A Reframe for Dick Whitman OR Don Draper Gets Just Enough ‘Therapy’ to Go On Being Don Draper

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

(Spoiler Alert!)

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.

don's anxiety

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.

Don's idea

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.”

don's hugg

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.”

sally dishes, betty smokes

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.

coke real thing

And that’s the real thing…or the realest thing we can expect from Don.

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Supercharged Sex Pets: The Kia Soul EV Commercial, and Weird Sexist Hamster Science

by J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

In the commercial for the Kia Soul EV (Electric Vehicle), these hamsters…

Hamster scientist

…have just created some kind of electric-beam-shooting machine that transforms cars with combustion engines into electric cars, but which also inadvertently transforms this hamster…

Hamster ball

…into this hamster…

hamster hottie

…which leads the scientists to run out and get these hamsters…

Hamster cage

…in order to turn them into these hamsters:

Hamster sorority

You can watch the whole commercial here:

Now, I don’t know much about the normal behavior of the average anthropomorphic male hamster scientist, but the ones in this commercial are impulsive and reckless, and just plain engaging in bad scientific practices. It’s bad enough that they leave the newly-created anthropomorphic female porn-hamster alone in the lab, apparently irritating her, and leaving her to do God-knows-what with billions of dollars worth of barely-tested, super-high-tech equipment.

But they also, with complete disregard for their own safety, jump into an untested vehicle and race out of the lab with the intention of creating more female porn-hamsters. They don’t do any kind of systems check on the car, or even wait 30 seconds to, for instance, see if the porn-hamster they just created might have significant problems. Perhaps it suffers from severe physical or mental abnormalities. It could be hyper-aggressive or violent. One of its first actions, after all, was to blow a kiss across the room at one of the scientists, which actually had the electrified power to knock him to the floor. Guys, I don’t think you should be taking this so lightly.

Thankfully, the male hamster scientists make it to the pet store and back, nobody gets hurt, and the porn-hamsters only want to have a dance party.

Still, one has to wonder why these male hamster scientists are so enthralled by what they’ve created. I’ve not paid enough attention to the whole series of hamster commercials to know if the other female hamsters (are there other female hamsters?) in this Kia-commercial world have similar physical attributes to the male hamsters, as in looking like ‘real’ hamsters wearing clothing, or if all the female hamsters have the bodies of (human) Playboy playmates.

It bears asking, would the male hamsters really be attracted to some hideous abomination with the head of a hamster and the body of a human? After all, the female porn-hamsters seem to be attracted to the hamster-bodied males—or else they’re just tolerating them until they can escape. They would have to escape, right? The hamster scientists wouldn’t be so irresponsible as to just unleash these monstrosities on the world without knowing what they might do, right?

In any sci-fi/horror scenario, everything always seems great up front, and then rapidly goes to hell. First it’s a dance party, and then the killin’ starts. Just what can we expect from the porn-hamsters’ Frankenstein/Brundlefly/Jurassic Park moment? Or perhaps the better parallel is with Vincenzo Natali’s “Splice”—wherein genetic experiments lead to the creation of a hybrid human/insect thing that has sex with Adrien Brody and then kills him, and several others.

But, hey, for the Kia Soul EV, it’s still a dance party. We don’t have to worry about sex and murder. They even carefully edited the Maroon Five song that plays throughout the commercial to eliminate the lines “we get along when I’m inside you…I get so high when I’m inside you,” despite leaving in the lines about ‘hunting you down’ and ‘eating you alive.’ So, really, what happens if the porn-hamsters have some sort of melt-down, or revert back to their pre-porn-hamster selves?

Maybe I’m just taking this in the wrong direction. I mean, really, the ad is just a wacky homage to “Weird Science”—right? It’s light and fluffy, and titillating in a bestiality-inspiring way. And having a commercial that’s based on a film where two teens create a woman to satisfy their creepy urges, then turn Bill Paxton into a talking pile of turd, and accidentally end up with a nuclear weapon in their living room in the middle of a house party with uninvited bikers is all just in good fun. No harm done.

Yet, underlying the whole Kia Soul EV commercial is a bunch of disturbing assumptions about gender stereotypes, the ideal woman, and sex in general.

If you break it down we have 1) scientists who are all male;  2) a female who is, at first, kept as a pet locked up in a plastic ball, and then turned into a an anthropomorphic human-Playboy-playmate-bodied porn-hamster; 3) the all-male scientist group racing out to buy more pets that they can turn into a whole roomful of porn-hamsters; and 4) the female porn-hamsters instantly falling in love with the anthropomorphic, male, hamster-bodied hamster scientists.

So, the “men” in this commercial have jobs and are intelligent and seeking to advance science (I mean, holy shit!!–they invented a big ray-gun that can transform the power system of a car, when they could have just worked on engineering a better battery). The “women” in this commercial are initially tiny pets who are kept locked up, and can be sold at any time. Eventually, the pet-women are transformed into sex objects who instantly fall in love with the men, despite nothing happening to inspire love aside from being shot with some mysterious ray-gun that also turns gas-powered cars into electric cars.

And, again, maybe I’m just looking at this the wrong way. Personally, though, I was really creeped out the first time I saw it, and that had nothing to do with the use of a Maroon Five song. I just couldn’t help but think that the underlying story of buying pets to turn them into potential sex partners was just wrong and disturbing.

If you don’t see that, then let me ask you what would be the equivalent if this commercial involved humans instead of hamsters? Would the “pets” be chimps? Monkeys of some sort? Human babies? Tiny little humans that are sold in pet stores? If they weren’t human to begin with, would they retain their monkey/ape faces? If they were human… Well, whatever the angle, it’s pretty damn creepy.

And maybe you don’t see the supercharged sexism because they’re just hamsters, after all, and it’s basically just a cartoon. But cartoons still carry messages, and plenty of them carry messages involving and reinforcing gender stereotypes—most commonly that boys/men are action-oriented and assertive, while girls/women are passive and interested in socializing and being cute.

At base, this Kia Soul EV ‘cartoon’ relays the message that men act on the world, even as they are controlled by their sexual urges, while women (and pets?) exist to be the focus of men’s sexual urges.

Take it into your lab, dissect it, throw it under a microscope, zap it with whatever you want—if you take the time to study it, even a little, it’s far from a cute little ad with fun intentions.  Rather, it’s an ugly, dangerous Frankenstein’s monster of a message to send.