Draper is portrayed as an adulterer, a narcissist, an alcoholic, and an absent father. Why love him? Because he’s also a charming and brilliant advertising executive. He is confident, self-created, and determined.
Thankfully, Draper‘s moments of weakness and vulnerability make him a character that you can care for in spite of his flaws (writers can be crafty like that).
One of the intriguing aspects of Mad Men is to understand the characters – specifically Don Draper. By looking at the past, you can understand how Draper became the man he is.
Throughout the seasons we learn more about Draper and his life. We learn that his mother was often cold and emotionally detached. We witness Draper as a 10 year old watch his father die in an accident. From a psychological lens, we can see that these early events likely shaped and hindered his self-esteem. For some, they overcompensate for these feelings fueling narcissism. This may explain some of his narcissistic behaviors.
One question Mad Man poses throughout the season is if people can change. Like most of us, Draper
seems to repeat patterns- either healthy or unhealthy – in his life. An example of this is in the type of relationships he chooses. For instance, his first wife Betty. Betty, like Draper’s mother, is detached, often cold and distant. She tends to be inconsistent in her love and her affection towards Draper. This may partly explain why Draper looked for love and affection outside of his marriage.
After the divorce, he remarries to Megan a person whom appears to provide more warmth and love. A change. However, she also is ambitious and determined. As Megan becomes successful, the relationship falls apart. Draper returns to searching for love from others and as the season ends, he remains alone.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Draper is his rather impulsive behaviors like disappearing without a trace when life becomes stressful. Psychologists use the fancy term of avoidance to explain this type of behavior. Avoidance is a rather ineffective coping mechanism that is often utilized by survivors of trauma (and most would argue that Draper’s life included this). We see this pattern of avoidance constantly in his life. During the Korean War, he takes a new identity, leaving his past and family behind. Throughout the show we witness him excessively drinking to avoid– to a point he is asked to leave his job. He has affairs to escape his marriage. And, when life becomes overwhelming, he vanishes for months. Draper’s avoidance to life and reality is evident in nearly every season. At the end of the season, we witness a tear-jerking phone call between Draper and Peggy. Peggy urges him to return home and back to advertising. “You can come back home,” she urges. Draper usually does.
The series finale leads us to believe that Draper returned very successfully to advertising after a brief departure. We also potentially see personal growth for Draper. Sorrow and regret for choices that he made. An expressed desire to be a better person. I’d like to think that Don Draper went on to learn and become a better person. And I think that the writers wanted us to leave with a sense of hope and a sense that progress can happen in each of our lives.
Life is often a spiral staircase. We often repeat our patterns – going in circles- but the hope is that we still are making progress. Moving closer to the goal of reaching the peak of what and who we can be. I’m certain Draper will continue taking his steps.