MAD MEN: Don’s Stories. Creating Greener Pastures Somewhere Else?

Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) greatest talent is creating stories that sell. Sometimes his imagination carries him away – for better or worse. His imagination no doubt saved him from an abusive and damaging childhood. There are worse things than to imagine being somewhere else someday. Or a different person than the one you’re made to feel you are.

Throughout the Mad Men series, though, Don’s imagination has taken him away from feelings and places he just can’t be. That’s sometimes gotten him into trouble. Where is it taking him now?

Lost Horizon finds Don at McCann-Erikson. The self-serving (not to mention controlling, chauvinistic, and cruel) Jim Hobart (H. Richard Greene) has seduced him momentarily. With his standing ovation, too friendly welcome, offering up Miller beer as if it’s been brought to the agency just for Don. Don’s there, he tells him, to bring things up a notch. Don’s childhood left him craving specialness. Hobart hits that button well.

Until … Don finds himself just another man in a Board Room of too many men, with Bill Phillips from Connolly Research playing Don’s part. He’s been swallowed up. Not only that, he overhears one of the other principals using the same words with Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm) that Hobart used with him: “Are you here to bring us up a notch, too?”  “So, they tell me,” Ted replies.

This sets off the perfect storm. Don’s not special at McCann-Erickson after all. He’s not important or wanted. That’s a too familiar story – the story of his childhood. Not the hard-won identity he’s created. Don’s mind is soon miles away, carrying on the new narrative he’s been struggling with for a while. Racine, Wisconsin (and Diana) sounds pretty appealing right now.

When things get tough, Don tries to invent the perfect utopia – mostly in his sexual diversions with women. Diana may be different. In her, Don sees another side of himself (see my post “Two Sides Of Don”) – although, likely not consciously. If he could see it – if he had the help of psychotherapy – he might end up in a very different story. Now, he’s repeating the same old one, over and over again.  He’s stuck in it.  He can’t get out and he can’t get it right.

He’s just as lost as Diana (Elizabeth Reaser). She’s running. He’s running, too. At least, that’s Don’s first almost knee-jerk reaction when painful feelings (such as being unwanted) are stirred up. Don’s also searching for something, though, even if he doesn’t know it. He’s created an identity to be sure. One he thought he might be proud of.

But, he’s never really found himself at all. He’s looking in all the wrong places. That’s the problem with running so fast from how he feels that he can’t stop to see he needs help. Bert Cooper’s (Robert Morse) phantom (a helpful voice inside Don) tries to tell him he’s been driving 7 hours in the wrong direction – but he can’t really hear.

Right now, Don probably doesn’t even know he feels unwanted. He probably doesn’t realize how enticing feeling special is. He stays a stranger to himself. I’m sure he’s found a way to convince himself he doesn’t want to be at McCann-Erikson. That he doesn’t want or need them. Not the other way around. He’s done that many times before. It’s one way to try to prevent feeling sad and rejected – or knowing how much he’s lost.

He’s persistent too. Much like Jim Hobart (but not quite so cruel). If he wants something he’ll get it. That’s another way to avoid loss. If I had Don in my office, I’d gently help him see how he actually feels. He’d find it hard to believe, but those feelings that he’s run from are actually what he needs the most. The only way to know who he is, is to know what he feels.

Feelings ground us in our personal reality. They can be scary and confusing. Especially when they’ve been pushed aside and disowned. Right now, Don is aimlessly driving to St. Paul. Discouraged. Unmoored. But, he doesn’t know yet (maybe never will) that he’d find the greenest pastures, and best anchor, by knowing what’s inside him. Not in the stories he creates – or somewhere else.

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