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March 27, 2012

Mad Men on the Couch

Introducing the latest must-read book for the Mad crowd

By Felicia Feaster

Clinical psychologist Dr. Stephanie Newman delves into the intricacies of Don Draper’s demons and the roots of Betty Draper’s frosty nature, as well as the major hang-ups of the rest of Mad Men’s confoundingly complex characters, just in time for the show’s much-hyped season five premiere

Betty and Don Draper of AMC's  Mad Men. Betty and Don Draper of AMC's Mad Men.













Sure, there’s the eye candy of the meticulous, Mid-Century Modern sets and wardrobe and celluloid-perfect mugs of actors January Jones, John Hamm, and Christina Hendricks. But part of the escapist thrill of the AMC's Emmy Award-winning show Mad Men is also watching people with deliciously strange hang ups.

Hang ups very much unlike our own.

The women of Mad Men are repressed and unable to operate freely. The men are utterly uninhibited: drunkards and womanizers, yet none of them happy with their absolute freedom to behave badly.  On the eve of the permissive Sixties, the advertising executives at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) still struggle with the ghosts of World War II, a distinct class system and rigid rules of social behavior. Hovering around these Madison Avenue masters of the universe are the wives, lovers and female co-workers: Don Draper’s ex-wife and professional housewife Betty Draper-Francis (January Jones), the ambitious ad-woman Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and the incredibly efficient, bombshell office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks).

Just in time for the debut of the fifth season of  Mad Men, following an excruciating 18-month hiatus, comes even more opportunity to wax philosophical about the show’s seemingly impenetrable characters and their fascinating neuroses and obsessions.

Any fan of Mad Men can tell you that these characters have, in the distinctly 21st century vernacular, “issues.”

Handsome advertising executive Don Draper is a narcissist. His former wife, the Grace Kelly blonde, Betty Draper, is a love-withholding mother.

But rather than some armchair psychologist’s amateur theories, these assessments come from clinical psychologist / psychoanalyst Dr. Stephanie Newman, the author of the newly minted Mad Men on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show (Thomas Dunne Books). Newman scrutinizes the show’s characters as if they were real and offers professional insights into their unique circumstances, and also the culture of the era--when women were discouraged from working and men had very little obligation on the home front. Her book is essentially an obsessive Mad Men fan’s dream: decoding and explaining these complex creatures conjured up by writer/creator Matthew Weiner and brought to life in the vivid performances of the actors who play them.

“Its characters are so psychologically compelling that fans of the show watch to see them navigate their difficult and complicated relationships—and to puzzle over what exactly makes them tick,” says Newman.

And it’s not just our own ability to scrutinize and analyze these fascinating characters that drives interest in the show. “Watching Mad Men,” says Newman, “provides an escape from our more cautious and more anxious modern sensibilities,” when fear of such things as high cholesterol, disease and economic ruin temper much of our behavior. 

Newman’s assessment of these characters are not exactly lightning-bolt surprising. In a nutshell:


Don Draper: The biggest psychological mess of the lot. An unrepentant, unlikely to change narcissist, who aims for connection and closeness to his mother by bedding a series of women and then dispensing with them, proving he has control over his feelings of loss and hurt.


Roger Sterling: An entitled, privileged narcissist with a tendency to play the victim.


Pete Campbell: A narcissist with daddy issues who has a powerful urge to destroy the woman, Peggy, he desires but cannot have.


Icy wife and mother Betty Draper Icy wife and mother Betty Draper

Betty Draper: Helpless in the face of difficulty, a cold and critical mother.


Joan Holloway: A woman who accepts and works within the limitations of her era, when women are meant to be beautiful and desirable but clearly under the thumb of men.


Peggy Olson: A harbinger of the modern woman, obsessional in her pursuit of a career.



Perhaps there will even be a follow-up to Newman’s book, given the psychological goldmine already presented in episode one of season five. Sample case study: Megan Draper: the babysitter-turned-sudden-wife of ad exec Don Draper, who uses sex, angry house cleaning in her lingerie and a sultry “Zou BIsou Bisou” song and dance routine a la Sophia Loren to reassert her power over her much older, alpha male husband!

Either way, Mad Men is sure to keep all amateur psychologists on the edge of their armchairs.


Mad Men airs on Sundays on AMC at 10 PM

Bombshell secretary Joan Holloway Bombshell secretary Joan Holloway