Millions of Americans tuned in last night to watch the final episode of “Mad Men”, the AMC series that for the last eight years followed the professional and personal travails of Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, Joan Holloway Harris, Betty Draper Francis and many other memorable and complicated characters. If you’re a fan, you already know, too, that the show prominently featured storylines about addiction and mental health issues. So as we say good-bye to the “Mad Men” era, it seems only fitting to take a look back to consider the show’s impact.
“Mad Men” has already made plenty of “best-TV-shows-ever” lists, for any number of reasons: the masterful writing and characterization; the probably unparalleled (in a TV show) verisimilitude of sets and fashions depicting mid-century America; the skillful handling of complex cultural phenomena during the 1960s and ’70s, a period of tremendous social change: the dramatically shifting role of women and minorities, Vietnam, the moon landings and the death of JFK, to name just a few. Whether we tuned in to witness Betty’s many mothering faux pas, Peggy’s ambition, Peter and Trudy’s tumultuous relationship, Sally’s tortured teenage years or yet another arrogant, insensitive (and hilarious) zinger from Roger, millions of us did watch, avidly.
You won’t be surprised to hear that at Addiction.com we’ve been especially interested to see how this groundbreaking series has shown and talked about substance use and abuse, addiction and mental health. Much has been written already about Don’s alcoholism (though he’s far from alone in this among the show’s characters, of course). Over the years, viewers also saw Roger’s LSD trips, copywriter Michael Ginsberg’s mental breakdown and self-imposed “nipple-ectomy” (triggered by the office super-computer), Freddy Rumsen’s step toward sobriety in joining AA and the reappearance of one of Don’s many paramours as a heroin addict in search of money for her next fix. (Take our quiz, “How Much Do You Know About ‘Mad Men’?”, to jog your memory about some of the scenes, storylines and characters related to addiction and mental illness.)
But rather than our parsing any role that “Mad Men” may have played in how we see addiction, and ourselves, for that matter, we instead asked six experts in the field of addiction treatment to weigh in on the show’s impact. Here’s what they said.
“’Mad Men’ does exactly what the ad industry does – it draws people in with apparent glamour. Just as the period itself seems so glamorized, and as we look deeper, past the copy, we see all the fine print that the glamour intends to hide. Such is also the way with the smoking and drinking. On the surface, it seems part of an intense glittering world, and as we look beneath the surface, we see all the problems related to it … particularly with drinking … so, in short, it draws us in through glamour, and yet hopefully conveys the deeper truth once we’re hooked. – Paul R. Puri, MD, psychiatrist
“Alcohol is a ‘character’ in the office: It provides the connection as a host would do in a social setting; it represents loosened-up boundaries and lets [people] connect on a human level. It serves as a way to be less rigid, conveying being open and willing to participate in the [scene]. Alcohol also serves as a confidante, a soothing companion when alone and contemplating, always available and willing to be present with the character. Alcoholism and addiction is insidious and seductive in its early introduction, providing a sense of connection with others … [it] loosens up inhibitions, appears fun and is always available, the progressiveness is that it becomes a person’s dependency (chemical dependency) and one needs more to get the same effects and can ultimately end up isolating individuals … and potentially have serious health and life risks.” – Lisa Bahar, MA, CCJP, LMFT, LPCC, founder of Lisa Bahar Marriage and Family Therapy, Inc.
“The problem with addiction is that it can be – excuse my language, but it must be said — a mind f***. Our culture has a tendency to glorify the beauty and effects of it. In film and television, we view messages that if we drink, we will be the life of the party, get the girl, be [viewed as] glamorous, have fun and achieve success. We begin to be twisted and brainwashed into believing that drinking and drugs are cool and fun. That it’s the ‘in’ thing to do. Many of us remember [‘Bewitched’]: Samantha Stevens preparing the evening cocktail for Darrin when he came home from his hard day at the office dealing with Larry Tate. That mid-evening martini seemed amazing. On ‘Mad Men,’ we watch the same fascination with alcohol; men and women are drinking in the office as part of their everyday routine. Every social and business event invites a drink. Images in the media are powerful. They rule a nation and brainwash a society. ‘Mad Men’ is a reminder of where we’ve come from, but now we are a world flooding rehabs and morgues with pill overdoses. Our children are overmedicated. It is no longer a joke. It is no longer light entertainment. The glamour of characters who drink on TV is a reflection of how much healing our world really needs.” – Audrey Hope, addiction specialist and counselor
“The message I believe the show clearly attempted to send is that in the 60s and 70s no one even used the words ‘addiction,’ ‘sex addict,’ ‘functioning alcoholic’ or ‘sexual harassment.’ People in power positions were beyond reproach. Hopefully, the public views this show as a history lesson versus glamorizing ‘the good ole days.’ There was a lot of ignorance and entitlement and hedonism, particularly during and after the war … a pointless war, no less. I encourage 20-somethings who are fans and parents whose teens are fans [of the show], to educate themselves on these tenets so that we can appreciate the beauty of those times as well as the lessons learned from the growing pains of our culture.” – Nancy B. Irwin, PsyD, CHt, therapist and clinical hypnotist
“Watching ‘Mad Men’ is like going back in time — the fashions, the politics and also the social norms, including what were considered acceptable habits of the post-war movers and shakers, and that included smoking and drinking. When ‘Mad Men’ first aired, everyone [on the show] smoked: in the office, during meals and on elevators. That’s what it was like in that era and they were showing it perfectly. But at the same time, it also glamorized an unsafe habit — beautiful people lighting up and looking sexy. We know now that smoking is actually anything but sexy. It is dirty and dangerous and deadly. Another acceptable societal routine was having drinks at work. Don Draper was the king of looking suave in his Manhattan office, swirling his drink while pondering life … But as the series progressed, his drinking got worse, and so did his life. I think the message we saw here was that it might look cool to be the king with a cocktail, or three, but in actuality, Don was spiraling out of control and you could see that by how he goes from the top to almost losing everything to trying to clean up his act to … knowing he’s not perfect, knowing he has a problem but not knowing how to fix it. ‘Mad Men’ is giving us a peek at how this era dealt with addiction. They didn’t have the open dialogues and resources that are available today and so many people suffered because of it.” – Joanne Sprecher, CADC, outreach manager at The Discovery House Treatment Center
“It’s a slippery slope as an addict watching a show where the main actors are so comfortably and regularly drinking. Even Mr. [Jon] Hamm has found himself recently dealing with his own alcohol addiction. With all that said, I do like the writing on the show.” – Hotse B. Langeraar, founder of Meridian Treatment Solutions, Inc.
So what do you think? What message did ‘Mad Men’ send about addiction and mental illness?
Photo courtesy of AMC