Perhaps it is rather ironic that the AMC website uses cocktail recipes to market Mad Men, because, when viewed correctly, Mad Men is about the devastating effects of a life lived for alcohol.
But it’s subtle, as addiction often is at first. I never noticed it as much on the first viewing. The sheer normalisation of wanton alcohol consumption on Matthew Weiner’s Madison Avenue is what strikes you first. “I’d love to have a bar in my office,” you think. It seems so glamorous and Romantic. These are the kind of people who tip back half a bottle of Canadian Club then smash a glass in a fireplace and make love to Elizabeth Taylor.
But on the second viewing, it takes on a different colour. The fates of Freddy Rumsen and Duck Phillips (the former losing his job after drunkenly wetting his pants and the latter fallen so far from the wagon as to get kicked out of the Clios) are far less humorous when you watch it again. These are two men whose personal and professional lives were ruined by alcohol but are so carelessly brushed aside by those who can still conceal their disease.
The first time through on Mad Men, Roger Sterling is just a bon mot machine with a Gibson martini. That he seems to grow lonelier as he grows older is only a falsehood. Rewatching from the beginning, it is obvious immediately how lonely a man he is. I can’t believe I missed it the first time around. I blame the fact that there is simply so much going on in an episode of Mad Men. You need to see them all a few times to truly digest it.
Roger’s alcohol abuse is obvious. But because he’s a functioning alcoholic, he doesn’t consider himself an alcoholic. He has normalized his dependency:
You don’t know how to drink. Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation, we drink because it’s good, because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar, because we deserve it. We drink because it’s what men do.
So that brings us to Don. There are so many directions to go, but I want to focus on this: the story of Mad Men is the story of an alcoholic.
The double-life of Don Draper versus Dick Whitman is only the beginning, even if the most metaphorical. The dual personalities of an addict are something anyone who has been around one can recognize. You don’t know which version you are going to get. Sometimes its both in varying shades of grey.
For the first three seasons, we see Don just coping. His alcoholism exists but he’s functioning. The fact that he has a “problem” is barely evident. But his marriage slowly cracks as the other side of him seeps him. Betty discovering Dick Whitman is the turning point. This is the point where the problem cannot be ignored.
After their divorce, Don starts to circle the drain. His co-workers become aware of his addiction. He abuses alcohol incessantly, indulging his weakness because he longer has a reason to keep himself in check. He hits what only seems like rock bottom in his “lost weekend” after the Clio Awards. The dual appearances of Duck Phillips (well and firmly bottomed-out) and Freddy Rumsen (sober and getting his life together) at this time show Don his two possible futures. The devil on one shoulder, angel on the other, if you will.
But recovery is not easy. It is a series of ups and downs, peaks and troughs. Dr. Faye Miller knows Don’s disease. She states explicitly that she is here to help him. Her presence in his life is a wonderful opportunity for rehabilitation. And he even seems capable of change. To her, he can admit his problem. He finally wants to change.
But sometimes the hard work that rehabilitation requires is just too much. Rather than hike that path, Don cheats. (He also literally cheats on Faye with Megan.) He tricks himself into believing that a fresh start with Megan will allow him to simply wipe the slate clean. But he is only replacing one addiction with another: alcohol with puppy love. As Tom and Lorenzo say, “He’s like a dry drunk, someone who’s overcompensating and over-emoting because they’re trying to ignore something.”
And this new addiction seems so harmless. At least at first. But before long, it’s affecting his work. Just like any other addiction. And when the lustre starts to fade, the old demons come back because they were never truly vanquished. When you’re at such a high peak when the fog clears, it’s terrifying to suddenly realize how steep the drop.
And he does drop.
It’s such a sad and familiar tale. How many tragic ends come after it seemed like an addict had finally turned the corner?
As we left Don at the end of Season Six, he was pouring out his booze and cleaning out his office. Will it stick this time? Addiction and recovery is not an arc usually done justice by film and television. It usually ends with the first trip to rehab, as if that is all it takes for a magic cure-all: checking in. But Don’s struggle has been much more accurate, and thus much more sinister. Sometimes it takes years to even accept that there is a problem at all. (Roger Sterling has yet to make it that far.)
And by then, you’re too far in the mess that it feels like its too late to be Dick Whitman again.