Mad Men, and Why Your Divorce Doesn’t Have To Be Like Don Draper’s Divorce(s)

This post was a family affair – with substantial insights and contribution from Ginna Freed, Meghan’s mother.  As one half of a 45-year marriage, she is widely considered a better resource on the institution than Don Draper.  She also remembers some of the ’60s, and remains unconvinced by Mad Men’s depiction of the Moscow Mule cultural phenomenon.

mad-men-divorce-couchIn honor/mourning, AMC’s sister networks are blacking out all programming during the series finale of Mad Men this Sunday, May 17th.  AMC will also celebrate/grieve the end of the show’s eight-year run by airing a marathon of every episode starting at 6 p.m. last night.  We leave it to others to watch the marathon and speculate about how Mad Men will end – including the persistent theory that Don is D.B. Cooper and how the airplane references woven throughout the series were no mistake.  When we caught some of the marathon, it got us thinking about Mad Men and divorce as seen through the wandering saga of Don Draper’s divorces.

Divorce has been a constant throughout Mad Men, in large part because of what Roger Sterling so keenly observed to Don, “You’re not good at relationships because you don’t value them.”  Way back when Season Two’s episode “The Mountain King,” aired we learned through flashbacks that – unbeknownst to Betty – Betty and Don’s current marriage had begun with a divorce.  When Dick Whitman returned from the Korean War as “Don Draper,” the real Don Draper’s widow, Anna, later confronted him and told him she knew he wasn’t who he claimed to be.  Don came clean and promised to take care of her, assuming the role of her husband. Ultimately, Anna wound up having one of the most honest and enduring relationships with Don of any woman.  When Don eventually met the young model Betty Hofstadt, Anna happily consented to a divorce so that Don could marry Betty.

Don and Betty’s divorce occurred in the third season’s finale, “Shut the Door, Have a Seat.” Following putting up with years of Don’s infidelity and ultimately learning his true identity, Betty begins a flirtation with Henry Francis, an aide to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.  The flirtation turns into an affair and ultimately leads to a marriage proposal.  Betty and Henry consult with a divorce attorney, who describes the difficulty she would have obtaining a New York divorce. “That’s why people go to Reno.”  A Nevada divorce would require Don’s consent, but little else.  (We wrote more about Nevada “quickie” divorces – and current Connecticut residency requirements – here.)

Betty asks Don for his consent, and Don –  finally in the role of the one cheated on  – tells Betty that she “won’t get a nickel,” and that he intends to seek sole custody of the children.

The next morning, Don and Betty tell the children of the new arrangement.  As one author observed immediately after the episode aired:   “Even Betty had a hard time keeping it together as Don clutched Bobby to hug him goodbye, and so did I. And dear God, aren’t you glad you didn’t have to see the kids meet their New Uncle Henry?”

Later that day, Don calls Betty and tells her that he will not fight her, and wishes her the best. She then travels to Reno with baby Gene and Henry.

More recently, one of Mad Men’s final season episodes, “New Business,” revealed the series’ characters (as my mother observed) “flopping on beds for random, round-the-clock trysts – like fish on a pier – or drinking like them.”

Interwoven in this installment’s multiple threads are the ghosts of complicated divorces past.  Don and Megan in particular, with the “assistance” of Megan’s mother, Marie; and Roger and Pete, Don’s associates, wade through the contentious mire and ultimately reach their own settlement in this, Don’s third failed marriage. Virtually everyone has some experience with the process, and they all tap each other for insight; for example, Pete who is coming to terms with his own divorce, even asks the laconic Don for advice. As Megan tells her sister, Marie-Frances, “In the States, people get divorced all of the time.” Much of the debate, of course, revolves around their theories about rightful shares and just desserts.  All, including the well-intentioned, are understandably clouded by their own experiences and beliefs, unlimited by an understanding of the law.

This episode is pretty rough on divorce attorneys. They never appear on screen and take quite a bit of flack.

For example, in one early scene, Megan calls Don to notify him that the movers will arrive on Wednesday to take her belongings from their apartment. Along with this, she tells him she is out of money: it’s the 24th of the month; she is due her payment and needs $500.00. He asks her how she can be out of money and rails that she has an aggressive lawyer; in fact, he notes, “This is what they do, lawyers.” Meanwhile, she complains she is tired of having to ask for an allowance.

In another scene, Don receives unsolicited but adamant advice from Roger Sterling when a messenger from Megan’s lawyer arrives looking for Don’s signature on some papers. While Don is eager to be done with the aggravating process, Roger strongly (and in the spirit of ’60s chauvinism) advises him “not to settle. He has given her a good life.” Translation: he doesn’t owe her anything.

Megan’s mother, Marie, takes an opposing view of what Don owes Megan.

When she arrived in New York from Quebec with Megan’s sister, Marie-Frances, she had booked an expensive, posh hotel for herself and her two daughters. She has explained to Marie-Frances the accommodations are “for Megan to enjoy and Don to pay for.” And when she is left alone in Don’s Architectural Digest-worthy penthouse apartment on the day the movers arrive to remove Megan’s belongings, she steps in. Megan has indicated only a few boxes, a chair and a table are to be removed. Left to her own devices, however, Marie has virtually everything taken out and leaves only some patio furniture. She tells Megan later, “I took what you deserved.”

Later, Megan and Don wait alone in the lawyer’s office. Megan opens their discussion by stating, “I don’t want anything of yours. …Why am I being punished for being young? …You’re just an aging, sloppy, drunken liar.” Don, who is closing in on the end of his quest for self-discovery, is pensive: “I want you to have the life you deserve. I don’t want to fight anymore.” He writes her a check for one million dollars which she takes. “Send me the papers.” Case closed. Season Seven’s “New Business” ironically concludes with the strains of “C’est Si Bon.” Probably not.

Divorce lawyers are pretty much extraneous, reviled or perfunctory in Mad Men television land where clients are left to flounder in the midst of their personal angst. The dissolving of Don’s marriages, with the exception of his counterfeit marriage to Anna, is dark and miserable. In the real world, however, there is tremendous value in competent legal counsel.

Good lawyers add value and decrease anxiety. People can have reasonable expectations about division of property and custody arrangements so they don’t have to waste time and emotions worrying about things for which they can seek guidance and experience. Competent lawyers can help shield people from nonsense like Marie’s theft of Don’s property or Don’s late alimony payment. They can help parties come to a mutual agreement respectfully and civilly.

Even though divorce can be dark and Mad Men is often really dark, “It doesn’t have to be like this.” Frankly, divorce is a beginning, not just an ending. We see our firm’s role in part as taking care of our clients through a divorce so they can go back to taking care of themselves – and their children if they have them.

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There is a terrific article about the accuracy (or lack there of) of the Mad Men’s depiction of divorce for women in the 1960s here.  Among the observations in the article is that of sociologist and professor Stephanie Coontz, who “doubts someone like Henry would have considered courting a married woman with three young children. ‘In 1964, Nelson Rockefeller could not run for president because he was divorced– anyone with high aspirations, unless he was absolutely besotted with love, would never have considered getting involved in a divorce.'”

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Written by Meghan Freed