This article was originally published on the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog, April 29, 2012.
Imagine “Mad Men’s” Don Draper on a psychoanalyst’s couch. I have. And I’ll admit it: I’d like to poke around inside that Bryl-Creemed head.
We know Don to be witty and in-command. He struggles to improve his relationships, keep up his image, and stay within social bounds—but serial dalliances, assumption of a false identity, and army desertion leave him terrified of detection, and prone to fleeting guilt.
Viewers have recently puzzled over Don’s calm and content demeanor, especially when he rebukes Pete Campbell for drunkenly stepping out on Trudy. The sanctimony is not new; Don has always been arrogant, storming out of meetings, discarding psychological research, and telling Roger that marrying Jane makes him look “foolish.”
Don wears his superiority as a thinly-veiled veneer, though, and it is compensatory. Beneath the smug attitude is a lonely and fragile man who invents an accomplished persona and spins situations in the hopes of warding off despair. But the loneliness, sadness, and desperation are never far off, and always threaten to overwhelm Don and destroy his fragile psychic equilibrium.
To cope, Don organizes his entire life around maintaining control: of others, the workplace, and his drinking. He hopes that creating a new identity–polished adman, husband, and father—will allow him to feel solid enough to master life’s challenges. Initially he marries Betty, a beautiful trophy wife from the right background. She helps him craft the perfect suburban image. Later he latches onto his secretary Megan, in an effort to get back on his feet after personal and professional setbacks.
We know Megan to be a strong woman, and a potentially domineering person. From the outset she takes the driver’s seat with Don. She kisses him at the office and deftly assumes the childcare duties. After they are married she decides with whom they will socialize, forbids him from drinking and driving, and sometimes picks out his clothing.
In marrying Megan, Don unwittingly cedes control—and this is dangerous; he hates nothing more than the unknown. The morning after Megan has thrown him a big surprise party, he cannot get out of bed–and not just because turning 40 is depressing (the passage of time is yet another thing he cannot control); he is blindsided by the gathering and his wife’s exhibitionistic dance. In the past, what Don could not master has nearly been his undoing. He suffers an apparent panic attack when he thinks Federal agents have come to his Village apartment, and goes into free-fall when Betty throws him out and his beloved Anna Draper dies.
To date, one of Don’s go-to strategies has been repudiating knowledge of anything dangerous or threatening. When Faye encourages him to talk about the past, for example, he turns around and proposes to Megan; she is all about the present—and offers a fresh start. As husband to Betty, Don serially lies, cheats, hides the truth, and closes off feelings, and she never quite figures out how to get through to him. He keeps her out of the loop and becomes distant; she feels enraged and withdraws. Likewise, Don avoids Roger after they have a brief argument. Roger feigns insouciance. The silence continues. Neither Roger nor Betty manages to engage Don; he holds tightly to the reins.
Don does try his old trick of avoidance with Megan. After she performs a slinky, suggestive song and dance that titillates their colleagues, he later gives her the silent treatment, a manipulative and hostile communication. But Megan figures out how to handle her new husband. She grabs her flimsiest undergarments and forces Don to take note of her beauty and sexuality—and in this way, asserts control. Megan seems to have the upper hand in their relationship–at least so far.
Don does not seem to have figured out Megan’s modus operandi just yet. When he fends off a Madam and lectures Pete about marital infidelity, it looks as though he feels in command. Despite resolutions, attempts at getting healthy, and journaling, Don does not appear to have sustained the type of meaningful psychological change that follows prolonged self reflection and the working through of deep feelings. While the union with Megan allows him to think he has mastered his internal fragility and despair and conquered his demons, Don has merely grabbed onto his new wife as a drowning man would a life raft. He is still exactly the same. And Megan is an unknown variable.
Don hopes things will be different this time around. But in the past we’ve seen him crumble whenever he is not in control. If Megan throws any more surprises Don’s way—which we can guess she will–we can expect to see him stumble yet again.
Stephanie Newman, PhD, is the author of “Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show”