For Mad Men fans out there, it’s definitely an end of an era. Or at least six episodes close. With the final season underway, we are reminded of why we love the show: its unedited portrayal of flaws. Character flaws, societal flaws and human nature flaws, all of which often seems connected to one other powerful proponent in the story: alcohol. Throughout the seasons, one can’t help but notice the seemingly complex relationship between a character and their whiskey drink. Perhaps the most complex character of all is our main guy Don Draper and there’s no doubt that his internal issues are usually mixed with something on the rocks.
Don was born Dick Whitman and has been living a lie since the Korean War in which he ran off to before finishing high school. He and his commanding officer were the target of enemy fire and Dick was injured but the other man, Don Draper, was killed. There was a mix up in the dog tags when the medics came upon the scene and they mistook Dick for Don. Since Dick Whitman was born to a prostitute who died in childbirth and was brought up by his aunt and uncle in the brothel they owned and operated, Dick was happy to become Don. From then on, he lived in fear of someone discovering his true identity—a fear that is behind many of his behaviors, including his alcohol abuse.
Oftentimes alcohol covers up an underlying reason. Here are some of these bigger issues that Don deals with throughout the season that ultimately leads him to the bottle.
1. Loss of Discretion
(Season 2, Ep. 5)
Don Draper literally runs into a crisis when during his affair with a client, Bobbie Barrett, he has too much to drink. He gets behind the wheel with Bobbie as passenger and crashes the car. They suffer injuries and Don goes to jail. Even so, he does not see himself as having a drinking problem. Don’s flagrant philandering may be attributed to his upbringing in a brothel. Such circumstances could easily instill in him a distorted picture of the female sex and how to relate to them in a healthy way.
2. Extreme Agitation
(Season 3, Ep. 13)
While out drinking with Roger, Don discovers that his wife, Betty, is seeing another man. He proceeds to get totally smashed, goes home, grabs Betty and tells her that she’s a whore. Betty sues him for divorce. Don does not see the double standard here, and may be overreacting because Betty discovered his secret identity a few weeks prior to this incident. She could not bring herself to forgive his lying or his infidelities any longer.
Because Don will not recognize his drinking as a serious problem, he cannot recognize the triggers that lead him to excessive consumption of alcohol.
3. Humiliation and Defeat
(Season 3, Ep.7)
When Bert Cooper forces Don to sign a contract for the first time in his career at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Don demurs because he feels it is a loss of freedom. However, he’s in a sticky situation. If he doesn’t sign he will have to leave the company and strike out on his own. But if he does sign, the company wins and he loses. He is not ready to start his own agency yet so is backed into a corner. In the end, Don signs the contract with a deep sense of defeat, which also leads him to the nearest bar.
Later, he is driving with bottle in hand and comes across a couple of kids who want to party with him. The three of them wind up in a seedy motel. The next morning, Don wakes up alone, robbed of his wallet and new Cadillac and realizes he has been played. The hustler has been hustled—defeated again.
(Season 4, Ep. 7)
Don’s drinking gets worse when he discovers his old, dear friend, Anna, is dying. Anna is one of the few people that knew him as Dick Whitman and stuck by him anyway. This makes the tragic situation even harder for him. Blackouts are a regular event for him now. Only once Anna passes does he taper off the drinking.
By now, he has left the home of his wife and kids and is living in a modest apartment in the East Village. Instead of drinking himself to sleep at night, he starts keeping a journal. This becomes very important to maintaining his very brief period of sobriety.
5. Lack of Self-Acceptance
(Season 6, Ep. 13)
Don and his mask have undergone several slip-ups in the past, and he has been unable to forgive himself for them. It is this inability to accept his flaws that causes him to drink heavily. In this episode, he loses his job, his family and his “golden boy” advertising touch and is forced by his partners to take a leave of absence.
His drinking and erratic behavior are hurting the firm’s profitability. This drastic measure was brought on when Don reveals after a copious round of drinks that he came of age in a brothel to a potential major client, Hershey’s. Don actually felt that telling the Hershey team the truth about himself was the right thing to do for their advertising campaign. Whether that is true or not, it may have been the right thing for Don to do for himself. He is potentially on the brink of accepting himself, warts and all, and hopefully this will be more fully explored in the upcoming and final season.