A Psychological Approach to the T.V. Series, "Mad Men."

It is April 9, 2014, and it is four days until the beginning of the seventh and last season of the T.V. series, Mad Men. By the time the series is complete, there will have been, roughly, seventy five hours of the program. If a person wanted to watch all episodes of the series from beginning to end, it would take almost two, forty hour work weeks.

The central character in Mad Men is named Don Draper. In the series, he is a the most important and only essential figure at a Madison Avenue advertising firm.

It is the nature of memory that fictional characters and real figures from the past merge more and more in memory as time goes by. If you watch every episode of Mad Men, ten years from now, Don Draper may be just as vivid in your memory (maybe even more so) than your aunt who you met once or twice and who died forty years ago. Those who create fictional characters, whether it is Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Victor Hugo or the producer of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, have a responsibility for who and what they put out to us. This is because all their creations become, in a sense, real to us, part of our inner, mythology, as it were. Don Draper will bounce around in our imaginations like all the other people who are "living" in our thoughts and feelings and dreams. We react to these figures on an ongoing basis, even though they are imaginary, and they influence our reactions to people and events in our everyday lives.

There is an ancient Chinese symbol that has filtered into popular culture in the United States. I don't understand what it means to the Chinese, but I find it useful when I think about certain psychological issues. It now comes to mind in thinking about Mad Men. The image is of a circle with two halves, a dark half and a light half:

Yin Yang

When you think of the Good and the Bad, it is possible to think of these opposites as the light and dark halves of a whole. If we were to place the figure, Don Draper (and most of the other figures in Mad Men), on one side of the circle, it would have to be in the dark side. If you notice, the picture of the symbol has a dark spot in the light side and a light spot in the dark side. This fits the Mad Men situation:  Don Draper has some good in him even though he is basically not a good man.

It is a testimony to our Age of Psychology that the writers and directors and actors and all others who have put so much time and effort and money into the production of the series, have created a character who has a developed psychological side. Their idea is to show us how the environment of Don Draper, the child, contributes to the personality, world view, and actions of the adult Don Draper. Bad people, it is suggested, are bad, at least in part, because they were mistreated when they were children. They developed a negative view of what to expect from people and from human relations. They do not expect good from people, and so they never trust or let down their guards or show their weakness. If, as Jung said, love is an intimacy based on their weakness and not on strength, these people can not act from love. They are always taking care of themselves (because they think no one else will). Love may come for a moment, but it will not be trusted and the hard, cold attitude will creep back and envelop any tender feelings. You may tell yourself you don't like hurting people; you don't like always keeping them, coldly, at arm's length; you may vow to change; you may try to change; but, in spite of your intentions, the hardened part will take over again and close off anything sensitive that is reaching out and growing.

Again we can turn to the Chinese symbol to help understand the overall situation. Not only does Don Draper — who, even though he is a fictional figure, was created by real people with real problems who imbued him with their real-life experiences — have moments of goodness in his dark personality, but darkness is only one side of his overall personality. It is the part that comes out and dominates him, and it is the part we see, but it is only half of him.

It may be that each of us has a dark and light side: One side may stand out more, but the other is always there too. Though what we see in Don Draper is pretty much bad with moments of goodness, under the surface, he would love to be loved and to give love, he would love to find a world of goodness and purity and beauty and truth and spirit as much as saints do.

And it would go the other way around also: Even saints have a dark side (as can be seen by reading the autobiographies of actual saints).

To understand a cultural phenomenon like a film, we have to see it in its historical context. Jung's idea that dreams are often compensation applies here. Roughly speaking, films are to civilizations what dreams are to individuals. If a man has a series dreams of a murderer, it is natural for him to worry about himself: "What is happening? Why am I dreaming of murder? Am I really, deep down inside, a murderer?" And it is natural for people who analyze the series Mad Men to worry about our civilization: "What is happening? Why are programs featuring such bad people so popular? Is our culture disintegrating?"

But just because a man dreams of murderers doesn't necessarily mean he wants to or will kill someone. It is possible, for example, that the man was overly nice and loving and was always being taken advantage of and the dream is balancing out this weakness with a stronger side of him. It is trying to bring out the other half of him, balance him out, to preserve the whole.

And it can be the same in films: Just because popular series are featuring bad men, it doesn't mean that those who love these series are bad. It may be a good thing, a balancing, a compensating for something in the viewers that went too far in the other direction.

But how can we go too far in the good or light direction? And how might we look at this from an historical angle?

The history of humankind covers hundreds of thousands of years. It would be remarkable if there are people who can see today's events in the context of all human history. We should consider ourselves lucky if we can step enough out of our own current experiences to see current phenomena from the point of view of a few decades. If we can manage to climb out and look at ourselves, from outside time as it were, from what angle should we look?

I think it might be fruitful to look at Mad Men from the point of view of life in the 1960's in the United States. One thing that was going on in those days was the rise of an attitude and life style that could, perhaps, be summarized by the slogan of the renegade psychologist, Timothy Leary: "Turn On! Tune In! and Drop Out!" Those who found themselves in the so-called Counter-culture focused on a few types of people who represented to them all they hated and were rebelling against. The image of Madison Avenue advertising men represented, for these New Age people, the old and corrupt and evil way of life. New Age people of the day thought "The Times They are a'Changin" away from the materialism, coldness, and aggression of Madison Avenue to the love, sensitivity, communalism, and idealism of the Haight Ashbury district.

I think it is fair to say that, since the 1960's, the New Age philosophy and life style has been creeping more and more into United States culture in the United States. To take only one example, the idea of growing and eating organic foods is no longer considered a "far out," "New Age" idea but is part of "mainstream" thinking. (This is like "Hard Hat" construction workers now sporting long hair and shaggy beards.)

It is possible that New Age thinking has gone too far and that some contemporary films such as the series, Mad Men, are compensating for the over-extension towards love and sensitivity and sharing and so on. We can also see it as compensaitng the New Age spirituality (which includes a Western style Buddhism) and even, more generally, the whole Judeo-Christian emphasis on community and good deeds and right action and compassion and love and meekness (turning the other cheek).

But how can this be? Many will ask, "How is it possible that love and charity and goodness can be a problem in need of compensation?"

Once again, we can use the Chinese symbol to help us understand: If goodness is only one half of the whole, then evil is necessary. Anything that overemphasizes either side too much will call for a balancing reaction from the other. From the point of view of the Whole, neither side is good and neither bad: What is bad is an imbalance, and what is good is balance.

What is wrong with an overemphasis of goodness?: Naive goodness is dangerous. Don Draper was raised in an unkind and unloving environment, but it can be just as dangerous to have been raised in a kind and loving and supportive one. A person raised in a safe environment can come to believe the world is safe and that people are, at bottom, good. They can believe that the world is like a big nursery and that, if there is any trouble, they can turn to pretty near anyone for love and support and help. But the world is not like this. There are wolves as well as lambs, snakes as well as mice. Anger, fear, cold observation and assessment, strength, cleverness, mistrust, aggression are virtues in their right place. 

Even more, when people are mean we do get angry, like it or not, and this invovles becoming cold towards them. If we insist on an attitude and posture of love and kindness, the anger and coldness does not go away. It goes underground as the second half of our whole personalities. So good, nice, loving people, if they live at all in this difficult world, will also have another half, and it is important that these two halves come into some sort of harmony and balance.

Further, much goodness is a tactic to get what we need. Those who "turned on, tuned in, and dropped out," those in the "counter-culture," were often as angry and mean-spirited as anyone when they got crossed. They even turned on those who supported them and gave them money and love. And often, in their own way and rationalized by their New Age philosophies, they were as irresponsible to others and as self as any of the advertising men on Madison Avenue as pictured in Mad Men.

Just as those on Madison Avenue often had a touch of the counter-culture (an example from the series is how the ad men smoked marijuana), those in the counter-culture often had a touch of Madison Avenue and sold themselves as gurus and healers and political saviours.

If a Mad Men watcher admires Don Draper, does this mean the person has fallen into (or is about to fall into) the dark side of life? It can: I read that the sales of Lucky Strike cigarettes and Canadian Club whisky have risen since Mad Men started — Don Draper smokes Lucky Strike and drinks Canadian Club.

But even this excursion into the Wild side of life must be viewed from a different angle. If love and hate are both necessary parts of a whole, how can either be evil? Take away evil, and there is nothing. Too much evil can destroy the whole, but so can too much good. And this is true in a very practical sense, not in an abstract sense.

What is really needed, returning once again to the symbol, is both extremes in balance with neither running away and dominating the other. We need to be weak and sensitive and trusting and relaxed at the right time and place and in the right way, and we need to be strong and cold and and tense and angry and aggressive at the right times and the right places and in the right way.

Ideally, and it seems to be a possibility for some people in reality, for the two poles to come together and fuse so that there is an ongoing consciousness of the depth of the evil around us and in us that co-exists and is combined with an ongoing search for the finer and higher and more spiritual parts of life.

It is easy and natural for people and for cultures to swing back and forth between extremes. Regarding the opposites on which we are focusing, the tension between Love and War is as old as the Sun and Moon. When Love prevails, War goes underground and falls into the unconscious. When War prevails, the forces of love fall into the unconscious but are still active. It seems Consciousness does not like opposites and has trouble holding them together, side by side and in focus.

Perhaps the popularity of such series as Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad, indicate a compensation for the values and thinking of the New Age counter-culture and the beginning of a swing in the other direction. But it also may be the beginning of an integration of opposites, an attempt to hold both poles in consciousness at the same time, an attempt to resolve the problem of Love and War in ourselves, in our culture, and in the whole World.

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