In Season Four of the heralded AMC drama Mad Men, Don Draper appeared to be building toward an alcoholic crisis. The child of alcoholics, and himself a dedicated daily drinker even by the standards of the three-martini-lunch set, Don already had endured car accidents, destructive one-night-stands, and many a shaky, sweaty, even bandaged morning after. Then, midway through last season, as he struggled to re-establish his sense of self in the aftermath of his divorce, his drinking escalated. He lost an entire weekend to a blackout, leaving a bar after his greatest professional triumph with an appropriately classy sexual trophy, but waking up two days later with a waitress who somehow knew his real name — signs of the sudden collapse of the identity he had worked so hard to build. Soon afterwards, during an overnight drinking session in the office, he was confronted by a pitifully sloshed Duck, a former colleague now in personal free-fall, who seemed to offer an image of Don’s potential fate.
But after learning the next morning of the death of an old and dear friend, Don was chastened and, without ever speaking a word about it, cut down on his drinking and began swimming laps at the Y. Since then, as he has taken control of other unstable areas of his life, he has returned to constant, but largely controlled, drinking.
This anxious course correction and subsequent drift back to the edges of self-mastery are familiar elements of a slow-surging alcoholism. On the other hand, they might just be the ebbs and flows in the life of a heavy drinker in a heavy drinking culture. In any case, Don’s looming crisis was averted, or deferred, but not really “addressed,” in the manner we have come to expect of such character arcs.
Does it miss the point to think of Don as a potential alcoholic, because his drinking is of a piece with the show’s period and class detail? It does matter that perceptions of problem drinking were different in Mad Men’s time and place. But I think it misses a more fundamental aspect of the show to think of Don as an exceptional hero, untouchable by the ordinary laws of habit formation or even character development. I would say that the references to A.A., the occasional disaster or total collapse that drinking facilitates in other characters, and Don’s dangerous losses of control all suggest that problem definitions of drinking — not nostalgia for a mythical pre-therapeutic America — are ever-present in this fictional world. Mad Men’s writers have shown no interest in making the show “about” alcoholism, but if Don is to fall, it seems likely that alcohol will be a central medium of his demise. This kind of lingering, indecisive addiction plot has become pervasive in the era of the “quality” television drama. Below the fold I discuss some reasons why, and what they might tell us about addiction discourse more generally.
In my last post I discussed what I called metaddiction narratives, or stories about addiction that are more concerned with the nature of such storytelling than with addiction itself. I suggested that rather than clarifying the difference between addiction in itself and its narrative representation, their violations of the conventions of realism actually call into question the nature of this distinction, and further, they blur the line between addiction and universal patterns of habit.
But you don’t need to turn to such exquisitely self-conscious texts to consider the construction of fictional addiction stories and their value in thinking about the real life phenomenon. The longer I study addiction narratives, the more interested I become in stories told for purposes that are far removed from those of public health discourse, therapeutic treatment, psychological data collection, or recovery. Take television drama, for example.
The obvious argument against the classic television addiction plot is that it has to be resolved according to the needs of the format, i.e. quickly and cleanly, with a death or a full recovery. Soap operas, prime time as well as daytime, are notorious for the quickie addiction plot. Beverly Hills 90210, e.g., saw several of its ensemble of lead characters take up addictions to alcohol, drugs, and gambling that lasted a few episodes, or even an entire season, only to recede into the distant background once the character got better and began moving toward a new and unrelated conflict.
I don’t think these minor character arcs are completely untrue to life. I’ve known or heard of surprising numbers of young people who had their own “addiction plots” in high school or early college, stumbling into compulsive habits with pain pills or pot or point spreads, to the point of needing significant intervention, and then heading off (or back) to college without betraying any outward marks of difference to their peer group. Similarly, sometimes older people will run into a spot of trouble with alcohol during a transitional phase in their lives, or after a traumatic event like a divorce, but they eventually come through it more or less whole. Some will object that these are not true addictions, but brief disorders of abuse. I don’t think the diagnostic criteria nor even the brain model are capable of reliably making this distinction, but that’s an argument for another time.
Still, it is true that the way addiction shapes longer life patterns is much harder to represent in the traditional TV formats: the years and years of regular and problematic consumption, the survival of minor crises, the tedious routines of procurement and use, the long stretches when the problem recedes into the background, the growing introversion and isolation, the attempts at moderation and sobriety, the relapsing — these patterns do not make for tight drama, psycho- or otherwise.
And yet, the long-running, award-winning cable dramas have managed to convey these phenomena in various ways. In fact, I would suggest, the new ground they have broken in television realism can be understood via these strategies, and the larger narrative purposes they serve.
One one level, it’s not very surprising. These are essentially psychodramas that need just the kind of pathology that can emerge out of, and be subsumed back into, fast-paced social habits, intense personalities, great success and crushing failure. Addiction is the perfect problem for the type-A TV character, as well as for the weaker souls who fall in his or her path.
Think of Tony Soprano’s nephew Chris Moltisanti (heroin and cocaine), “Nurse” Jackie Peyton (opioid pain pills and ADHD meds), Dr. Gregory House (Vicodin), Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins of The Wire (heroin), and the world of meth addiction that surrounds and transforms Walter White in Breaking Bad.
My thoughts on this phenomenon were prompted by discussions I had with Julian Ryan, a first-year student in my Stories of Addiction seminar last fall, about cable television drama, a particular interest of his. In his final paper, after laying out the conditions for the rise of cable drama and the unique qualities of televisual as opposed to print narrative, Julian proposed the following reasons for the prevalence of addiction as a subplot, rather than a central storyline, in so many of these programs:
- Addiction heightens the stakes of a given character arc, often playing off the established personality traits of the character, but giving them life-or-death consequences.
- An addiction is a relatively simple plot formula to deploy, but it is one that reliably engages viewers with a complex mixture of revulsion, sympathy, hope, exasperation, reflection, etc.
- With its “element of fallibility,” it is a “useful way of corrupting the good characters,” exploring a dark side in them that does not alienate them morally from viewers. In fact, I would add, it can open up for characters a new avenue of moral heroism. Recall, if you can, the alcoholism and recovery arc of Scott Wolf’s Bailey Salinger in Fox’s 1990s drama Party of Five.
- Finally, addiction introduces a “malevolent force” without having to turn to a melodramatic villain. Addicted characters can become conduits for evil, while remaining complex mixtures of good and bad, and still eligible for more decisive turns toward the darkness or the light.
In this insightful genre analysis, Julian in effect argued that addiction is well suited to providing the classical structures of entertaining serial narrative in a genre that seeks distance from those structures’ melodramatic origins.
This way of approaching the subject raises the question of what a medium’s exploitationof addiction, for purposes other than understanding the phenomenon in itself, might actually tell us about it. In some ways the serial television program in this era, despite its fictionality, might be a better medium for representing addiction than its consensus “home genre” of the confessional memoir. Due to a fairly rigid genre tradition and publishers’ reductive need to market a book as either an addiction memoir or something else, I think the memoir is more boxed in by convention than the television series. The solemn terms that authors and publishers use to describe an addiction memoir’s purposes — to share one’s story with the world, to give hope and inspiration, etc. — are a bit vague and, frankly, disguise other motives, like wanting to write a respected and lucrative book. Some of the most successful addiction memoirs are by writers who spent years aiming for literary greatness, only to turn to memoir after they found themselves in recovery and in possession of great material for a story.
The distinction between fiction and nonfiction — while much easier to draw in regards to any given book than some writers would have you believe — is not a reliable guide to the conditions that give rise to the meaning of an addiction story. Addiction narratives, fictional, nonfictional, and even therapeutic and private, are always, on some level, programmatic. They always assert values. They have to, if they are to understand addiction as a problem at all.
Despite the aura of Mad Men‘s historical authenticity, television realism is not about being factually accurate. Nor even is it about finding the trans-factual “essence” of addiction, as in the common formulation that great art contains few facts but much Truth. It is about constructing a world designed to answer particular questions. When we enter such worlds, we accept that the purposes of addiction narrative — the range of things it can plausibly be used to explain — go beyond how accurate or earnest we think the portrayal. In this manner, artistically opportunistic, we might even say exploitative, appropriations of addiction as a narrative subject tell us something about what we think it really is. They betray a more flexible understanding of both art and addiction than we are most of the time capable of articulating. I believe people have a much more capacious and complex sense of how addiction works than they tend to express when asked directly, in questions that call up the official languages of public health, brain science, therapy, and recovery culture.
Nobody really wants to think of the Don Draper character primarily in terms of whether he is an alcoholic or not. That does seem to miss the fullness of the character. And by not doing so — by, ah, “letting go” of the need to isolate and reduce addiction to a thing knowable in itself — we might gain access to a fuller picture of what it really is, and what it means to us.