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


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.

Forced Healing: A “Girls” Beach House Retreat

(Spoiler Alert)

Season Three, Episode Seven of HBO’s Girls finds Marnie securing a North Fork (the vacation destination for people who feel the Hamptons are “tacky”) beach house from a family friend, in an attempt to engage her friends in some never-defined process of “healing”—healing that is supposed to take place over a duck dinner, leaving time for face masks, a viewing of “Queens of Comedy,” and a ceremony built around throwing slips of paper, inscribed with wishes, into a bonfire.

As she hops around in the turbulent surf, insisting it’s “the best swimming conditions imaginable,” while the rest of her friends wait uncomfortably on shore, Marnie observes, “I just think we have a lot of healing to do and we have a lot of ways that we could do it.”

The best swimming conditions imaginable--why isn't anyone joining in?

The best swimming conditions imaginable–why isn’t anyone joining in?

Healing rituals can be very powerful…I guess.  I can’t say as I’ve ever utilized any as part of a therapy or group therapy session.  And, just to be clear, I’m using the phrase “healing ritual” in the broadest way possible—essentially encompassing any kind of activity designed to provide participants with a positive outcome by engaging in some sort of symbolic action.

I have, at times, advocated that people use healing rituals, for example, when grieving.  But in those cases, I’ve suggested an individualized ritual, focused on something that is specific to the mourner’s connection to the deceased.  And such rituals come with the caveat that one cannot simply get over grief by coming up with a clever routine that serves as a reminder of a loved one.  You have to feel the hurt to get to the heal.

Personally, I’ve only ever taken part in one healing ritual, at a church.  That particular ritual involved dropping stones into water, and had something to do with establishing intentions and letting go of bad habits or negative thoughts that trap one in old patterns…or something like that.  While I enjoyed it, and found it to be engaging while it was taking place, it wasn’t something I was particularly invested in, or something that spoke to my own personal needs or expectations at the time.  So it didn’t really stick with me.

I suppose I associate healing rituals, or rituals in general, with religion or spirituality, rather than with therapy.  This is not to say that religion and spirituality are totally separate from therapy—perhaps different sides of the same street…finding meaning in, and ways to deal with, the difficulties of life.

Ritual, though, is imposed on reality.  Ritual says, ‘we are here now, and these are the steps we are going to take to create shared meaning.’  Therapy depends more on meeting people where they are, and taking steps as those steps become possible.  At any rate, for either rituals or therapy to work, they need the ‘buy-in’ of the participants.  If there’s no meaningful connection to the work being done, no personal sense that it is worthwhile, then little is likely to come of it.

Marnie, unfortunately, never gets the buy-in of her friends.  Hannah, Jessa, and Shoshanna come out to the beach house as much out of a strained sense of obligation to Marnie as they do because they’ve been offered a free, weekend getaway.  Hannah soon sabotages Marnie’s tightly-scheduled friendship renewal when, on a trip into town, she runs into past roommate Elijah and a group of his friends.  Inviting them to join Marnie’s restorative retreat, Hannah implores Elijah to, “save me from this hell.”

Strangely enough, the only actual healing that takes place is between specific members of Marnie’s healing retreat and Elijah.  Prior to inviting Elijah over, Hannah and Elijah excitedly reveal how much they miss each other, thus effortlessly mending a pointless rift that started because Elijah had slept with Marnie.  Later, after some icy exchanges, Marnie opens up to Elijah about her break-up with Charlie and about her connection to “Old Man Ray,” because she cannot, in the context of the healing she wants to pursue, reveal to her other friends that she is sleeping with Shoshanna’s ex.  Nor would she want to admit it, as Ray does not fit into the overly-planned, picture-perfect life Marnie envisions for herself.

In addition to keeping secrets, as much as Marnie tries to impose control and ritual on the gathering, her friends are not particularly in the mood for structure, ritual, healing, or therapy.  What growth these characters experience is a result of taking steps forward on their own, or being confronted with the consequences of their actions.  At the moment of this particular beach retreat, Jessa is recently out of rehab (where she “learned a lot of great communication games”), Hannah is (relatively) satisfied with her career and her significant other, and Shoshanna is re-evaluating her life, potentially involving splitting from her friends (who she characterizes as “fucking whiny nothings”) permanently.

It clearly is not the time for a ritual based in Marnie’s need for connection, and modeled after a pop-culture version of how women bond with each other (with acknowledgment of the irony that I’m using an extended pop culture reference to explore how and why ritual and therapy may or may not work in particular contexts).

In a shallow, drunken conversation about the impact of their parents on their lives, Hannah tells Marnie that she had been dreading the trip to the beach house, and “would have done anything to not be here.”  Then, to assure Marnie that they are having a valuable exchange, and perhaps in hopes of pre-empting the scheduled dinnertime healing session, Hannah assures Marnie that they are taking part in “one of the most meaningful weekends of the summer.”

Hannah’s dismissive comment speaks to the crux of the problem.  Marnie views the weekend as a reset button on their lives, a way to make things “like old times” and to get back to normal, once and for all.  But everyone else sees it as just a weekend…a break from their real concerns…time out from “normal.”  Their lack of ongoing, meaningful connection to one another has become ordinary and acceptable for everyone but Marnie, who is clinging to a Hollywood ideal of female friendship, particularly given that her Hollywood ideals of marriage and career have completely fallen apart.

Perhaps the problem with ritual as a strategy for healing, then, is that it is often a break, outside of commonplace daily activities, potentially gripping in the moment, but ultimately just a break.  There are few, if any, rituals we engage in that become transformative, except perhaps those rituals that are constants in our lives, practices based in our beliefs.  It is a delightful fantasy to think that we can come together with friends in a carefully orchestrated event that will have life-changing potential.  However, close relationships are a process of careful, ongoing cultivation, just as most things in our lives do not bend to sudden, planned transformation, resulting in perfection, or reclaimed perfection.

As for the Girls, whether the rest of the group is really thinking about how they fit together is up for debate.  None of them, aside from Marnie, seem particularly concerned with making sure they move forward together, developing deep bonds.  As it stands, their bonds seem more circumstantial than intentional.  Although they express concern for one another, Hannah, Jessa, and Shoshanna seem content to pursue their own ends, and let the relationships go where they go, even if that involves completely drifting apart.

When Marnie finally decides to throw down, and try to force the group to engage in whatever ritual it is that she has planned, any thought of such healing has jumped the track, and it becomes more like an impromptu, and leaderless, group therapy session—the kind where problems are brought up, but no resolution is sought.  Grievances are aired, and alliances shift rapidly, but the intent of the participants becomes wounding, not healing.

Shoshanna takes center stage in this process.  Having consumed numerous “North Fork Fizzes” throughout the day, or perhaps simply frustrated enough by the behavior of the people around her to finally demand attention and express herself, she unloads on the group for treating her “like I’m a fucking cab driver…like I am invisible.”  Then, delivering the final blow to Marnie’s healing weekend, Shoshanna tells Marnie, “You are tortured by self-doubt and fear and it is not pleasant to be around.”

In short, Shoshanna indicates that Marnie needs to go get some therapy rather than trying to heal things that were never whole to begin with.

The episode ends with the “girls,” waiting for the bus back to their regular lives, slipping back into the one ritual that did come together over the weekend—a dance routine taught to them by Gerald (with a hard ‘G’).  Not exactly a healing moment, but an indication that things are essentially where they’ve been for a long time—with individuals who occasionally connect as much as their circumstances and personalities allow.