JC Schildbach, LMHC
Let’s imagine that Don Draper’s momentary breakdown—a realization of abandonment, followed by a phone call wherein he recounts his sins to Peggy, leading to an anxiety attack or some other form of emotional paralysis, which is essentially broken by a cathartic, sobbing hug with a stranger in a group “seminar”—is an honest therapeutic breakthrough.
While many people have interpreted the final moments of the series as cynical—the smirk that rises on Don’s face as he sits in a meditation group, followed by the ring of a meditation bell fading into the opening of the Coke “Hilltop” commercial jingle—a better “reframe” for what happens with Don is that he recognizes how his own behavior has been impacting others, that he is able to identify his own feelings of emotional disconnection, and that he is able to gain some real acceptance of his situation and how to thrive in it.
In the terms of a therapeutic cliché, Don realized that when one cannot change one’s circumstances, one can change one’s response/attitude toward those circumstances.
Essentially, such a “reframe” relies on the acceptance of the idea that the “Hilltop” Coke commercial is Don’s concept (all apologies to Bill Backer)—an idea that hardly seems up for debate. Among other elements, in the final scenes of the final episode, Peggy’s plea to Don to “come home” involves the pointed appeal, “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” And the final words spoken, by one of the retreat leaders, before the Coke commercial closes out the series, are an invitation to greet the morning sunshine and bask in the possibilities of a “new day, new ideas, a new you.”
Don’s answer to Peggy’s question about working on the Coke account is, “I can’t. I can’t get out of here.” At that particular moment, it’s a statement of desperation. Don is panicked. He is stuck at a coastal retreat “somewhere in California” with no transportation.
But Don’s sense that he needs to be able to control where he is, and when he can leave, is about to melt away. After his moment of connection with fellow seminar-attendee, Leonard, Don realizes he can “work on Coke,” or any other account, so long as he abandons his need for control of the situation where he is working.
Don’s initial flight from McCann-Erickson is brought on by feeling he has lost control. He is called to a meeting for Miller Lite, only to realize he is one of many creative directors there—and not the creative director there. He quickly decides this is not for him, grabs up his catered box lunch, and hits the road.
Don’s need for control plays into his sobbing hug with Leonard—who details how he feels that his family doesn’t even look at him; that he doesn’t know how to give, receive, or even recognize love; and that “nobody cares I’m gone.”
In a moment of recognition and connection, Don realizes his family does not “care” that he’s gone, and that his idea of love is ill-defined at best. Of those family members he has tried to reach, daughter Sally and ex-wife Betty have told him to stay away, and that the lives of his sons are more stable in his absence. Stephanie, the niece of the (real deceased) Don Draper, both invites (the imposter) Don to the coastal retreat, and then leaves him stranded there, after telling him he is not part of her family (and after having her own desire for a therapeutic experience thwarted by what she feels are the judgmental and stereotypical attitudes about what she should value in life).
In the lead-up to Don’s hug with Leonard, it is only Peggy who urges Don to come home. And by “home” Peggy means back to work at McCann. It is Peggy alone who knows how to reach Don, and does so, rather than just accepting that Don does what Don does and leaving him to it. She appeals to the only thing that Don clearly loves—the pure joy of coming up with a winning ad campaign.
It’s possible to interpret Don’s brief breakdown as entirely self-serving—that he is distraught only because he has been abandoned instead of being the one to abandon, and because he lost the ability to just pick up and leave. He was even left without his usual means of numbing himself with alcohol and casual sex.
So when Leonard revealed his dream of being left alone in the dark on the refrigerator shelf, of course it struck a chord with Don. After all, Don’s whole career has been spent trying to get people to pick that particular item out of the refrigerator—the one that would make them whole. To do that, he needs to know how to connect with people like Leonard—people who have a sense of emptiness and who don’t know how to correct their emotional deficits. And now Don is trapped here with Leonard, in the dark and cold of that nightmare refrigerator where others are in charge of who gets in and out. That bit of recognition allows Don to plunge into his own feelings of sadness, if only for a moment, before he recognizes the value in what Peggy has told him, and the value of tuning into people like Leonard, at least until the end of the week.
It’s a fairly common misconception about therapy that such moments of insight and catharsis will lead to meaningful change, or that a therapist’s job is to provide a client with just the right piece of advice or insight to “fix” that client, and put the client on the right course for life. Part of that misconception can be attributed to “retreats” like the one where Don is stranded—certainly sold to the participants as a week of healing and life-affirming change. And, certainly, recognizing something lacking in yourself, and having a good cry can be helpful at times, but it doesn’t make you a different person. Real change takes will and work.
But if therapy is about meeting a person where s/he is, and helping that person to be the best version of who s/he can be at that time, and of using a ‘strengths-based’ approach that helps the person tune into their own abilities to address problems, then Don’s time away at the retreat is successful. Don not only has a moment of clarity and honest emotion; he gains acceptance about his own circumstances and how to change his response to them.
It is telling that in the final shot of Don’s family, we see them in a dimly-lit kitchen, Betty resignedly drawing on a cigarette, Sally, having assumed parental duties, washing dishes with her back turned to her mother and the camera. All this just before we see Don on a sunny cliff-top overlooking the Pacific Ocean and hear the opening words of the Coca-Cola jingle: “I’d like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love.”
Don has spent a good portion of his adult life trying to fix problems with money and buying things, and exists in an industry where money and buying things is put forth as the answer to everything—even a broken home and the absence of love.
And Don has a significant history of childhood trauma and abandonment, and poor modeling from the adults in his life. A week of group seminars and meditation isn’t going to fix that.
But that week on the coast did give Don enough of a reframe to get him back to the work he loves, and to do that work successfully.
And that’s the real thing…or the realest thing we can expect from Don.