Mad Men fans familiar enough with the culture of alcoholism and recovery—if only from countless TV and movies that follow the familiar addiction story arc—agree that Don Draper, the very hard-drinking Madison Avenue ad man had piled up a lot wreckage by the end of Season 6: Secrets, lies, a stolen identity and damaged personal and professional relationships.
It’s hard to say which of these disasters constitutes his “bottom.” His impulsive decisions—the hallmarks, they say, of alcoholic thinking—probably lost him wife No. 2 – not such bad news to Megan haters. He slept with Sylvia, his upstairs neighbor and good friend’s wife—and alienated his protégé Peggy Olson, as well as his adoring daughter when she caught Don and his mistress in flagrante delicto.
What else? He lost his job after repeatedly annoying colleagues with his unpredictable client pitches and his series of meeting no-shows—because he was out drinking or hungover. He spent the night in jail after slugging a proselytizing preacher in a drunken blackout. Actually, I think the annoying preacher was asking for trouble, though, of course, a violent response is never justified. And, if Don is going to start on a 12 step-style path to recovery he’s going to have to learn to take responsibility for “his part in things.”
And yes, going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting seems to be Don’s next course. Certainly that’s the advice doctors and friends would be giving to Don if he were a real person. Since he’s a TV character, this recommendation is coming from TV critics and fans, including the clinical director of an East Hampton drug treatment facility in a commentary to Esquire magazine’s The Culture Blog.
One big question, though, is whether watching Don Draper struggling in recovery would make for riveting moments for Mad Men’s final season. To answer that’s question, let’s consider what it would mean for Don to start going to AA meetings, which is what most people think of when they imagine a character starting on the path to recovery.
Don’s journey, first of all, could involve a reunion of sorts with Freddy Rumsen. Remember him? When we first met the jovial old-school ad guy Freddy in Season 1 he was a copywriter who could put away the booze with the best of Sterling Cooper’s inebriates, but then he got so drunk prior to a client meeting that he pissed all over himself. His drinking career ended in a way that presaged Don’s recent fall from grace. Like Don, Freddy was told to take an indefinite leave of absence.
When we saw Freddy again in Season 4, he had been clean and sober 16 months and so strong in his AA program that he had become a sponsor.
Maybe Freddy could be Don’s sponsor. He does seem like someone Don could trust with at least some of his secrets – though maybe not his Korean War past and his identity theft, but more on that issue later
I imagine Don’s first meeting, with or without Freddy, taking place in the basement of a Manhattan church (For some reason, whenever I hear about fictional or real-person protagonists in books going to AA meetings in Manhattan, they are always located in church basements.)
Given that Don has major issues with trust and self-control, he’d no doubt be wary and wondering if he really belonged. As in, he might look around at others at the meeting or hear their stories and think, OK, I’ve done some bad things, but I’m not that bad. Hey, I made myself and other people a lot of money. I won a Clio!
He’d probably seat himself somewhere in the back, hoping to be inconspicuous. He’d listen to the meeting’s ritualistic readings of the “12 steps” and “12 traditions” from the “Big Book,” AA’s “bible.” He might hear some “drunk-alogues” from people in the audience—stories of all the terrible things they did while drunk and then their rock-bottom, come-to-AA moments. He might also hear some rapturous accounts about members’ spiritual awakenings, those moments when they “surrendered” emotionally or mentally to God or some other higher power and now rely on that higher power to keep them sober and guide them in all their affairs of living.
It’s hard to imagine someone as self-protective as Don being first in line to introduce himself when the meeting chair asks if there are any new members: “Hi, my name is Don, and I’m an alcoholic.” He’d probably stay silent. But the meeting regulars would peg him as a newbie and after the meeting, some of the older guys would surround him and invite him out for coffee.
After hearing them spout some of the slogans and watching the dynamics of them interacting in their “fellowship,” he might come away thinking, like so many others: “cult.”
But let’s imagine Don sticks with the program for a while. He’s so desperate to turn a new leaf (which means getting off the booze), retrieve the love of his wife and kids, and return to work at the top of his creative game – that he initially believes in the words put forth in AA’s “Promises”: “If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. …”
So, Don gets his sponsor. Maybe it’s Freddy; maybe it’s someone else. As a newcomer, trying to get through those early days, weeks and months of sobriety, his sponsor would recommend he go to 90 meetings in 90 days and do some “service,” like being the guy who makes the coffee for the meetings, or puts away the chairs afterwards.
OK, Don can do this for maybe a few months or weeks, but I see some major stumbling blocks for Don in sticking with AA in the long run—and perhaps those could make for some interesting drama for Season 7.
One obstacle would be Don encountering women in the program. It’s easy to imagine his head being turned by the face of a pretty young alcoholic, or his heart being moved by her tragic backstory. Yes, Don starting an affair with a woman he meets at a meeting—that’s possible. And, no doubt it would end badly, with one or both of them relapsing, or something even worse happening.
Another obstacle for Don would be doing the 12 steps. He’d have do such uncharacteristic things as admit that the only “power” able to restore him to sanity is God “as he understands him”–and that he needs to turn his will over to the care of this God.
The rest of the steps would have him make a “searching and fearless” moral inventory and ask God to remove all his shortcomings and defects of characters. Then he would have to make the list of all the people he has harmed and make amends to them (“except when to do so would injure them or others.”) In some ways, some of these amends might not be too awful, because unless his sponsor tells him otherwise, Don would be off the hook telling Megan about sleeping with Sylvia and Betty. Nor would he have to tell his friend and neighbor Arnold Rosen that he slept with his wife. Don might feel better unburdening his soul, but sharing such knowledge wouldn’t do anyone else any good.
But the big amends he would have to make to really cleanse his soul (“You’re only as sick as your secrets,” goes one of AA’s many slogans.) – would be to publicly acknowledging that he’s not Don Draper but Dick Whitman. He’d have to come clean about stealing Don Draper’s identity.
Can you imagine the repercussions? Courtmartial, right? Prison time very likely. Loss of career. Scandal. Would either of his wives stand by him? Maybe not Betty, what with her concerns about the impact of the scandal on Henry’s political career. Megan might be the type to stand by her man. She could pursue her Hollywood career while he’s in a military prison. But would his kids, or any of his co-workers– Peggy, Joan– visit him in prison, or write letters? Hard to say.
And the big question is: would any of Don’s attempts at redemption make for engaging, entertaining TV in this iconic show’s final season?
Redemption is a tricky thing for drama. If you think about most films or TV shows depicting addiction and recovery, most of the scenes depict the addiction part. They get a lot of mileage recounting the drunk-alogues – or drug-alogues – the downward spiral to rock bottom. Think Jack Lemon in Days of Wine and Roses, or Andre Royo, the heroin addict in HBO’s The Wire, or Denzel Washington in Flight. Once these characters decide to come clean and get clean, well, we don’t see as much of them, and usually not until after quite a bit of time passes.
We usually next see them in some Big Moment, usually when they’ve got some sober time under their belts, and they are in front of a group of other addicts at a meeting, sharing their stories of “strength, hope and recovery.”
So, maybe if Mad Mencreator Matthew Weiner decides to take Don Draper on the recovery journey in Season 7, we won’t see much of Don making coffee at meetings or working with his sponsor on doing the steps. All of that recovery work will take place off camera.
That might be OK with even the most loyal Mad Men fans, a fair share of whom expressed in the comments sections of online episode recaps that they were getting a bit tired of Don Draper and wanted more screen devoted to the trials and tribulations of other characters: Joan (We want to know: Did she nail that Avon account?), Peggy, Sally, Pete Campbell, Bob Benson and even lesser characters like Ken Cosgrove, Stan Rizzo, and Michael Ginsberg. There has even been fan clamor to see the return of characters such as Salvatore Romano, the closeted art director, as the 1970s and the gay liberation movement approach.
Here’s a scenario for Season 7: Don comes back in Episodes 8, or 9. He’s making amends to various characters – and he has some touching scenes with Peggy and Sally. He’s also preparing to turn himself in to authorities for not really being Don Draper.
Then again, maybe not. Don passes by a bar, thinks he’ll just have one for old times sake, relapses big time, and realizes he’s just a hopeless, miserable drunk, and that he’s never going to come clean about his real identity.
But he can’t live with the lie anymore. He’s not going to get his career back, and he’ll never be the representation of upstanding American manhood to which he always aspired. So, he does what Man Men‘s opening title sequence has been telling us all along about the fate of Don Draper. And that’s the end of the story.