Yes, I’ll admit this past Sunday’s episode (May 19) was difficult viewing; its myriad plot turns and flashbacks were, at times, too much for us to ingest on a late-Sunday evening.
And its content did plenty to boost the argument that Don Draper is no longer the series’ boy wonder, but has become a downer. And not only that, he’s a philandering so and so. Of course everyone knew he was a bed hopper, but it seems the public tolerance for him cheating on Megan is much lower than it was for his periodic dalliances with other women when he was married to Betty Draper, now Better Draper Francis.
At any rate, the latest exponent of the Don-as-deadweight camp, Emily Nussbaum, published her thoughts earlier this week in a brief, readable piece in The New Yorker. Considering how blue Don was in much of this week’s episode, Nussbaum’s article couldn’t have come at a worse time for us loyal Draperists. Its well-argued shots across the Draper bow were particularly hurtful to those of us who remain loyal to Don.
In the New Yorker piece, Nussbaum notes she’s still a fan of "Mad Men’s" style and that exploring Don’s apparent fall from grace is a worthy path for the series to take. Yet, she writes, our boy has “become a drag…Don, instead of being the show’s engine, has become its anchor—heavy, even in the sixties sense. This is true despite the excellent performance of [Jon] Hamm, who remains the most watchable man on earth, even when he’s doing nothing but glaring over a tumbler of Scotch.”
OK, I’ll grant that things look bleak, with Don doing a full meltdown several times this season: Recall the vomiting incident at Roger’s mother’s funeral, at least one case of drunkenness at home and then this week’s reaction to the wonder drug administered in Draper’s sculpted posterior by a less-than-ethical medicine man. Despite all this, the week’s episode represented something of a holy grail for some.
Finally, after nearly six seasons of our asking, the supreme creator, a.k.a Matthew Weiner, has granted those of us who are interested some insight into the Draper love calculus. For long we’ve suspected that Don’s introduction to amour wasn’t conventional. This week we saw it was administered, hands-on as it were, by one of the working women who plied her trade at the house of ill repute that also served as youthful Dick Whitman’s home. This is the childhood and history that Dick has tried to expunge from his record by taking the identity of Don Draper. Still, as the flashbacks this week showed, he can’t forget his roots completely.
More than that, Weiner gave us visual confirmation of young Dick’s relationship with the woman who would serve as his stepmother, his birth mother having expired after producing Dick. As we saw, if you want to call what Dick had with his stepmother a loving relationship, it certainly was a brand of tough love. Upon finding out that young Dick has lost his virginity to one of the working girls, Aimee, his stepmother gives him a severe whipping; a troubling scene, to say the least.
Certainly we’ve seen a candidate for Worst Mother of the Year in Betty Draper Francis, but even the Ice Princess never beat Sally, Bobby or Gene the way Dick’s mother figure smacked him.
Of course, the entire scenario is bizarre in a way—can you really blame a teen male for losing his virginity when he’s living in a house of ill repute, surrounded by sex and the working women who provide it? Adding to the absurdity, it’s difficult to surmise that Don’s father or his mate—the one who beat young Dick—ever gave the lad a proper grounding in good values.
Don’s Madonna-Whore Complex
And a few words about how that childhood has resulted in Don’s Madonna-Whore complex, which seemed to be on display during this episode. Don seems to regard Megan as his Madonna and Sylvia as his Whore. Often a result of being raised by a cold, unloving mother, the complex expresses itself when a husband makes his wife into a substitute for his mother, getting the affection he craved as a child (but never received). Unfortunately, this transference also shuts out his wife from being a sexual object to the husband. The husband instead turns to other women. In Don’s case, that other woman is Sylvia Rosen, at least for the moment.
Another thing to notice is Don’s obsession in this episode with Sylvia. He hangs outside her apartment, smoking and pacing. This repeated obsession is not only dangerous (for him and Sylvia), it seems psychologically troubling, a sort of repetition syndrome. Clearly he’s obsessed with Sylvia and can’t seem to get over her, resulting in this dangerous behavior of hanging around her back door.
Amy/Aimee: In a series where people aren’t always who they claim to be, it’s a great touch of irony that Dick/Don loses his virginity to Amy, who prefers to escape her reality by taking on an alter identity, thus she’s known professionally as Aimee.
Future Madonna-Whore: If the presence of a cold, distant mother can lead to a Madonna-Whore complex, little Bobby Draper best get the name of a good psychiatrist. Ain’t nobody colder or more distant than his matriarch, Betty Draper Francis.
The Children Are Our Future: Besides Don’s relationship with his parents, we’ve seen so many relationships with parents in this series: Betty with her father, Gene; Roger with his mother; Pete with both his father and mother; Joan with her mother; Peggy with her witch of a mother; Ginsberg with his well-meaning but meddling father; and last, but not least, Sally, Bobby and little Gene with their birth mother Betty and Megan. Clearly Weiner is interested in showing us how his characters came to be the adults they are and is implying that the nurture half of the nature-nurture equation is a powerful one.