Don Draper of 'Mad Men' Weeps Up a Storm

Are men's sobs and tears signs of emotional breakthrough?

September 3, 2010, 3:16 AM

Sept. 7, 2010 — -- Don Draper's hard shell had to crack at some point, and the long anticipated Humpty-Dumpty moment finally arrived in this week's "Mad Men" episode.

Draper -- played full throttle by Emmy-nominated Jon Hamm -- let out a flood of tears and sobs made all the more poignant by the character's profound sense of loss.

In this most recent episode, Draper got a phone message that he'd been dreading.

In one of this season's previous shows, he and viewers learned the kernel of what was to come. Anna Draper had terminal cancer. Anna was the widow of the soldier named Don Draper who was killed in the Korean War and whose identity was stolen by Dick Whitman, the birth name of Hamm's character.

In flashbacks over various episodes, viewers saw how Anna -- played by Melinda Page Hamilton -- divorced Hamm's Don Draper, so that he could marry Betsy. In turn, Draper had provided for Anna, buying her a home in California, and developing a deep enduring friendship that is often the hallmark of long married couples.

Of course, Anna knew first-hand her friend's darker side. He had, after all, swiped her dead husband's dog tag while in battle during the Korean War. But she had also seen his caring nature the way few people in his life had. And she loved him unconditionally.

So, after Draper made the call that confirmed Anna had died, he was bereft. As he threw his upper body onto the desk, he shared with his colleague Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) that the person he'd just lost was the only one in his life who truly knew him.

"When a man experiences extreme loss -- often the loss of a significant person through separation or death -- the façade cannot be held together," said William Pollack, a psychologist in private practice in Boston, and also associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

In Draper's case, the façade is huge. He's used his brilliant professional ad-man skills to eclipse the more sordid parts of his life -- the stolen identity, marital infidelities and insensitivity to his children.

"In Draper's case, what looks like a hardened psychological mask is something much more fragile than people around him imagine," said Pollack, the founder and director of The Centers for Men and Young Men, in Boston. "Hardness is always supported by a fragile background." Pollack said he believes the reason Draper postponed making the call was that he was frightened about what the depth of his response to the news might be.

How fragile is Draper?

"Because of his early upbringing, Draper is a highly traumatized individual," said Michael J. Diamond, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles whose specialty is masculinity and male development.

"When his emotions suddenly break through, the depths of his wounds are exposed," Diamond said. "The unfeeling traits we've seen from him are a defense and show us how deeply damaged and highly defended he is."

Don Draper isn't the first male movie or television character -- or real life celebrity, for that matter -- who has visibly taken his emotions to the teary-eyed level.

Playing Willard in "Apocalypse Now," Martin Sheen wept for his broken heart. In "Se7en," the law enforcement agent played by Brad Pitt wept for his wife.

And in an unforgettable piece of television history, Johnny Carson teared up while watching Bette Midler sing him wishes as he left the "Tonight Show."

Several years ago, a movie-fan discussion forum on discussed a top 10 list of male crying scenes. Among the teary actors, posters included Robert De Niro, Tom Cruise, Liam Neeson, Eric Bana, Christian Bale, Jim Carrey and Sylvester Stallone.

One post listed several films in which Mel Gibson emoted to tears, with the comment, "Mel is a real cryer it seems."

Sean Penn's performance in "Dead Man Walking" elicited this response: "It's probably the only male crying scene that almost got me going."

What does Draper's crying spell bode for future episodes?

Diamond, who's also associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA, and author of "My Father Before Me: How Fathers and Sons Influence Each Other throughout Their Lives," says we've already seen big changes in this character this season.

"We've seen Draper's underlying depression, which shows he's actually maturing," Diamond said. "It's only when he sees people as separate individuals -- not as objects that he can use -- that he becomes mature enough to experience depression. He's beginning to see people in a whole new way."

Viewers will undoubtedly see a disconnect between Draper's being brought to tears at the loss of Anna, and his letting his wife Betty divorce him without much hint of emotional turmoil on his part.

"Draper relied and depended more on Anna's love than he did on Betty's," Pollack said. "It's not until men allow their emotions to emerge that they can actually decide whom they love and what they genuinely value."

Peggy, having her own secrets and a professional ambition well matched with Draper's, seemed poised to step into the role just vacated by Anna. When Don tells her that the person he lost was the only person who really knew him, Peggy said, "That's not true."

For viewers familiar with the program time frame of the '60s -- when men typically withheld just about every emotion except anger -- watching Don Draper's transformation can be a validation. As for younger male viewers, it can be a cautionary tale.

"It can help us rethink how we'd like to be," Pollack said. "Both men and women can both store and express strong emotions and, when emotional expression doesn't occur, it can affect us physically."

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