The theme of this episode for me was the cycle of idealization, disillusionment, and the eventual devaluation. In general, this whole season was about Don’s idealization of Megan and the inevitable disillusionment and devaluation that had to follow as a result, while the season finale had a lot of smaller scale idealizations, disillusionments, and devaluations scattered in it, so this review will be first a psychological discussion of the overall season followed by a discussion of the themes of the finale specifically.
As I’ve mentioned before, Don Draper is a narcissist, and whenever we discuss narcissists we must again review the concept of narcissistic supply. Narcissistic supply is anyone or anything that supplies the narcissist with an ego boost or feeling of validation, no matter how superficial. I give a more in-depth description of the phenomenon here.
Narcissists interact with the world using a false, idealized self, which is a perfectionist persona they feel represents the ideal person they should aspire to be. A major characteristic of the average narcissist is that he’s always chasing an ideal love, a perfect dream mate to go along with this idealized, false self. Narcissists feel if they find this perfect dream mate to be their ideal love, it will finally prove that their false self is also real. This perfect mate will be a mirror that reflects their own perfect persona back at them, thereby verifying this persona is real. The narcissist’s logic is, “if I can find the type of person I picture my false, idealized self being with and make them my real-life partner, that would be the final proof I need that my false, idealized self is in fact the real me.”
So he continues this futile search for a perfect person who will finally deliver them from the toxic shame and the personality disorder that enslaves him. However this search is doomed to fail because there is no such thing as a perfect anything.
At the end of the last season, Don proposed to Megan. He decided she was his ideal, dream lover. He immediately called his current lover at the time, Faye, and discarded her. She was “narcissized.” As Cynthia Zayn says in the book Narcissistic Lovers:
If you believe you have been “narcissized,” you may be experiencing the humiliation of having been “played.” Don’t. First of all, being “narcissized” is completely different from being “played.” The difference deals with “intent.” The difference between a player and an N is that the N really does believe he has found the perfect mate or “ideal love” at the onset of each new relationship. N’s are often compared to alcoholics or drug abusers (as a matter-of-fact, it is said that not all N’s are alcoholics or drug abusers, but all alcoholics are N’s). To an N, his new partner is like a new drug. The possibility that this is “the one” or that he has finally found “ideal love” is what gives him such a high from his new supply (NS)…
This is the idealization stage of any relationship with a narcissist. The narcissist is sweeping you off your feet and is in a state of euphoria. But the problem is, this stage is always accompanied by a later disillusionment and devaluation, where suddenly everything you do is wrong and the narcissist loses interest and starts neglecting and mistreating you. This is called the idealization and devaluation cycle, and it’s a staple of narcissistic relationships, without exception. Whenever we idealize others, we aren’t falling in love with the real person but an image we’ve projected on them, so we’re bound for disappointment, but this is especially true for N’s because they can only deal with themselves and others as fantasy images and objects and never as fully-formed, independent well-rounded people with human flaws:
[T]he N’s partner to him or her is like an object, a shiny new car or tool. Just as a new car eventually loses it’s “newness” and that initial appeal, so does the NS. Oftentimes, before the relationship has officially ended, N’s are already lining up new supply. They have such a subconscious fear of abandonment, due to the origin of their disorder, that they cannot be alone. Narcissists will make sure they have NS before they totally leave the old supply (OS)…
Remember what Faye said to Don when he broke up with her “You only like the beginning of things.” Shiny new toys indeed. And true to form, he had to line up new supply, Megan, before he discarded the old supply, Faye. But what made Megan a better source of supply than Faye, since both of them were almost equally new? What made Don idealize Megan so much more strongly than Faye?
To answer, let’s first backtrack to the idea of N’s being unable to be alone. For proof of that we just have to look at what a horrible spiral Don went through in Season 4 after his divorce, and he was between marriages. This is because without other people to distract him from himself with narcissistic supply, the N is left alone with his inner emptiness and toxic shame, as Zayn describes:
…N’s cannot be alone. They need their supply and often keep information about finding new and different types close at hand. …
…Narcissists don’t like being alone with their “true” selves. They need constant reassurance of their “false” selves. They usually stay busy or surround themselves with people who will mirror the image they wish to project. But when they are alone with themselves, they fear coming face-to-face with their “real” selves…
Zayn also says:
Some alcoholics will even drink vanilla extract just to get a taste of alcohol when there aren’t any alcoholic beverages in the house. They will feel ashamed that they had to resort to that substance, but will take what they can get until something “better” comes along. For an N, his NS [New Supply] isn’t necessarily a “better” partner. She isn’t necessarily better educated or more attractive, she is just “new.” The “newness” is what makes her special to him. When an N is in-between supply, he becomes desperate, just as an addict does, and will do or say anything to get his “fix.”
Remember how when single Don sunk as low as hiring prostitutes to slap and humiliate him? Remember how he had sex with his secretary, a sloppy move he would normally have never done during times when he had steady access to better supply? Those instances were him drinking vanilla extract, getting desperate for a fix.
Don was sick of being alone with himself and constantly being confronted with his inner emptiness and toxic shame. He was dealing with inferior forms of new supply out of an almost junkie desperation. He met Faye and she seemed like a good form of narcissistic supply, but her downfall was when she saw his grandiosity armor collapse and saw the toxic shame and vulnerability he had underneath, and worse, accepted it. Think of the Groucho Marx line, “I don’t want to be part of any club that would have me as a member.” Faye saw Don’s true self and was still willing to be with him and love him. He couldn’t respect anyone who would love and respect Dick Whitman. Plus, from then on she would be a mirror reflecting the real him, Dick Whitman, back at him, rather than reflecting his false, idealized self, which is what the narcissist looks for in his ideal lover. Blogger Jan over at Planet Jan describes it thusly:
Think of the NS (Narcissistic Supply) a Narcissist derives from a victim, who repeatedly returns for more. Inside, the Narcissist feels worthless and unlovable, so he/she views any person who continues to be drawn to him/her as inferior, or to put it bluntly – a loser
Also as Zayn puts it:
If [the Narcissist's] current partner begins to see through the facade he has so carefully created for himself, the “false” self is threatened. He no longer feels as if his partner is reflecting the image he wished to portray. In that case, he needs to find new supply to mirror his “false” self before reality sets in and causes him to dwell on the possibility that he isn’t special, after all. If an N is forced to dwell on that possibility for too long, he often experiences depression.
So we see why Faye’s unflinching look at the true Dick Whitman in all his sniveling glory caused Don to seek out new supply in Megan.
Another problem narcissists have is that even though they are looking for an ideal love, and as a result often idealize new supply in order to make this fantasy a reality, they are too insecure and self-loathing to ever let someone become and remain too perfect in their presence, because they view life as a zero-sum game, and whenever someone else is too much of a winner in the narcissist’s eyes, by the narcissist’s warped logic that confirms the narcissist is a loser. They become very envious. This is the narcissistic idealization double bind.
For example, many children of narcissistic parents complain that their parents were perfectionists who relentlessly pushed them to succeed so that they could bask in the reflected glory, yet at the same time seemed to envy their children and feel threatened by their successes, so they at the same time undermine their confidence and sabotage their children. Narcissists want to build you up because they want you to reflect well on them and make them greater by association, but they don’t want you getting so great that you outshine them, so they end up micromanaging your self-esteem levels, by constantly gauging its levels and applying the praise and denigration when needed in order to keep it at the level which provides them with the most supply. We see Megan’s mom doing this self-esteem balancing act with Megan, offering and withdrawing approval manipulatively and strategically through the episode. Don does this to a degree as well with Megan, although I think Megan’s mother does it much more calculatingly and deliberately. She pushes Megan to be something great she can show off, yet is jealous of the idea of Megan being good enough to surpass her also.
This narcissistic double bind was another reason why Faye was dumped in favor of Megan. Faye was strong and intelligent, which appealed to Don’s ego, but she had the signs of being too strong and too independent and not very maternal, which threatened Don’s ego. Remember how Faye revealed she was not very good with kids when she met Sally while Megan revealed she was pretty good with them. Ostensibly this is because Don wanted someone who would be a good mother to his children, but really Don wanted someone who would be a good mother to him, to the scared little Dick Whitman inside. We saw Megan’s willingness to play the mother role in the season 5 premiere when she did that roleplaying with him of the scolding mother cleaning the apartment.
These are all reasons why I wasn’t surprised when Don dumped Faye after she was exposed to and accepted Dick Whitman, the scared, self-loathing little child. It’s also why I wasn’t shocked when Don idealized Megan and proposed to her. He was alone for what was an excruciatingly long time for a narcissist, he was desperately settling for vanilla extract in the place of the real drug he needs, he thought he found some good supply in Faye but she turned out to be too strong and independent, and she accepted and mirrored his true self rather than his false self, and she accepted his true self in an adult, mature way and not as a surrogate maternal figure.
So all of this gives us clues as to why Don idealized and devalued various women in his past, and it also gives us an idea of why he idealized Megan so strongly, as she was the perfect amount of supply in the perfect form at the perfect time. But all this also clues us into another eventuality as well: Megan will end up devalued at some point, and eventually discarded. Whenever there’s an extreme idealization, there’s always an eventual disillusionment to come that leads to devaluation.
Narcissists are attracted to strength, independence, and any other positive traits they feel are the polar opposite of what they perceive to be their “true” selves. All of Don’s women represented traits he wanted to believe he truly possessed. Note that all of Don’s side chicks were fiercely intellectual, headstrong, savvy, artistic or dynamic in some fashion. Just like people project negative traits they’re afraid to accept about themselves onto other people, people also project positive traits they’re afraid to accept about their true selves on others as well, which is what idealization is.
So when this idealized new object starts showing flaws, even if the narcissist brought out or exacerbated these flaws or insecurities in the partner, the narcissist can now only sees the newly developed negative traits and not his role in bringing them out, and becomes disillusioned and even disgusted by them. The shiny new object has a defect, it lost its “luster,” so now its ruined in the N’s mind and he’s hungry for a new shiny “object” to “love,” a new “drug.”
As Zayn says,
To a Narcissist, “ideal love” is a perfect love without mistakes. Once anything occurs in his relationship that isn’t “perfect,” the Narcissist balks and runs to his next victim.
So what was Megan’s mistake this season? What did she do that made her seem less than perfect? Her big mistake was not acting like an object, or simply an extension of Don, the narcissist. She had the nerve to have her own goals, her own dreams, that were independent of Don. She kept giving evidence that she was a fully formed person rather than just a part of Don’s image. Don acquired her to be a supporting actress in the grand narrative that was his life. Just like in a movie there is the main protagonist and every other character is simply there to flesh him out and define him (the “love interest,” the “best friend,” the “rival,” the “villain), this is what Megan’s job is.
Megan increasingly made it clear to him that she, like all people, was a fully formed character all her own, with her own storyline, her own dreams, her own competing narrative. It had been becoming increasingly apparent to him throughout the season, like when she rejected the dream life and dream job he set up for her that was totally related to his world in favor of her own dream that had no relation to his world, but when he sat there watching her screen test it finally hit him harder than ever, in an undeniable way. And now because of this flaw, the devaluation has truly become irreversible, she has established herself as faulty supply, and it’s only a matter of time until the discarding and the search for new, better supply, which explains the final scenes with the screen test and the fact that he entertains the idea of flirting with the girls at the bar.
Think of it like you bought a splashy new car, or some other object you were excited about owning and showing off. It’s reliable, it’s fulfilling the needs you bought it for, and then one day the car tells you that it has its own schedule and plans for several hours a day. Then it tells you it has its own life and needs and you are going to have to work out some compromise about when you are going to be able to drive it and how you will be allowed to accessorize it and it starts deciding its own paint jobs even. This is how narcissists feel when their partners reject being objects and extensions and assert their individuality. (You can see that Megan’s narcissistic mother has the same conflict with Megan).
In my discussion of the last episode, I mentioned how N’s are shame-based people, and all shame-based people can only view and portray themselves in extremes, as either superhuman beings or subhuman dirt, but rarely anything in the middle. The kicker is that N’s not only do this to themselves, but to their partners as well, since they are not separate people but extensions of themselves. Since they can only view themselves as either superhuman or subhuman, and the partner is simply an extension of themselves, they end up only being able to view their partners as superhuman or subhuman also. This is why they idealize so strongly, but the minute a flaw is shown, they are quick to lose interest and devalue and even become outright disgusted. This tendency to only be able to view things as all good or all bad is known as splitting, and it explains why the N’s loyalty and enthusiasm for you is always either all-consuming or non-existent.
In addition to Don and Megan, there were many other idealizations, disillusionments and devaluations being dealt with in this finale. Megan, who idealized her mom, becomes increasingly disillusioned with her as she sees her for the narcissistic, hypocritical monster she is and eventually devalues her by calling her on it finally. Megan’s mom probably idealized Megan a long time ago and probably started devaluing her a long time ago also, but as Megan increasingly gets a life, a husband, and a station in life that she feels surpasses her own, she ramps up the devaluation even further. We see Megan, who previously idealized the profession of acting, become disillusioned by it and begin to devalue herself. We see the aftermath of Lane’s suicide, which came about from his idealization, then devaluation and eventual discarding of what an ambitious life in America could be. Joan idealized for years the idea of being taken more seriously, being able to to have more power and recognition, but now that she has made it to the partners’ table, you can see her disillusionment with the role beginning. Pete idealizes the married woman he had a fling with and gets disillusioned. Trudy idealized and is on the road to becoming disillusioned by the dream life in the suburbs. Idealization is similar to getting high on the image of someone, and disillusionment can be likened to the frustration you feel from chasing the feeling that high gave you, so we see Roger chasing a high literally with LSD, and how he deals with his own disillusionment as the feeling of omnipotence it once gave him start to wear off. He also idealized Megan’s mom, envisioning her as worldly, cosmopolitan, and open-minded because of her superficial, foreign qualities, only to be disillusioned when he discovers she is much more of a mundane square than he first suspected.
Let’s start with Megan’s relationship with her narcissistic mom. Zayn describes the dynamic, and I emphasize the parts relevant to this episode and add commentary:
Many children of N’s experience feelings of never being “good enough,” always falling short and have overall pangs of inadequacy. Narcissistic parents assume the role of “Most Important Person” and expect their children to help them maintain that status. If a child shows affection or admiration for other family members, a narcissistic parent will devalue the other family members and remind the child where his loyalties should lie [Remember how Megan's mom emasculated the father in front of Megan, because she didn't like how close they were - T.]. A narcissistic parent often feels in competition with his own children. She or he will devalue his/her own children, especially if they appear to possess self-confidence. An N lacks self-confidence and views it as a threat in others. While the N may be drawn to partners who seemingly posses self-confidence, he/she will eventually envy and mimic that characteristic. The N will eventually devalue the partner, ridding the person of self-confidence as he forces him or her to mirror the N’s true self [Again, look at how emasculated and belittled Megan's dad was in a previous episode. He was driven to cheat in order to get what little narcissistic supply of his own he could, which just caused more narcissistic injury to Megan's mom, which made her attack and devalue him even more, trapping them in a toxic, vicious circle. - T.].
The N’s need to remain in control drives him to “humble his children;” [Hence the cheap shots Marie takes at Megan throughout the episode. - T.] this ensures he safety of his powerful position. When the children of an N are very young, they post no threat of individuality. They are mere furniture to the N. He uses them as supply to gain praise for his incredible child-rearing skills. He will show them off only as a way to reflect his false self. He will let the public know what a great caregiver he is and how much he adores his children. [Note how reassuring Marie acts in front of Megan's friend, prompting Megan's friend to remark admiringly about what a supporting mother Marie is, yet in private Marie is discouraging. - T.] Once the child of an N becomes “an individual (begins to think for himself) he may no longer be considered an extension of the N or necessary as supply and may be ignored or neglected. In some cases, an N will tell his he is no longer his/her parent or that he is disconnecting from his child’s life and will no longer be “involved.” [Remember Marie's statement to Megan "Thank God my children aren't my whole life" and her later statement to Don about how Megan's happiness is now his job? - T.]
Zayn also adds a sentence that explains Megan’s attraction to Don in the first place:
Children of N’s often spend their lives feeling inadequate. Some research indicates that children of N’s are subconscously drawn to narcissistic partners in an effort to correct what went wrong in their childhoods.
As you can see, there are many parallels between Megan’s relationship to Don and her relationship with Marie, although I think Marie is a far worse monster than Don.
Therapist and blogger Joseph Burgos describes three types of narcissistic mothers:
(1) the one who merges with and exploits her child as a kind of narcissistic feed, with little or no capacity to empathize; (2) the one who completely abandons her child in pursuit of attention or admiration from others [as we see Marie abandon Megan in her time of need in order to pursue new narcissistic supply from Roger - T.]; and (3) the one who envies her separating child for everything the child seems to possess but she does not.
Marie fits all three categories. The site Light’s House sheds even more (no pun intended) light on mothers like Marie:
Narcissists have two faces — the one they wear in public, and the one they wear at home. Only those close to the narcissist have any idea there is more than one face. And the narcissist’s children know best of all, because children – those who have the least power – are the ones the narcissist allows him or herself to be the least guarded around…
Narcissists cannot see their actual children and do not accept their needs…The narcissistic mother who criticizes and hides behind a veneer of martyrdom when her child needs her support is another common manifestation of a narcissistic parent…
Narcissists don’t like to be questioned and don’t want to deal with children who can stand up for themselves.
We see all of this in this episode. Marie’s public face and private face, which makes Megan ask why she is only nice to strangers. People like Megan, Megan’s father, and now Don, are the only ones who see this face. We see the veneer of martyrdom when Marie reframes her malice as constructive criticism and also calls Megan ungrateful for pointing out the unpleasant truth about Marie. We see how Marie deals with being questions and having children who stand up for themselves in that venomous attack she unleashes on Megan.
- While I intellectually appreciated this episode for its psychological accuracy, I wasn’t that actually entertained by it. I felt very uncomfortable and tense throughout it, and I also thought much of the symbolism was too heavy-handed or explicitly spelled out by character dialogue, like Don’s brother elaborating on what the rotten tooth symbolized, or Pete explaining why he cheated. I still liked the episode overall, but it wasn’t as engaging to me as the last two episodes were. All the themes just felt very unsubtle and overt.
- I thought it was a nice touch for Joan to look at Lane’s empty chair, and for a moment pay tribute to him by voicing the objections he would have likely made in that moment.
- There is a Jamaican saying that goes “He who does not hear must feel.” It means that some people can’t learn just by listening, or even by observing others make the same mistakes. They must go through the motions firsthand and feel the pain. Pete is obviously this type of person. Watching Don teaches him nothing. Listening to Don’s warnings in the cab after the whorehouse, speaking as a man who has been where Pete’s been, isn’t enough. That is why he had to go through that whole episode with his friend’s wife to finally reach the heavy-handed epiphany he reached in the hospital room. But the payoff felt hollow, especially since he returned to making the exact same stupid mistakes on the train ride home, even getting punched in the face twice like he did with Lane. I heard a fiction theory that said drama is about the ways we change and comedy is about the ways we don’t, and I felt as drama Pete’s arc failed because I didn’t feel he changed in an interesting way by the end of his journey. Also, Pete had so much potential displayed in previous seasons, and I felt he was growing by leaps and bounds, so this fall from grace felt like it came out of nowhere for me. It was a major regression with little dramatic payoff for me.
- Even though I didn’t like this episode specifically, I did enjoy the season as a whole. Many complained it was too dour and pessimistic, and feared this was a sign it would end up on a down, pessimistic fatalistic note like The Sopranos did, especially because the creator Matthew Weiner was a major creative force on that show and cut his teeth on it. However I don’t think it will end on as dour a note. This is because David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, is from Sicilian descent, which is a shame culture, a concept I discussed in my last review. In shame cultures, the ultimate problem comes down to who you are, not what you do. Matthew Weiner is of Jewish descent, which is a guilt culture, if not the ultimate guilt culture. In guilt cultures, the problem is primarily what you do, not who you are. Guilt cultures encourage more the idea of redemption through right action, whereas shame cultures more encourage the idea that our core identity and basic nature can’t change and will always retain its flaws no matter what we do, so we can only control our image. Guilt cultures are naturally more optimistic about human nature than shame cultures, and seeing how Jewish-American the voice of this show is even though its arguable about WASPS makes me think it will move in a more optimistic vein about human nature as it nears its conclusion.
- Did everyone notice how in the new office space scene, pictured at the top of this post, everyone had a whole pane to themselves except Don?
Narcissistic Lovers: How to Cope, Recover and Move On by Cynthia Zayn and Kevin Dibble, M.S.
This book is a great introductory primer on narcissists in general and how they react in relationships in particular. Very easy, breezy short read but remarkably thorough and accurate. I usually recommend it as a first book for people to read when learning about narcissism.
Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception by Neel Burton. This book is about all the defense mechanisms we use to deceive ourselves or cope with things we don’t want to face. It’s great overall, but it has wonderful sections of idealization, devaluation, and projection that are especially relevant to this episode.