The Draper Complex: When a Man Turns Against His Defences
Don Draper could be TV's most compelling character since Tony Soprano, but what lies behind his defence systems?
Integrative psychotherapist Aaron Balick delves deeper
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Mad Men's Don Draper is not Tony Soprano. The weird world of psychoanalysing fictional figures had a field day with the latter – from labelling him with narcissistic or anti-social personality disorder to settling on a severe Oedipus Complex.
Whatever the conclusion, the Mafia boss was clearly symptomatic. However little you'd expect a man like Tony to seek psychotherapy, he had to. You cannot run the North Jersey crime syndicate while suffering panic attacks.
Don Draper's condition is subtler because for the most part, he's been able to keep a lid on it. It is only recently that Don has come to realise that his complex set of defences is no longer working. For Tony, the symptoms were clear and unavoidable; his fainting spells were a deadly symptom in his business. For Don, like others with highly adaptive defences, they have not only enabled him to carry on, but to excel. People don't turn against their defences when they are perceived to be working in their favour. When we don't see our defences as hindrances but rather just part of us, they are what we call ego-syntonic – our egos don't put up a fight.
Draper functions on a variety of ego-syntonic defences including emotional isolation, narcissistic self-regard, obsession with work, sex, and most of all, alcohol and cigarettes. Most people only come to regard their defences as bad news when they notice them starting to interfere with their lives – when they become ego-dystonic and the ego turns against them. Further defences like denial and rationalisation may hold off that painful realisation even longer, but when the shit starts hitting the fan, it's hard to deny that our habitual ways of dealing with the world aren't working so well anymore. With the failure of his career and second marriage, there's a growing admission that there's trouble.
After all, Don is really only a façade. It's Dick Whitman that lies beneath; only he was rubbed out during the Korean War. Here we have the perfect metaphor for denial; Dick Whitman's painful past of abuse and neglect was folded up and neatly put in a drawer. The thing is, what happened to Whitman didn't disappear – it will constantly seek to return.
The unresolved pain of Whitman's past reveals itself in Don's increased drinking and the unnecessary risks he takes at home and work. Ultimately, the dam of suppression bursts when his personal history is disclosed at work. While the expression of his “true self" is an important step, the timing and context are all wrong, and he loses his job for it. The series ends with the touching disclosure of his truth to his children.
“This," Don says in front of his old tenement house, “is where I grew up." His daughter Sally gives him a look that communicates, “oh – now I might begin to understand you." And with this, Don starts to turn against his defences of lies and emotional exclusion, and begins to move towards healthy vulnerability.
But this was never going to be a smooth ride. In series seven Don maintains a web of lies about his work situation to his family. When both his daughter and second wife Megan find out, trust is broken further. He makes some courageous repair with his daughter, but it doesn't go so well with Megan. When he decides to come clean the second time around, it's too late for Megan.
By the mid-season finale, we're left questioning whether the viewers will have the satisfaction and resolution of seeing Don Draper transcending his past. We'll just have to wait and see.