Mad Men’s Don Draper and depression in America

In 2010 America, we all live in a world that is 90 % mad: The most fascinating show on TV’s sly commentary on our current mental health

BY PAUL KAIHLA —  On October 1, 2010, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a survey of the most recent data on depression — and the results were, well, depressing. One in ten Americans suffered from that mental illness as the economy careened into the current recession.

But what surprised many researchers, especially at pioneering psych departments like that at Stanford University, is that the statistic was not higher. According to Stanford neuro-psych Viveka Ramel, about half of us in North America will suffer from a clinical disorder of some kind during our lifetime — and for a fifth of us, that diagnosis will be depression.

A brilliant reflection of our current economic and spiritual health, and how those macro forces course through our personal psycho-dynamics, is on display this fall on the AMC cable channel series, Mad Men. The show’s writers — some of the same people who brought you the hit HBO show, The Sopranos — frame their mise-en-scene in the emerging New York megapolitan of the 1960′s, riven by characters who are careerists on Madison Avenue.

Casting this story in the past gives us just enough comfort-zone to look at ourselves in our present-tense, and make no mistake: Mad Men is a commentary on *our* anxious, over-politicized and publicized times.

On the face of it, the post-war, ad-men in Mad Men on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue appear to be self-actualizing A-types who are confronting the world and molding events to their will in the American Century, at least in material terms.  The sub-text: Most of the male characters are functional alcoholics who are in denial about their fears, hatreds, dysfunctional relationships and other denied compartments of their minds and lives. In other words, they’re chronically depressed.

Look no further than the episode titled Hands and Knees, where Mad Men‘s anti-hero Don Draper — played by Jon Hamm, an actor with nuance and ad-like Brylcreem looks —
betrays his lack of psychic stamina. He spews because he hears that Defense Department investigators are asking questions about him. Note: he himself is not interrogated, let alone water-boarded. (An American icon not up to the standards of Fox News or Gordon Liddy).

The first-impression of Don Draper, to both viewers of the show and characters within the show, is the he is a macho, pre-feminist, Casanova and manager. He presents as the classic inner-directed man, in the David Reisman sense of the word. But he is totally other-directed. In Don’s personal reality: he is a secret felon who shivs a subordinate to cover up his life-long crime, an identity theft (post-9/11 Manhattan alert! ). On the outside he appears to be the classic inner-directed man, in the David Reisman sense of the word. But he is totally other-directed.

Behavioral exhibits: Don Draper has blacked out after a night of drunken sex, downed pills for insomnia, adventured in serial philandering when he was married to the girl-next door — and naturally, did a nasty divorce.

Compare those indicators against Ramel’s 4-out-of-8 depression checklist above.

The big tip-off for Mad Men‘s emotional trope is the opening credits of each Mad Men episode, an animation of a man-in-suit silhouette in free-fall from the side of a New York skyscraper. It’s a politically daring visual statement for an HBO production set in the same city where the harrowing Falling Man images and documentary of the same name about the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 sparked a global uproar.

The message is that the show’s protagonist is in a perpetual existential free-fall.

In the current Season 4, Don begins to journal. His latest love interest is a nurturing psychologist named Faye who acts as an emotional safety net as things both inside him and around him fall apart.

But no matter which inner or outer tactics Draper tries, he fails to spiritually ground himself.

What does he do to Faye in the first episode of October, 2010 called “Chinese Wall”? Don fucks a secretary on the sly, a couple of hours before Fay shows up at his bachelor flat late at night to announce that she’s compromised herself ethically and professionally to help him save his firm and career.

It’s no wonder that this show has the highest number of viewers for any cable channel series at a time when America’s depression quotient is accordingly as high — and at the same time that national economic, personal wealth-creation and income trends are so low.

We are mediated and mirrored in the very desperation and vibration of the messy lives on Mad Men . . . from Citibank e-mail spam to Eliot Spitzer’s new CNN show, and the fact that Victoria’s Secret is something that makes news in these times.

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