“It’s no secret that Don Draper, Mad Men’s chief protagonist struggles with alcoholism. In fact, much of the show revolves around excessive and abusive drinking. Alcoholics Anonymous has been the pink elephant in the room for years on Mad Men. The show is damn good entertainment, but we should all keep in mind that in the end the story is a tragedy and Don Draper is bound to hit rock bottom. Below is NPR’s take on why we should pay attention toMad Men’s depiction of alcoholism.
AMC’s Mad Menis coming to a close after almost eight years. It’s hard to overstate the phenomenal, uncommon level of cultural saturation it’s achieved.
It’s also something that’s gained undeniable poignancy with the announcement that Jon Hamm, the actor who portrays the alcoholic Don Draper so indelibly, recently emerged from a stint in rehab for alcohol addiction.
An Uneasy Relationship?
There’s no denying that Mad Men can make drinking look really good. A huge proportion of the show’s gorgeously styled scenes take place in or around the wood-paneled bars, lounges and restaurants of the era (Episode 1, Season 1 even opens in one.) It’s a world populated with slick movers and shakers, where confidence is non-negotiable, and those endless martinis are part of the ineffably cool image.
Early on in Mad Men’s run, even over-consumption was frequently played as wry, jet-black comedy. Think of Don goading colleague Roger Sterling into guzzling multiple daytime martinis, then engineering a 23-floor stair climb that leads Roger to publicly lose his lunch. Or Don constructing his kids’ playhouse while pounding beers in the sunshine, unable to perform his paternal duty without lubrication.
But as Seasons 4 and 5 chronicle Don’s slide into outright alcoholism, showrunner Matthew Weiner’s treatment of this theme becomes much darker. Virtually all of the least-flattering moments for Draper, this apparent paragon of retro masculinity, come courtesy of an excess of booze.
One of his most cringe-worthy lows comes when, jellified by award ceremony celebrations, he conducts a pitch for Life cereal totally hammered. The episode doesn’t just represent the start of Don’s slide into full-blown alcoholism. (It’s the first time we see him suffering a significant lapse in memory.) It also shows him committing the unforgivable sin of being bad at what he does.
An even greater blow to the myth of Don Draper comes in the award-winning episode “The Suitcase.” He vomits loudly in the SDCP bathrooms and grapples pathetically with the equally drunk adman Duck Phillips. The dapper Don of the previous seasons is replaced by a tragic figure with sick stains down his shirt.
As the ’70s draw ever closer and Draper gets more tragic, Weiner’s intent all along is becoming fantastically clear: to peel back the lie of sharp suits, constant conquests and liquid lunches to show us the unsightly reality (and terrifying future) of the Don type. In the same way that Reaganites mistook Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” for a jingoistic sing-a-long, we all fell for Weiner’s expert “Don Draper trick.”
The fallacy of the Draper lifestyle — that someone could ever drink and philander so much, yet have his family life, career and health survive unscathed — should have been obvious.
Whoever’s Selling, We’re Buying
An interesting coda to all this: Jack Daniel’s sponsored Mad Men’s first season.
Before Season 1 had even premiered, a consumer group lodged a complaint against the show’s producers with the Distilled Spirits Council. The group claimed that Jack Daniel’s was violating industry codes that prohibited alcohol marketing, as well “depictions of irresponsible drinking, overt sexual activity or sexually lewd images.
So, almost eight years later, we know our show about a sophisticated Old Fashioned drinker was a tragedy all along. But if there’s one thing at which humans excel, it’s overlooking the uglier elements of something for the parts that look, well, better.”
For me this subtle, superb piece of writing points not only shows clearly and brilliantly the descent into alcoholism but to the fact that alcoholics are often high achieving, charismatic individuals before their descent into alcoholism as typified by Don Draper.
It also points to not only Don Draper’s denial about his alcoholism but society’s problem with accepting alcoholism in others especially in those charismatic talented individuals we look up to and want to be, to emulate.
Society wants these guys to be true but not the alcoholism.