Don Draper & Bill W: Mad Men's Open Secret

don1Photo: Courtesy of AMC.
In 1932, William G. Wilson was offered a position in a stock-buying syndicate, with a generous salary and partnership in the business. Aware of his history, his employers insisted Wilson sign a contract under which he would face immediate termination and loss of partnership should he start drinking again.
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Last Sunday's Mad Men ended with a similar deal on the table: Don Draper, the crumbling hero at the center of this series, agreed to a contract stipulating his staying on best behavior — or else. Fearing that dark, unknowable chasm of "else" waiting just outside his terrace door, Don signs. Of course he signs.
It's not the only connection between Wilson and Draper. Both were abandoned as children. Both served in armed combat. Both found successful careers as businessmen in New York City before losing it all in a battle with the bottle. And, both men created a double identity. Dick Whitman emerged from Korea as Donald Draper. William G. Wilson became known simply as Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Bill W. cocreated AA in 1935. He had indeed broken his employers' contract, having stayed dry for a month before one drink at a business meeting sent him into a three-day binge. After years of hard, persistent alcohol abuse, he'd nearly lost his marriage, been hospitalized four times, and pronounced a hopeless case advised to enter a sanitarium for the rest of his days. After hitting bottom in his last hospital bed, he joined the Oxford Group, met Dr. Bob, and the two created the legendary fellowship that would change the world's treatment and understanding of alcoholism forever.
But, Don Draper hasn't hit his bottom.
bill1Photo: Courtesy of Page 124 Productions.
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Alcoholics Anonymous has been the pink elephant in the room for years on Mad Men. We hear the occasional sober fellow attempting a bar-stool conversion; see Freddy Rumsen shame himself out of a job only to return two years later, pronouncing himself "clean and sober." Myriad critics have pointed out the classic phases of chronic alcoholism traced throughout Don's journey. But, at no time has the organization been named, remaining itself an anonymous figure in the show. It’s a haunting contrast in a series that embraces the glamour of the good ol’ days, when business was conducted in a cloud of smoke and bourbon. And, yet, this season, AA is undeniably present.
Don’s inadvertently danced with the 12 steps before, even going so far as to make a "fearless moral inventory" of himself as Dick Whitman resurfaces as his true persona, his own inevitable, ugly truth. But, he still hasn't accomplished step one. He cannot admit that he has a problem — he will not let go and fall.
But, all signs point down this season. As Don inches closer to the ledge (or the balcony or the Hollywood hills — choose your own metaphor), he pulls the rest of his world along with him, the narcissistic character that he is. Betty pays the price for her own cruelty, the Draper children drift into rebellion and rage, Megan collapses into neurosis and failure, and Peggy seems relegated to a lifetime of door-slamming. We're just three episodes in, and the only one having a good time is Roger, and that's just because he's too loaded to realize he's not actually having a good time.
don2Photo: Courtesy of AMC.
Yet, I cannot uncouple these two men in my mind. In 1969, Bill W. had become a legend, a hero to every lost cause, every drunk scrambling at the end of his rapidly fraying rope. That's just where we find Don that very year — marking lines on his whiskey bottles, as if sloppy measuring was the problem all along. (It is also worth noting that Alcoholics Anonymous' first GSO opened not far from the Draper apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side in '69, becoming the home base and distribution center for all AA literature.)
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That's not to say we'll ever see Don walk into a meeting, say the serenity prayer, and meet the man whose story so closely mirrored his own. If it's a choice between "ambiguous and thinky" and "clear and satisfying," Matt Weiner will always choose the mind-fuck. But, the closer we come to the end of this story, the more I think that's where he'll land, if he's lucky. The double life is no longer sustainable, and we know the fall is imminent. We've known that since the first credit sequence in the first episode: The office crumbles beneath him; the man falls, helpless, toward the ground; and the next thing we know, he sits, faceless, smoking a cigarette in a chair — like any other anonymous drunk at a meeting.
Bill, like Don, was no perfect man. The eponymous documentary about his life confirms that he engaged in at least one long-term extramarital affair. On his deathbed in 1971, delirious with illness, he begged for whiskey, a fact that shocked and disillusioned many of his followers. But, of course he did — he was an addict, and trying to put an addict on a pedestal only guarantees that they have farther to fall. And, they will fall, every single time. It's the only way they know how to get back up.
AA is an organization of slogans. Beyond "one day at a time," there are literally hundreds more that a member relies on for their simplicity and ability to condense the message into a tight, catchy phrase to keep in his back pocket: "It works if you work it," "Let go and let God," "Fake it 'til you make it." If there's one man who knows his way around a catchphrase, it's Don Draper, the man who made poetry out of Heinz Baked Beans. For now, he's back at the office, spinning slogans and hanging on to the ledge of his pride and sobriety with a white-knuckle grip.
But, the clock has started, and it's only a matter of time before he sees a bottle and lets go to reach for it. There's another AA slogan that says, "We are only as sick as our secrets." And, Don Draper is more secret than man.
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