Now we’ve seen it all. Don Draper fends off a Madam, Peggy, and Ken make a pact to leave the agency, Pete is a mess, drinking, fighting at work, and stepping out on Trudy—and these goings-on are not just pulp, they raise an important question about life, for both the fictional characters of Mad Men and fans of the show: can people ever really change?
Psychic determinism—the belief that we are mired in our own psychological quicksand and doomed to follow a course paved in infancy—is a grim notion. Proponents argue that those who are dealt a bad hand can do nothing to materially alter that which is set to unfold. What is in the cards for any particular individual is governed by the interplay of DNA and early family life.
So what about our common desire to better ourselves, conquer our inner demons, and overcome our childhoods (remember those resolutions from last New Year’s to organize your closets, be a more patient parent, and shed those 10 extra pounds)? Do we have any possibility of realizing our hopes and dreams?
Mad Men is a show that tracks the tension between surface and underbelly, appearances and fact, persona and psychic reality. In “Signal 30,” all of these dilemmas rise to the fore. After a night of entertaining clients, Don rebukes Pete for his adulterous acts—a twist, surprising in its sanctimony and abstemious result, but especially its revelation: Don truly believes he has changed. Though his new marriage and modernistic apartment have the words “Fresh Start” stamped all over them, what is really different? Will everything be different going forward, and can Don live up to his hopes and dreams and attain his lofty expectation of intra-psychic change?
Don has a vision of how and who he should be. He makes himself into a successful adman, nabs beautiful wives, and creates lovely homes, first with Betty, and later Megan. But his glamorous veneer differs from his psychic reality. Don knows at times that his lies and dalliances destroyed his first marriage. He wants to be a better father who is more available to his children. He hopes to get healthy and make life-enhancing choices, and he dreams of building a solid future with a permanent home and family. While Don seems to be on that track with Megan, it is not clear whether he can sustain his new outlook and healthy, monogamous leaf over the long term—he is still the same person that nearly crumbled at the breakup of his marriage, loss of a dearly loved Anna, and that used women and alcohol to anesthetize his considerable psychic pain.
We all want to live according to our own idealized versions of ourselves, our individual moral compasses, and see ourselves in various ways (for example, I am smart, a good person, a loyal friend, a successful business person, a caring parent). But we are human; there is perpetual conflict between our own desires and the cold hard fact of external reality. Often life circumstances don’t match our ideals. We are less attractive, glamorous, successful, helpful, or honest than we would like to be.
So Don sees himself as a loyal husband to glamorous Megan and devoted father to his children. Right now. He tells Megan they’ll be together for the rest of his life. Will their relationship last? What exactly is Megan’s appeal? We know her to be beautiful and maternal, but we don’t know much else. Her past is something of a mystery. At times, she is like a mother to Don (as well as stepmother to Sally, Bobby, and Gene). And she is a bit of a Dominatrix as well: cleaning house in her sexiest underwear to get his attention, telling Don he has to socialize with his partners, taking away his keys when he appears ready to drive under the influence.
Megan is a strong woman who provides a calming influence on her husband. But this does not mean that for all his resolutions and journaling Don has made meaningful psychological change. Sure he abstains from extramarital affairs—for now. But life throws challenges our way, and exactly what Don will do the next time he faces a bump in the road is anyone’s guess.
Stephanie Newman, Ph.D., is the author of Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show, which can be purchased from Barnes & Noble, Indie Bound, and Amazon.