Don Draper is an alcoholic. No, not just in season 4 when it’s portrayed as a negative thing – he’s always been an alcoholic. He has – conservative estimate that he told his doctor – 5 drinks a day on average, but he’s almost always drinking hard liquor.
Though his addiction to cigarettes is discussed, his alcoholism isn’t until it began affecting his life. Alcoholism, though, doesn’t always affect people’s lives in such obvious ways. The idea of a ‘functioning alcoholic’ isn’t new, and it isn’t unique to this show.
The office looks down upon and pities Freddy Rumsen for his problem, then mocks him after he comes back to work sober. Duck also abstained from liquor as he was a recovering alcoholic and was looked down upon by his colleagues – and his clients – because of it. His alcoholism cost him two jobs and the respect of his colleagues when he took to the bottle once more.
To them, that’s what alcoholism is – losing control. Losing control of your body, of your actions, of your words. They – and much of society – feel that this is the only true sign of an alcoholic. If you go to work, provide for your family, and do all the right things, there’s no way you can have a problem.
It also ties into gender roles and expectations, because Don Draper is a business man, successful, a good provider, in a stressful job. As part of the time period, that’s what’s expected of him in black and white and other transgressions – not trusting or talking to his wife, his affairs, and his drinking – are not to be talked about. It was also accepted that he was abusive – especially when drinking, especially to women. He also made poor decisions when drinking, including sleeping with clients and getting into a car accident, but they’re seen as a side effect to the rest of his very successful life.
This is a societal barrier to identifying a problem and, ultimately, getting treatment for it.
It’s not to say that the show had to talk about it, as it seemed natural that they didn’t, but looking back on it, I wish they had before Season 4. Perhaps that was the contrast – we know it’s affecting him in season 4 but his actions had only changed so slightly. He was drinking a little bit more frequently, a little bit more enthusiastically, but it still took a while to convey that something serious had changed about him and his relationship with liquor.
Before it was a thing he did. Season 4 it was a thing he had to do.
He stopped being a functioning alcoholic. He stopped having control over it, and it was almost too subtle to notice at first. I’m so pleased that in the Season 5 premiere Megan seems to be a very positive influence on his life and he wasn’t exhibiting the same signs of alcoholism. I hope this is a positive sign of what’s to come.