I’ve often wondered, when I hunker down on the sofa to watch Mad Men—as I’ve done Sunday evenings for the previous four seasons—what it is I’m watching. Surely it’s among the most well-written shows on television—I think this because I’m led to believe it accurately represents the past. I’m routinely shocked by the way the characters act, and I think, incredulously, “Was it really like that back then?”
But then I remember Mad Men is a show written largely by people who were either not alive yet or were very young during the 1960s. Creator Matthew Weiner’s relentless pursuit of authenticity has been frequently noted, but how can we really trust his and his writers’ version of the 1960s? And why does it matter whether fiction pays any mind to verisimilitude anyway?
Still, the show’s characters could not feel so real and realized if the writers merely paid careful attention to history. That’s why Weiner employed Hilary Jacobs Hendel as a Mental Health Consultant for the show’s first four seasons.
A psychotherapist on the Upper West Side, Hendel first met Weiner at Wesleyan, and the two became reacquainted years later in Manhattan prior to the start of Mad Men. At first, her work on the show was informal: answering the phone when he’d “call me up and just start talking.” During those conversations Weiner would ask, “If this and this happened, what do you think would happen next?”
“Freud posited that Betty could develop or induce a numbness in her hands to prevent her from actually hurting or killing someone.”
One of their early discussions focused on an idea Weiner had in mind for Don Draper’s ex-wife Betty in the first season: her hands going numb. Hendel recalled a Freudian case of hysterical numbness. “One way to understand that is through the suppression of anger. If Betty’s anger was so strong as to lead to unconscious violent fantasies, Freud posited that Betty could develop or induce a numbness in her hands to prevent her from actually hurting or killing someone,” she said. Keeping things in check seems to be a hallmark for many of Mad Men’s characters: The biggest things that happen are more often internal and hidden than outward and concrete.
In the middle of the first season, Betty’s therapist speaks with Don about how her sessions were going. Hendel said this was inserted on purpose, but was not meant to make viewers believe that’s what was done 50 years ago. “He was a period analyst who was unethical,” she said. He also allowed Betty to smoke during her therapy, which even then was not proper psychoanalytic technique. “It’s considered acting out. You would want her to say, ‘I feel like smoking because I’m tense or I’m anxious.’ When she smoked, Freud would say that would release the tension. She would never be able to describe what’s bothering her.”
Small twists like this remind us that we’re not just watching a show about how people were, but how people are, which is probably the key to Mad Men’s success. While being very much of a particular time, it is still timeless. “Humans are humans,” Hendel said, “and we still have asymmetries and hierarchies. What makes it about the sixties is really the details: the clothes, the smoking, the drinking—and, of course, the attitudes: the sexism, the misogyny.”
But television doesn’t just exist by itself; it is seen through the lenses of millions of viewers, who can each read what they want into what they see. So does it even matter what things are really like, that the show achieves a sense of accuracy? After all, Shelly Lazarus, Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather—and someone who ought to know—said the show gets a lot right. “I joined the advertising industry about 15 years after the Mad Men era, but the portrayal of women in Mad Men strikes me as having to be very close to accurate. All the ‘professional’ women I met in the industry had started as secretaries. A lot of the wives had started as secretaries in the office. A certain constant flirtatiousness was part of the flavor of the office.”
So what does the show get wrong? Lazarus says there was “no drinking in the office. One retired across the street to the favorite watering holes for that.”
“I think much of television functions around the possibility of it being ‘live,’ given its status as a broadcast medium, which suggests it also has the possibility of being ‘true’ or ‘real,’” says Amelie Hastie, Chair of the Film and Media Studies Department at Amherst College,. “So I think that the attempt to integrate ‘reality’—or at least accuracy—into fictional programming has much to do with its roots as a medium.” We’re used to writers striving for authenticity and believability, while also offering new perspectives on the same clichéd storylines.
One of the clichés Mad Men often deals with is “discretion is the better part of valor.” Hendel remarked that there’s a line between discretion and secrecy. “Secrecy is problematic, but discretion is a good thing, right? There’s something about being aware of others, respecting boundaries.” We agreed, for instance, that account executive Pete Campbell and organizational psychologist Faye Miller treated their inside knowledge of Don’s mysterious past with discretion, but that it was Don’s secret.
Secrecy transcends the show itself to encompass its staff. Hendel rarely knew what the writers used of what she had given them until she watched it like the rest of us. And I had no designs on extracting secrets from her anyway. Really, I just wanted to find out what a show would do with a Mental Health Consultant. After establishing that, we dished—to the extent a psychotherapist dishes, anyway.
Peggy would make a great patient, Hendel told me. “She’s on the cusp of liberation; she wants to transcend her childhood and her station as a woman and a secretary. [Therapy] would be a catalyst for her feeling more and more confident.” The character most in need of therapy is Betty. “Because [she’s] so terrible to the children, it feels most important in terms of looking at the intergenerational transfer of trauma, which is what happens—she doesn’t know any better and she’s narcissistic herself and mean to the kids. That’s the emergency right there.”
Hendel pointed out that Don’s non-verbal communication, in his body and his facial expressions, was fairly miserable, especially in the fourth season.
The big question to me is why viewers care about Don Draper. He’s a womanizer, an addict, a liar, and a boss—and yet. Hendel pointed out that his non-verbal communication, in his body and his facial expressions, was fairly miserable, especially in the fourth season. “Have you heard of mirror neurons?” she asked. “Let’s say you watch something, like an accident or somebody feeling sad. You’ll lay down a temporary track of neurons as if it’s happening to you so that you’ll feel feelings that are associated with that.” We have an almost involuntary desire to sympathize with someone in such dire straits. “I feel like Don is wanting help so badly. He’s really searching,” she said. “He wants to be right, he wants to be better.” Unfortunately, therapy in the 1960s was relegated only to last-resort status. Today, in certain pockets of this country, Hendel explained, “seeing a therapist is like going to the gym: it’s part of a healthy lifestyle.” Don needs someone to convince him that it’s “actually not shameful—it’s very strong to get help.”
If she had Don as a patient, would Hendel have advised him against acting impulsively on a feeling, as he did with the full-page New York Times ad, his Jerry Maguire moment? “I would help him elaborate in fantasy what he feels like doing, to play the whole thing out in his fantasy, to help him understand what he hopes to achieve, and then get realistic about what he thinks could happen.” But that assumes that Don would be a willing party to therapy in the first place; he would need someone to help him reach that conclusion.
That person could have been Faye. In an episode toward the end of the fourth season, she stayed with Don after he suffered a panic attack, and made him comfortable enough in her presence to reveal his hidden past to her. “What causes psychopathology, people believe now, is dealing with overwhelming emotions in the face of being alone,” Hendel said. Don fears solitude—as does nearly every character on Mad Men. But that fear doesn’t drive everyone to open up. When Pete Campbell wrestled with how to handle his knowledge of Don’s secret, his wife Trudy implored him to share with her, but to no avail.
Many characters on the show exist as two selves; not an interior and exterior self, but the way they are at work and the way they are at home. For most, they are closest to themselves at home, while presenting a more professional face during business hours. But for Pete, he is more comfortable in his office skin, and his lack of emotional intimacy with Trudy is telling of that fact. When their daughter was born, Pete decided to attend an industry funeral instead of visiting the hospital.
Hendel herself seemed equally comfortable in both realms. Sitting in the dining space in her apartment over seltzers and a ramekin of hummus, she was every bit a therapist, often turning my questions back on me: “But what do you think?” So was I interviewing the person, Hilary Jacobs Hendel, or the professional, the Mental Health Consultant? Does it matter in terms of finding out what her role was really like? She suggested that her influence on Mad Men was akin to her influence on this article. “How would you describe what you’re getting from me? I know that I have an effect. I’m speaking and someone’s listening.”