Season 4 of AMC's Mad Men ended last Sunday. Following some episodes of irritating acting out and uncontrolled anger, Sally Draper spent some of the season in four-times-per-week psychoanalysis with "Dr. Edna" a smart, empathic and calm figure bent on helping her. The last we saw of Sally's treatment was on October 10, in the episode just before the season's finale.
In that show, Dr. Edna told Sally that she was very proud of her for learning to find a way to behave that is acceptable to her mother even though she is still very angry inside. In effect, the psychoanalyst has taught Sally the very necessary duplicity of modern life: You don't do well if you act out your feelings or wear them on your sleeve. But you also don't do well if you bury or disavow them. Calibrate and control your behavior. Be true to your feelings. It's not an easy task, but it appears that Sally's treatment is meant to have given her that achievement.
Unfortunately, it all falls apart after Sally is caught playing with her friend Glen, a boy her mother Betty despises because Betty once revealed her very vulnerable self to him. Betty's infantile and mean spirited decision to abruptly move the family pushes Sally beyond the bounds of her recently won emotional control. Betty continues her anti-maternal rampage in the final episode, when she impulsively fires the children's nanny, who has really been their only source of human warmth and constancy. In a triumph of mid century bad parenting, Betty refuses to let Carla, the Nanny say goodbye to the children -- "it would only upset them." (I think, as a culture, we've made some progress here -- is it not generally more understood that keeping bad news from children does not help them?) When he hears about Betty firing Carla, Henry, her husband, chastises her for her insensitivity to the needs of the children, who have suffered enough loss and disruption in their lives.
We see no more of Sally's hard won gains in therapy, but we are treated to a scene of her as a carefree, happy little girl (something she rarely had a chance to be) while being cared for by her father's cheerful and calm secretary, Megan, pitching in as a baby sitter.
Don watches this domestic scene and seems to be hit by a "coup de foudre" -- that unexpected bolt of lightening that wraps up a sense of crystalline truth and unbearable love. Thus "lit up," Don unexpectedly declares his love for Megan and proposes marriage. Perhaps he fell in love with the image of Megan as the "good mother" -- loving and patient and warm -- something neither he nor his children ever had. Yet at the moment their father grabs this new chance for himself, the children are abandoned once again. One of the most disturbing and powerful elements in this series is its portrayal of parents who are incapable of thinking about the emotional needs of their children.
Even today, the powerful feelings of children are sometimes lost on adults. In the clinical world, too often attention is focused only on controlling a child's bad behavior, and not enough on the complex and disturbing feelings and inner struggles that may only be expressed in behavioral symptomatology. Child psychoanalytic treatment is designed to help a child understand and structure those inchoate feelings. As a psychoanalyst, I am deeply grateful to the writers and producers of Mad Men for including the theme of a child's psychoanalytic treatment in season four, and showing its potential for self-awareness and increased self-mastery as well as its limitations.