It’s been ten years since Mad Men premiered, and it’s safe to say that American pop culture has never been the same. From the effect it had on the fashion world to the rise of cocktail culture to the myriad of 60s-set knockoff shows it inspired, few other TV shows in recent memory can boast the far-reaching impact it had on the world at large. While other websites are honoring Mad Men’s anniversary with retrospectives and analyses of the series’ legacy, I’d like to look at a long neglected but bizarre aspect of the series that hasn’t gotten the attention it perhaps should. Namely, within the confines of the series’ universe, sleeping with Don Draper apparently makes you go insane.
Now, this is never a plot element explored in the show; the series never draws attention to it. But there is a bizarre and somewhat consistent pattern of Don Draper’s sex partners entering into their relationship as sensible, rational human beings and coming out the other end as raving lunatics. Don’t believe me?
Let’s consider it for a moment.
The first woman in Don’s life that we meet in the series is his mistress, Midge Daniels. An artist who walks the line between boho-girl and square businesswoman as easily as Don navigates his multiple personalities, she’s probably one of the most well-put-together depictions of a member of the counterculture ever put onscreen, eschewing black turtlenecks, tiny glasses, and dimly lit cafes in favor of what’s probably a more accurate picture of a serious artist trying to make it in early 1960s New York. After remaining Don’s mistress for most of Season 1, they part ways. She resurfaces a few seasons later as a tract-mark-addled, babbling mess who insinuates that she’ll prostitute herself to Don in exchange for smack money. A far cry from the savvy businesswoman we saw in Season 1, but an artist succumbing to drug addiction isn’t exactly an anomaly; taken within the context of Don’s other lovers, though, it speaks to something more sinister…
The next woman we meet is Don’s longest-running partner over the course of the series, Betty; and, in proportion to the amount of time she’s spent in Don’s life, she also has the most bombastic downward spiral. Beginning the show as the embodiment of 1950s idealized femininity, Betty doesn’t just get fed up with Don’s philandering—she straight up breaks bad. From opening fire on a flock of birds in her backyard to terrorizing her daughter, the stress of her relationship turns Betty from one of the show’s most sympathetic characters into a domestic monster straight out of a Lifetime movie. She reaches her zenith of evil when—in a story arc worthy of Machiavelli—she emotionally manipulates her married best friend into having an affair with their riding instructor, just for the evulz. The effects of her transformation even prove to be far reaching—long after she splits from Don and marries the kinder, faithful Henry Francis, Betty can’t help but fly off the handle and continue her creepy campaign of emotional abuse against Sally. As flashbacks and the early episodes indicate, though, Betty wasn’t always some cold psycho waiting for the perfect opportunity to emerge—and Don is placed squarely at the center of her transformation.
Don’s third partner in Season 1 is Rachel Menken, a tougher, savvier version of Midge. Her entry into Don’s life ultimately serves as one of the catalysts for the slow transformation which proves to be the story arc of the entire series. Initially rebuffing Don’s advances, she ultimately hooks up with him in the final third of Season 1, betraying all of her hard-defended religious and ethical reasons for not wanting to sleep with a married man already having an affair with another woman; and, were it not for the revelation that Don was simply looking for an escape from his white-collar existence, she was ready to throw over her own business to run off with him, in defiance of her hard-fought attempts to keep her family’s legacy alive.
The pattern tapers off in Season 2, mainly because Don only has one major affair—this time with Bobbie Barret, an agent who seems pretty cracked from the get-go. Moving into Season 3, though, we find proto-hippie schoolteacher Ms. Farrell falling under Don’s sway. She starts out, like Rachel, as a level-headed, intelligent career woman who shrugs off his advances. Like Rachel, though, all of her principles eventually go out the window (hey, no judgment—if I were gay and Jon Hamm pursued me that aggressively…). How nuts does Ms. Farrell go? To put it in perspective: she and Don stop by the Draper house for him to grab some stuff so they can take a trip together. Betty confronts Don with evidence of his secret life. They have a very, very long talk. A “literally up all night crying” talk. And what does Ms. Farrell do? She waits. In the car. In the driveway.
It speaks to a level of obsessiveness that the Ms. Farrell of early Season 3 didn’t display at all. Thankfully, the driveway slumber party turns out to be the end of she and Don’s relationship—at the rate they were going, things were bound to move into Fatal Attraction territory.
Season 4 finds Don juggling two potential new love interests: Dr. Faye Miller, who seems to have more insight into his tortured psyche than any woman he’s met yet, and Megan Calvet, a much younger secretary who nonetheless seems to be a better mother figure to Don’s kids than the rigid Faye. It’s on that count that Don opts to marry the latter, beginning what’s initially the healthiest, most open relationship we’ve seen him in. As the series progresses, though, we get what appears to be Betty Draper Redux: Though Don cleans up his act, remains faithful to Megan, gets her a higher-paying job at the company and is all around not the bastard he was in Seasons 1-3, weird new cracks begin to appear in Megan’s heretofore sane exterior. She slowly becomes manipulative and controlling. She starts experiencing weird mood swings. She grows paranoid and accusatory; her previous level-headedness and rational nature slowly disappear into a swirl of impulsivity and pettiness. For no apparent reason organic to the plot or her character arc, the Megan of Season 4 and early Season 5 is gone by the time she departs the series in the middle of Season 7, leaving Don after a bitter divorce and barking at him “you ruined my life” and storming off to the hellish existence that is her successful acting career and six-figure settlement. Why the slow yet noticeable change? What, barring severe mental illness, could cause someone to completely transform into a different, terrible person in just a few short years? What could be responsible?
The show toys with the idea that there’s something otherworldly about Don’s magnetism. His raw, animal, sexual appeal is so palpable that it’s literally irresistible. Women throw over their marriages and long-term relationships for him (of his multiple partners, at least four are married). They risk or end their careers to sleep with him (though we don’t see the consequences onscreen, Ms. Farrel makes it clear that if anyone ever found out about Don, she’d lose her job). Don Draper’s sex appeal, the show basically implies, is a drug—powerful, narcotic, and addictive (several women with whom Don breaks up in earlier episodes later reappear asking for desperate, post-breakup sex, including Sylvia and even Betty). In that context, it isn’t too far afield to think that, like most drugs, there are consequences to long-term abuse—as we see with Megan and Betty. Hooking up with Don Draper is like seeing one of H.P. Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones—the experience is so revelatory that it breaks down all perceptions of reality, allowing an individual to witness something so awesome that they can never be the same again. Worse still, there’s a persistent pattern of the women in Don’s life dying prematurely. Betty was always a heavy smoker, so her demise at about age 38 isn’t too much of a stretch—until you consider that less than 2% of people diagnosed with lung cancer are under 45. Then, Don learns near the end of the series that Rachel Menken, too, died young; like Betty, she perishes in her thirties, though from leukemia—another disease that statistically strikes older individuals. Of course, we can’t forget Anna Draper, the widow of the man whose identity Don stole in Korea. Though the show indicates that Don never consummated his faux marriage with her, he also spent a considerable amount of time living under her roof; and, as any fan remembers, she, too, dies young, at the conclusion of the heart-wrenching episode “The Suitcase.”
Perhaps in correlation with its cultural impact, Mad Men’s appeal has lingered far longer than that of many other Golden Age of Television series, and Don Draper will probably continue to live on as a modern cultural archetype for years in the popular consciousness. The next time you’re fantasizing about being—or being with—Don Draper though, keep something in mind: You might not survive intact.