MAD MEN: Therapy For Don Esalen Style. Is It Enough?

Mad Men’s finale takes Don Draper (Jon Hamm) to the ultimate darkness of the soul, only to end up … Where? It seems a tragic cosmic joke to leave the Draper – Francis family the only ones with loose ends. Don might be back on his game, conjuring up the world’s greatest Coca Cola ad. But, why would he write a jingle about the real thing instead of doing it?

It starts with two very difficult phone calls. First, Don talks to Sally (Kiernan Shipka). He’s jolted back into reality when convinced Betty’s (January Jones) dying of lung cancer: “What?! I’m coming home. You’re all going to live with me.” He may be on the run from his feelings, but he’s not so far gone yet.

Until…Sally tells him Betty wants the boys to live with her brother. Next, Don calls Betty: “I want to be there. The kids need me.” But, Betty’s not to be dissuaded from her wishes. She reminds Don how little he has been there. After a tender moment, tears, and no real goodbye – she hangs up the phone.

Both calls bring a tidal wave of the feelings Don isn’t very capable of dealing with. We’re taken on a bumpy ride, as he’s pulled into the depths of loss and guilt. Along the way there are questions of whether Don Draper’s a lost cause or if he might finally come out the other end.

In a very 1970’s twist, Don ends up at Esalen – with Stephanie (Caity Lotz), Anna Draper’s niece. It’s an alien world. Every time he turns around some group leader is asking, “How does that make you feel?” No one has ever done that. And, feelings aren’t exactly Don’s cup of tea. He’s had no help with them.

Help comes in Esalen’s encounter groups and other people’s stories – stories that are mirrors and pieces of his own. These are the things he has to face. These are what he runs from:

1. Being left is crushing

A woman says to Stephanie: “My mother left. I can tell you, your baby is going to spend the rest of his life staring at the door, waiting for you to walk in.” Don’s never been able to want or expect anyone to walk through the door for him.

2.  No one can run from the past

Don tries to convince Stephanie: “You can put this behind you. It’ll get easier as you move forward.” She confronts him with his truth: “I don’t think you’re right about that.”

3.  Goodbyes are essential for grieving

Stephanie leaves Don stranded. When he tries to find her, he’s told: “People just come and go and no one says goodbye.” This was done to him as a baby. This is how he’s lived his life. Yet, if he doesn’t grieve, he can’t really live.

4.  Excessive guilt helps no one change

Don calls Peggy (Elisabeth Moss). Worried, she tells him to come home and work on the Coca Cola account. He says he can’t: “I messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am … I broke all my vows, I scandalized my child, I took another man’s name and made nothing of it …” Don’s trying to face his truth, but his guilt is overblown. Some is real. Some is not.  His despair almost kills him.

5. Feeling unwanted makes it difficult to see love when it’s there

Leonard’s (Evan Arnold) story nails it all: “You spend your whole life thinking people don’t see you…that they aren’t giving it (love) to you. Then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know what it is.”

This and Leonard’s refrigerator dream speak to Don: “I was on a shelf in a refrigerator. They open the door, but … maybe they don’t pick you. Then, the door closes and the light goes off.”  Don walks over to Leonard. They hold each other and sob. Feeling unwanted has made Don put his feelings in cold storage. Is one cry, though – one encounter with his grief – enough to be able to let himself feel?

At the end of the retreat, Don looks out over the horizon and we think he’s changed. The leader is saying: “A new day brings new hope; new ideas, a new you.” Don’s face looks peaceful. We want to believe he’s healed. But, suddenly, we have the jingle: “I’d like to buy you a home and furnish it with love… I’d like to buy the world a Coke … it’s the real thing.”

To be sure, Don Draper didn’t jump out the window. Yet, if Mad Men’s finale hints at a change in Don – it isn’t clear that he’s actually learned to manage his all-too-many losses. What we see, sadly, is a Don who’s still more at home in the land of ideas than of real feelings.

This isn’t surprising, of course. His stories saved him as a child, and perhaps they’re saving him now from Betty’s dying. I want to hope he’ll walk through the door, fight for his kids, and really furnish a home with love. Whether or not he can is left only to our imaginations. Besides, it takes much more therapy than a few encounter groups to work out such traumatic beginnings.

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