Monday, September 28, 2009

Psychoanalysing Don Draper

Mad Men's Don Draper is all about compartments. As long as every aspect of his life is compartmentalized and kept separate, he's okay. When things start to bleed from one compartment to another, he freaks out.

Don's first and most important compartment is his childhood. In the army he assumed the identity of his lieutenant (who died), and noone - except the man's widow - knows Don's past.

His second biggest compartment is his extramarital affairs. This is reminiscent of some things Bill Clinton said about abuse in childhood that led him to become a compartmentalizer, and how that led him to justify affairs. In fact, Bill Clinton may be the inspiration for that part of Don Draper's character.

Don keeps his working life and home life almost completely separate. Betty frequently complains that she knows absolutely nothing about his work. The one exception is that he occasionally takes her to social business-related outings.

When Roger asked Don how he met Conrad Hilton, Don said, "We travel in the same circles." That's a near-lie, as Don met Conrad at a party at Roger's club. Don doesn't seem able to share any of his secrets.

Don's hatred for Roger Sterling all dates back to when Roger invited himself to Don and Betty's for supper. Don doesn't hate Roger because he made a pass at Betty, but because Roger crossed a boundary into Don's personal space. He got so upset about it at the time that he pulled a horrible trick on Roger: just before meeting important clients he got Roger to have an oyster and Martini lunch; but when they got back to the office Don had bribed the elevator operator to say the elevator was out of order, so they had to walk a couple dozen flights of stairs. When Roger met the clients he threw up on them.

Likewise, Don's one-time secretary Jane, now Roger's wife, crossed the line into Don's private life when she was indiscreet about knowing that Don and Betty had separated for a while; and Don hates her too.

Don had another near freak-out this week when his company forced him to sign an employment contract. It's not clear why it was so important to him to not have a contract. It could be that he avoids putting his assumed name in legal documents, pressure he is under only because of this huge secret. It could be that he fears being tied down in a way that ties together his personal and professional lives. Whatever it is, his reaction was extreme and irrational.

The key thing about Don's compartmentalizing is that it's pathological. He lives under enormous pressure because of it, and the pressure is never about getting caught - it's not the typical show about a cheating husband - the pressure is almost all in his head, and when his secrets start to leak out or boundaries blur, Don gets angry, disoriented and wreckless.

It seems like Don might be heading for another breakdown. Personally, while the show is as good as ever, I wouldn't mind if they could bring this compartmentalization theme to the fore a bit more and then expand Don's personality somewhat - otherwise it might get a bit tired.



DivaRachel said...

I think Don Draper fears being tied down. Several times, he's thought about leaving and never coming back. A contract kinda puts a damper on that.

Joseph said...

Good post. Strangely, most of the time I feel like I have a good read on Don Draper. Not sure what that says about me ;).

But last night I really couldn't get why he was made a Betty - even before the contract came up with her. And the snip with Peggy was totally uncalled for . . . who in the office doesn't try to get business from him.

It was like he was blaming everyone else for his wandering eye, drug use, getting robbed by the couple who got him drunk, drugged, and excited. But maybe that was the point, hence your thought about him heading for a breakdown.

It was the first episode that I found myself irritated by him. Betty should slap him every once in a while ;).

Incidentally, I'll say it here first since I had the thought a few weeks back at the start of the season. I found myself wondering how the series would end, and wondered if Don Draper wouldn't either a) jump or b) be pushed off the top of a building. Would make that falling in the opening credits kinda the ultimate foreshadowing, wouldn't it? ;)

Joseph said...

that should have been "mad at Betty" arggghh!

tom s. said...

I don't understand this thing with Mad Men. I've tried it twice, people with taste recommend it, and both times found it to be shallow and boring. It's not like I think I'm better than it or anything - hell, I watch So You Think You Can Dance religiously - but I simply can't see why people like this show.

Yappa said...

I think you probably have to watch it in order. There's a lot of very subtle stuff going on - I watched some reruns this summer and caught all sorts of stuff I missed the first time (after my dad read this post he said he hadn't figured out that Don orchestrated the oyster incident, and I didn't get it till my second viewing). The characters are really chilling - like Betty, Don's wife, is like this beautiful, placid, evil monster.

Plus, oh the politics at work is priceless. The ad company was bought by a British firm and there are so many parallels to when I worked for a Toronto firm that was bought by Reuters.

But as you can tell I'm a bit of an addict. :)

Anonymous said...

Well Tom S you obviously have a problem. It can't be that you're shallow. Or not bright enough to appreciate the nuances. Does ideology get in the way? How have you done with Gervais's productions, The Office, Extras? You're probably the right generation for it. Hmmmm...

Yappa said...

Hi again Tom -

I thought of a better reason for why you don't like Mad Men. Since you grew up in Britain, it might not resonate. I was born about the same time as the boy Bobby in the show, and it really resonates with me. Also, I remember a lot of the ad campaigns they talk about. Like in an early episode they're working on a campaign for Kodak, and they're trying to think of a name for the circular thing that holds slides in a projector: Don gives a little speech about how photos are all about nostalgia, and he comes up with the name "carousel".

Joseph said...

Even though I was born after the show, I'm old enough that the images they reproduced still resonate. I have older brothers and sisters who are very much the age of the children in the show. So some of the appeal for me - and for my older sister particularly - is just watching the episodes, the scenes and settings and fashion. It's like a time machine for the look and feel and the "fabric" of the time.

My sister says she feels like she's seeing through her 6-year old eyes again when she watches the show.

Yappa is right, though, a lot of it is very subtle.

Lastly, I'm always curious what song they are going to end with. I'd buy a soundtrack of the closing credit tracks in a heartbeat ;).

tom s. said...

Damn, looks like I'll have to try it again. But three strikes and it's definitely out...

Anonymous said...

He didn't assume the identity of his sergeant. It was his lieutenant.

Yappa said...

Thanks Anonymous - I changed it to lieutenant.