Traumatic events are on the horizon for the primary characters of Mad Men.
Present day viewers don’t need “Tea Leaves” (the title of Sunday night’s episode) to predict the rude incursion of race riots, political assassinations, and bra burnings that are on the horizon for Don and Megan Draper and Henry and Betty Frances. But the characters of the show have no idea that such game-changers lie in wait. Likewise, they are mostly unaware of the emotional struggles in store for them. Betty has been rocked by the news of a thyroid tumor. She surprises herself—and us—by calling her ex-husband, Don, for support. And though she later tells Henry that the mass is benign, her face belies this revelation. Who knows what is really ahead for Betty and Henry, her children Sally, Bobby, and Gene—or for Don?
The episode’s ending alerts us to the fact that Don’s psychological equilibrium might soon be under attack. As the credits roll to the backdrop of The Sound of Music’s “16 Going on 17,” we become aware of a dramatic irony: first love may seem happy and pure, but such idylls do not last forever; something dark is just around the corner.
And bad things do appear to be in store for Don Draper. Though there are no Nazis or World Wars at Sterling Cooper, Betty’s health scare threatens her ex-husband’s emotional balance—but not because she is his first wife or love. Far from it; our popular notions of “first love” generally call to mind “puppy” crushes or emotional adolescent entanglements. But in psychoanalytic circles the term is used to describe an infant’s powerful feelings towards a parent—usually its mother. Clearly, Betty is not a mother to her ex-husband—at least not in the literal sense.
And Don is someone who desperately needs a mother—even more than a wife. His experiences of “first love” and mothering were, in fact, traumatic--his real mom died during childbirth, leaving him with his biological father and a cruel and rejecting stepmother. He never knew her (a fact he mentions to business partner and unexpected confidante, Roger Sterling just after he takes Betty’s panicked call), never felt the gentle touch of her hand, basked in her admiring gaze, or experienced her love. He had no early recipient for his deepest longings and affection. With no maternal affection and a father who worked day and night, Don likely grew up feeling bereft and empty.
Don’s is a life lived in the shadow of loss; we can imagine him to be constantly anxious, lonely, and desperate. Though he appears to function as a competent successful ad man and father, deep down he is a motherless boy who suffers and feels lonely, more often than he would like to admit.
Those who have had a history of early loss often remain vulnerable to separations and death. Some, like Don, organize their psyches around repeated attempts to work out the past and maintain control over fragile emotional states. And we see Don do just this. He acts in overbearing and self-serving ways in the boardroom and bedroom. But instead of curing his loneliness and desperation, his controlling behaviors have the opposite effect. His serial seductions ultimately provoke abandonment; either he walks away, or he gets others to leave him. Each and every time he winds up alone, a repetition of the trauma of this early loss.
And we know that Don does not do well when he is alone—he nearly went into free-fall when Betty kicked him out of the house. He was sent reeling by the death of Anna, a woman with whom he shared a close bond. After these losses and a setback at work, Don’s drinking began to spiral out of control; his behavior a desperate attempt to stem the tide of mounting desperation and emptiness.
And at the moment in Sumday night’s episode when Betty has called Don to tell him she has a tumor—at this point she does not know the prognosis--he shows he is deeply concerned about his ex-wife’s health and future. Though she is not the most maternal person, Betty is still the mother of his children. Don remains intensely preoccupied with her condition.
Victims of trauma don’t consciously wait for the next shoe to drop. They just crane their necks and cannot stop watching for the “badness” or danger they sense is imminent. This is what Don does when he hears that Betty might be ill. He says caring things and empathizes with her fears—and his concerned feelings are real. He tries to reassure Betty, but he is left wondering: will she be all right? While Don feels compassion for the mother of his children, her news has reactivated his preoccupation with loss and abandonment.
Don unconsciously lives in constant fear that something bad is about to happen. And this time maybe it really is.