WEIRDLAND: "Mad Men on the Couch" (Analysis of the main characters)

Saturday, June 09, 2012

"Mad Men on the Couch" (Analysis of the main characters)

“You are the product. You feeling something. That’s what sells. Not them. Not sex. They can’t do what we do, and they hate us for it.” -Don Draper in the episode "For Those Who Think Youn" (Season two, episode 1)

"Mad Men" has captured the imaginations of millions of viewers, winning fifteen golden globes and four Emmys.

Perhaps more than the gorgeously stylized visuals and impeccably re-created history, it’s the show’s richly drawn characters stumbling through their personal and professional lives that get under our skin and keep us invested. In "Mad Men on the Couch", Dr. Stephanie Newman analyzes the show’s primary characters through the lens of modern psychology. Lending her trained professional eye, she poses and expertly answers pressing questions such as:

Why does Don constantly sabotage himself? Why is Betty such a cold mother and desperately unhappy housewife? (Hint: It’s not just because her "people are Nordic.")

Why does Pete prevail in adversity when Roger crumbles?

Why is Peggy able to rise profesionally in the male jungle of Madison Avenue when Joan can't? Can these characters ever really change?

"Things are looking up for the men and women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP) in 1964. Don has managed to extricate himself from an unhappy marriage and has made a fresh start with Megan, his gorgeous secretary. The admen have freed themselves from the British agency that had taken over their company.

And Joan and Peggy have each been promoted. But, as always, appearances do not tell the whole story. Sure, the office and the people within it look great. The new agency’s sleek lines and design are in the style of Mies van der Rohe, and evoke an open atmosphere. But while the ever-so-modern glass partitions may be transparent, the characters within remain closed off, their relationships complex and opaque. Don’s true identity; Roger’s most recent dalliance with the firm’s office manager, Joan, and her resulting pregnancy; as well as Peggy’s history with Pete and the birth of their child all remain closely guarded secrets.

Don’s office romps with Faye, Megan, and others are also kept secret—until he can no longer conceal them. And while the fledgling firm gives the appearance of prosperity—with 1960s op art and abstract prints adorning the walls, a C. Jeré sculpture in the entranceway, and Danish modern furniture at every turn—what lies within the modern, stylized rooms is pure turmoil: Lucky Strike, which generates the lion’s share of revenue for the partnership, has announced that the agency’s services will no longer be needed. Glo-Coat Floor Wax defects soon after, despite the shiny Clio Don was awarded for his work on their campaign.

After this one-two punch, SCDP’s finances become so precarious, it is unclear whether the agency will survive. With business so tough, the stakes are financially, professionally, and personally high for the agency’s employees. They have all bet big on the firm’s success—and on one another—leaving the stability of Sterling Cooper for this fledgling agency. Peggy thrives at the office; the workplace provides a major source of gratification for her. Pete bets big on his partner; he loses a $4 million government contract, a huge portion of the business he has brought in, to protect Don from a routine background check (Season 4, Episode 10, “Hands and Knees”).

And Don needs SCDP to survive, perhaps more than the others. The agency is his home, professionally and psychologically. At least three of Don’s partners (Roger, Bert, and Pete) know that Don has a secret past—and they accept him despite his deception.

Without the agency, Don might have fewer opportunities for employment. He is hiding a fake identity, after all, and not every agency would let that slide. He needs this job; without colleagues like Roger and Peggy to look over his shoulder, and a home to go to at the end of the day, he might fall apart. In psychological terms, Don is someone who desperately needs outside supports like rules, conventions, deadlines, and tough-love confrontations to function. His life becomes especially difficult after his wife, Betty, insists on a divorce and quickly remarries, for example. At his nadir, Don’s solace is whiskey, his companions outside the office mostly waitresses and prostitutes, and his life nearly spirals out of control. Just what would happen to Don without a professional setting on which to hang his hat and define his place in the world?

DON DRAPER, MADISON AVENUE’S MARLBORO MAN: Tall, dark, and handsome, stoic and macho—Don is a silver-tongued image-maker who is himself a creation, having stolen the identity of the real Don Draper, a soldier who died serving in Korea. Like the Marlboro Man, the iconic brainchild of admen, the “new” Don exudes confidence, self-assurance, and masculine strength. But for him and the cigarette icon, the machismo is merely a veneer; what lies beneath is darker and more complicated. The actor who played the Marlboro Man is ultimately killed by the very product he hawks, and serves as a cautionary tale and a metaphor for Don’s life. Draper and his colleagues suffer under the brutal pace and nature of the advertising game —a ruthless pressure cooker that threatens to destroy those who earn their living making images.

Duck and Freddy develop crushing alcoholism. Roger has two heart attacks at the office. Though Don seems to thrive under work pressures when we first meet him, he begins to fold as his unhappy home environment and secret past close in on him. As his true identity and extramarital affairs become known to his wife, cracks begin to show in Don’s refined and competent veneer.

BETTY DRAPER, THE ORIGINAL DESPERATE HOUSEWIFE: A classic beauty from a privileged background, Betty receives a top-of-the-line education and goes on to marry a rising and talented adman, Don Draper, with whom she lives in a picture-perfect house in a wealthy Westchester community. But her glamorous veneer unravels in tandem with her husband’s emotional struggles. Soon after Don and Betty set up their beautiful home with their 2.2 children, we see the Drapers begin to grow apart. Don buries himself in his work, seems unable to give much emotionally or communicate with his wife, and has many lovers. Betty fantasizes about cheating with an air-conditioning salesman but remains loyal to Don, though she ultimately does have a one-night stand and an emotional affair with Henry Francis, the man she will marry a short time after the Drapers divorce. Though Betty has all the trappings of wealth and privilege, she has become increasingly desperate and lonely throughout the series thus far.

Being married to a man like Don Draper might explain some of Betty’s emotional difficulties, but fans of the show are frequently puzzled by the way in which she grows angrier and angrier, even after her marriage to Don has ended. Some participants in a recent online vote on a popular Web site have even urged Matthew Weiner to kill off her character entirely. Why is she so reviled? Is she merely the angry, rejecting woman fans love to vilify? Like all the others on the show, Betty is more complicated. Her actions are in large part a result of living during an era in which women had few choices, while her psychology reflects her family of origin. We learn, in fact, that what has prevailed is a “like daughter, like mother” scenario; when Betty was a child, her own mother was very much like her, if not worse.

PEGGY OLSON, THE CAREER WOMAN: Peggy, buoyed by her ambition, refuses to be stymied by convention or traditional gender roles. Single-minded in her pursuit of a career, she gets ahead at work and breaks free of traditional male-female boundaries in ways other woman of her time, like Betty and Joan, do not.

Traditional sex roles held that women were subservient and complementary to men —they served as “looking-glasses” for them, as Virginia Woolf famously decried in "A Room of One’s Own". Women were not supposed to compete with or challenge men by taking away jobs and entering the workforce. Sociologist Helena Lopata noted in "Occupation: Housewife" in 1971: “Women [were] expected to move from birth and home-centered childhood into school attendance for a time sufficient to find a husband, but not so long as to waste valuable youth on knowledge used only for a short time. The next appropriate stages [were] work … [marriage], giving birth to a limited number of children, rearing children, caring for the retired husband, widowhood, and death.”

It was not easy to stray from the social script. Though Peggy refuses to adhere to the rigid constraints of the era, she risks being stigmatized by her refusal to marry or devote her primary energies to the care of men and children.

PETE CAMPBELL, THE BULLDOG: While Pete may be one of the boys when it comes to his devaluing attitudes toward women, he ultimately undergoes a bit of personal development that allows him to break from the group and move ahead of them in his attitudes. We see him become a father and get closer to Trudy. These relationships seem to help mature him and allow him to develop more of an awareness of the needs of others. Likewise, Pete distinguishes himself from the others in terms of his professional standing within the agency.

He urges his reluctant wife to compromise her ethics and induce a former flame to publish one of Pete’s short stories in a national magazine. He cheats on her multiple times. At work Pete is also cutthroat and devious. He takes a confidential report out of Don’s trash and shares the results with a client in the first of many attempts to go head-to-head with Don at the agency. And though Pete strives to be one of the gang, he does not seem to fit in. He tries to befriend Don, but to no avail. Though his manner is initially off-putting (Don wants to fire him for attempting to break the chain of command but cannot because of Pete’s name and connections), Pete ultimately finds a place for himself and learns how to blend in. He and Don forge an alliance that works, as long as Pete does not challenge his authority.

ROGER STERLING, THE BLUE BLOOD: Roger is cocky, full of bravado, and an elitist. He laughs his way through serious situations, quipping about Miss Blankenship, “She died like she lived, surrounded by the people she answered phones for”. -from "Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show" (2012) by Stephanie Newman

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