The fifth season of “Mad Men” has presented a noticeably different Don Draper. A recent Chuck Klosterman article
suggested that this new version of Don is largely disappointing (i.e. less committed to his work, less adventurousness in his relationships, less vitality in his life), and that his transformation stems from a shift in identity
, as he has now achieved an unprecedented openness about his Dick Witman past.
I have a different angle into understanding what changes have unfolded in Don’s personality structure, and why these changes have occurred that I'll get to in a minute.
In a nutshell, Klosterman suggests that Don’s identity has evolved through three iterations—Dick Whitman, a Don Draper that is hiding and on the run from Dick Whitman (psychologically speaking), and a Don Draper who is open and comfortable with his Dick Whitman past. Klosterman frames these iterations as phases, notes that Don has stopped suppressing the Dick Whitman elements of his persona, and makes a reasonable argument that Don’s newfound disengagement with the world stems from the absence of psychological qualities associated with his hidden identity. For instance, the tireless ambition that so defined his professional persona in previous seasons seems strikingly absent now. Perhaps his fiery ambition was inextricably tied to the fear of being uncovered as a fraud. Now that his fear has dissipated so has the ambition.
Perhaps this is so. And as Klosterman studiously points out, only the mind of the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, can truly know. But I’m going to put forth a different explanation of what has unfolded in this fifth season.
As a psychologist, I’ve come to view the operation of identity as more fluid and integrated then what Klosterman describes. Yes, some unfortunate individuals may develop a personality structure in which different self-states emerge and feel/appear as distinctly different entities. Traumatic experiences often create this fractured picture of personality, and individuals with prolonged exposure to trauma in childhood and diagnoses of Borderline Personality Disorder may experience the kind of ‘iterations in identity’ that Klosterman describes. But I don’t see Don Draper as that sort of individual. I sense that as he’s walked through life as Dick, and then as Don (with varying degrees of awareness and openness about his deceit), that he’s maintained a relatively clear grasp on who he is, what he wants, and how he can go about getting his needs met.
I agree with Klosterman that Don’s behavior seems different now. He’s more focused on being a father, and he’s more concerned with making his marriage work. He seems slightly less passionate about asserting his sexual and creative impulses, and he seems slightly more relaxed in his own skin. The drinking, the anger toward Betty, and the infidelities have dissipated to a great degree. At times, I sense that Don is content with these changes (i.e. he likes the increase in responsibility and stability—remember in the opening scene of “A little kiss, Part I” when he drops his kids off after a weekend and seems truly relaxed), and at other times he seems frustrated and off-balance (i.e. he acts surprisingly bitter about his surprise party, and becomes uncharacteristically preoccupied with Megan’s resentment about his bitterness in “A little kiss, Part II”).
So, what’s the context for these behavioral changes in Don? Klosterman suggests that the process of ‘coming out’ to Megan (and to some degree, himself) is primarily at work. I agree that to no longer feel like you have to ‘hide’ and ‘run’ from yourself (and the government) has a significantly liberating effect, psychologically, and may therefore partially underlie his newfound contentment and complacency. But it’s not the biggest factor in my opinion. The biggest contextual change in his life is his marriage to Megan. It’s the kind of change that is easy to overlook even though we can easily imagine its significance.
What seems crystal clear is that Don loves her. He’s committed to her, and feels like he can be his genuine self around her (whatever that means). And to make it work with Megan he has to adjust to some unspoken rules. He has a new environment in which to adapt. We know that Megan is going to be the kind of self-assured, independent, and intelligent partner that will expect and demand things from Don that he isn’t used to. It’s 1967 in the show’s reality but as viewers we can recognize Megan's tendencies and needs are ahead of its time and represent the normal, natural urges of a modern woman in a modern society (i.e. he’ll need to be open and honest about his feelings, respect her decision to do things he doesn’t want, etc.).
What we’ve been witnessing at the start of season five is Don’s struggle to adapt to this new environment. Pure and simple. This is jarring for both Don and us as viewers, because we are accustomed to watching Don succeed—whether it’s in running from a suppressed past, thriving in the ad world, or having his cake and eating it too in his home life with Betty.
This new environment is all about making things work well with the love of his life. And what Klosterman see's as a ‘weaker’ version of Don, I believe, is, in fact, a ‘stronger’ version of Don. He’s showing a willingness to sharpen new relational skills, to confront old demons and to prioritize a relationship above himself—all firsts for him, and all healthy tendencies. In other words, he’s not struggling with a new identity so much as he’s vulnerably confronting personal issues that have remained unaddressed until now. He’s striving for true growth, and, at this point in season five, we’re watching his growing pains.
Take his cheating tendencies. This was never a problem in his marriage to Betty because she exuded a passivity and denial that made cheating easy (at least at first). And as a bachelor, his confident, spontaneous sexual urges served a purely adaptive function. But now he’s committed to a woman that we all know is not going to stand for that sort of thing. Don realizes that he must nip his compulsive habit in the bud, and, quite naturally, he’s worried and insecure about his ability to do so. His feverish dream during the recently aired “Mystery Date” illustrates this inner conflict perfectly.
Similarly, a seemingly weaker, less appealing version of Don arises when Megan throws a surprise party. Don’s surly, embittered response to a well-planned (by all accounts successful) party, and his frantic response to Megan’s subsequent dissatisfaction with him, again, represents his attempt to utilize rusty interpersonal skills as he approaches the kind of marital conflict that he habitually ignored or withdrew from in the past. He’s never had to openly and calmly discuss his distaste for certain things (i.e. like surprise parties—sometimes a penis is just a penis and I don’t think Don is upset about something other than this). When he was married to Betty or on his own, he could respond to dissatisfaction by going for a long, solitary drive. He can’t do that with Megan because she’s too attuned to his unrest and too assertive about her need to discuss it. So, instead of watching the Don that would go out and buy a dog or screw a neighbor, we’re watching a Don trying to make a healthier, relational decision—go home, sit down, and talk (or in this instance, have sex on the living room carpet).
Finally, I would argue that although Don does appear less engaged at work this is merely a temporary development, a residual effect of the taxing emotional work he's doing at home. And when’s he’s late for work it’s because he’s enjoying the love of his life more than a new ad campaign. Can’t blame him for that, can we?
“Mad Men” has made an interesting choice by creating such a strong 'Megan' Effect. The show has decided to display a Don that is genuinely in love, and that is truly a new Don for us to behold. I think this is a complicated but potentially ambitious choice. Personally, I’d love to watch Don adapt and thrive in an interpersonal context just as we watched him ascend in a professional context. It seems like an appropriate frontier for Don because after work, relationships is all that's left for us to pursue. That said there are going to be a few challenges on the horizon if this is the direction the the show goes in. “Mad Men” is going to have to find a way to more clearly explain why Megan has become an object of such profound love for Don. If he’s going to dedicate his resources to her, she’ll need to earn it and I don’t think she has as of yet (though her French song-and-dance during his 40th birthday was quite sexy). Also, the show will have to find a way to make a loving relationship interesting to watch. There has been something undoubtedly compelling about watching Don ‘at work’ with ‘the boys’ and if that’s going to be replaced or rivaled by Don ‘at home’ with ‘the misses,’ then “Mad Men” has its work cut out for it.