Do We Care whether Don Draper is an Alcoholic? On the Prevalence of Addiction Subtexts in Television Drama

In Season Four of the heralded AMC drama Mad Men, Don Draper appeared to be building toward an alcoholic crisis. The child of alcoholics, and himself a dedicated daily drinker even by the standards of the three-martini-lunch set, Don already had endured car accidents, destructive one-night-stands, and many a shaky, sweaty, even bandaged morning after. Then, midway through last season, as he struggled to re-establish his sense of self in the aftermath of his divorce, his drinking escalated. He lost an entire weekend to a blackout, leaving a bar after his greatest professional triumph with an appropriately classy sexual trophy, but waking up two days later with a waitress who somehow knew his real name — signs of the sudden collapse of the identity he had worked so hard to build. Soon afterwards, during an overnight drinking session in the office, he was confronted by a pitifully sloshed Duck, a former colleague now in personal free-fall, who seemed to offer an image of Don’s potential fate.

Does this look like a guy who can handle his liquor?

But after learning the next morning of the death of an old and dear friend, Don was chastened and, without ever speaking a word about it, cut down on his drinking and began swimming laps at the Y. Since then, as he has taken control of other unstable areas of his life, he has returned to constant, but largely controlled, drinking.

This anxious course correction and subsequent drift back to the edges of self-mastery are familiar elements of a slow-surging alcoholism. On the other hand, they might just be the ebbs and flows in the life of a heavy drinker in a heavy drinking culture. In any case, Don’s looming crisis was averted, or deferred, but not really “addressed,” in the manner we have come to expect of such character arcs.

Does it miss the point to think of Don as a potential alcoholic, because his drinking is of a piece with the show’s period and class detail? It does matter that perceptions of problem drinking were different in Mad Men’s time and place. But I think it misses a more fundamental aspect of the show to think of Don as an exceptional hero, untouchable by the ordinary laws of habit formation or even character development. I would say that the references to A.A., the occasional disaster or total collapse that drinking facilitates in other characters, and Don’s dangerous losses of control all suggest that problem definitions of drinking — not nostalgia for a mythical pre-therapeutic America — are ever-present in this fictional world. Mad Men’s writers have shown no interest in making the show “about” alcoholism, but if Don is to fall, it seems likely that alcohol will be a central medium of his demise. This kind of lingering, indecisive addiction plot has become pervasive in the era of the “quality” television drama. Below the fold I discuss some reasons why, and what they might tell us about addiction discourse more generally.

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