt.
No strong feelings allowed
Having no one to help him with feelings as a child, Don can’t bear losses rejections or feelings of abandonment. He’s always on the run. Can never settle into love. He’s never been really present in any relationship. Don leaves emotionally first, being certain he’ll be a disappointment or a failure – and be left. His protective detachment causes exactly what he’s afraid of.
Alcohol & sex to escape from fears
Don drinks to annihilate his feelings. He pursues women to prove he’s wanted. It’s never enough. He’s never convinced. Alcohol and sex can never create the “perfect harmony” the Coca-Cola ad seeks. Yet, it’s Don’s inner world that needs attention. He needs help achieving reasonable (not perfect) peace with his fears, his guilt, and his childhood.
We have no evidence he’s done that. Sure, he hugged Leonard (Evan Arnold), Don’s alter ego, at Esalen. He sobbed after Leonard told the group his refrigerator dream, so close to Don’s frozen fears. That’s a good start. But, changing the effects of a traumatic past takes much more intensive therapy. It’s unlikely his Esalen therapy is close to enough.
The real evidence of change would be, particularly, in how he relates to the people he loves. A changed Don would:
Not run away again
He ran when Sally (Kiernan Shipka) told him not to come home. When Betty (January Jones) refused to let him have the kids. He didn’t fight. Guilt took over. Don couldn’t bear the feelings of loss. Not only his fear he’d lost his kids. But, also, having to face that Betty’s dying. He still loves her. “I know,” Betty says gently on the phone, as Don cries. If Esalen’s “therapy” truly changed him, it wouldn’t be the Coca-Cola tune on his mind. It would be walking back through the door.
Put love first
Don would know it’s not “the world” he needs to build a home for – it’s his kids. They need him. All three of them need his “company”. They need to know he understands their sadness. A changed Don would go home and let them cry. He’d cry with them. If he wasn’t so frightened of loss, he’d take them in his arms – just as he did Leonard. He’d know they need his love.
Maybe Sally told him not to come home in Mad Men Season 7 Finale. Because she didn’t trust he’d be there. He hasn’t been. No one was there for him either. But, apologizing. Showing up when they need him goes a long way. It won’t change the hurt in the past. But, it will change the present. It will prove he can put them first. It will start building trust.
Not make his kids feel unwanted & alone
If therapy was effective in Mad Men Season 7 Finale, Don would know his feelings now. He’d know how he felt as a child and the terrible effects on him of being unwanted and alone. He wouldn’t do the same thing to his kids. No, he wouldn’t want to. A changed Don would be there. He’d settle into love. It might be scary. He might want to run. But, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t let his children repeat his past.
Yet, Don doesn’t do these things. At least, he hasn’t yet – not at the end of Mad Men Season 7 Finale. He’s escaped into his imagination, conjuring up the world’s greatest Coca-Cola ad: “I’d like to build the world a home and furnish it with love … it’s the real thing.”
If Don has really changed, the home he’d build wouldn’t be just for his career or McCann-Erickson. That loving home would be for Sally, Bobby, and Gene. If he could do that, it would be far from his imagination. For the first time in Don’s life, he’d truly be doing the real thing.