In the film Barry Lyndon, Redmond Barry begins his life under turbulent circumstances. His father is not around due to a duel over some horses that didn’t turn out in his favor. Due to this, Redmond has no one around to show him how to be a man. Instead, he occupies his time with Nora, his cousin, and causes issues with her family when a British Captain, John Quin, begins to court her. These circumstances lead to Redmond facing Quin in a duel over Nora’s hand, in which he shoots Quin and flees for his life afterward. It is later revealed that the gun Barry used contained tow, which ensured that Quin would go on to survive his injuries, but we also see the juxtaposition of Barry’s life beginning due to a duel and his father’s life ending because of it.
Barry finds himself unable to cope with the responsibilities of being a man. His first instinct is to enlist and join the British during the Seven Years’ War. He does this because he sees the status that the soldiers hold over the rest of the populace and the money they make, not because of national pride or honor. Barry’s family friend, Captain Grogan, is killed in battle, and Barry sees this as a sign that he must leave. He deserts his unit and takes on the identity of another, which causes Barry to be arrested and enlisted into the Prussian army once he is outed.
Barry isn’t able to find his footing in life until he is forced to keep tabs on the Chevalier de Balibari. He admits to the Chevalier that he is working for the Prussians, due to their shared Irish ancestry, and he is taken under the older gentleman’s wing. Barry finds the life of a conman fitting, and he becomes a master at deceiving those around him.
Barry soon meets the beautiful Countess Lyndon, and after seducing her, he causes her husband to fall ill and ultimately pass on after the two get into an argument over Lady Lyndon. Barry marries the countess, and takes on her name, transforming himself into Barry Lyndon.
Unable to hold his deception for long, Barry immediately falls out of favor with Lady Lyndon’s son, Sir Charles Bullingdon, due to Barry’s spending habits and his infidelity.
Barry’s mother soon comes to live with him, and she encourages Barry to improve his station in life further by gaining a title. Barry decides to finance an army to help fight the colonies across the Atlantic, and it also pushes Barry into the upper echelons of society. Barry has his own biological son with Lady Lyndon, Bryan, but Barry is unable to discipline his kin, causing young Bryan to act spoiled.
In the television show, Mad Men, Richard “Dick” Whitman is born to a prostitute mother and an alcoholic father. His mother dies in childbirth and his father is killed by a spooked horse when Dick is only ten. After he is orphaned, Dick is sent to live with his stepmother, who looks down on Dick due to his father’s infidelity. His stepmother also has another son, Dick’s half-brother, Adam. Dick’s only constant male figure in his life is his Uncle Mack, who teaches Dick from a young age what a man should be. He helps run a brothel alongside Dick’s aunt, Ernestine. Dick’s formative years take place inside the brothel, and one particular memory that sticks out is that he is tasked with pickpocketing the johns who frequent the whorehouse. If he is able to supply one of the prostitutes with the stolen goods, he was rewarded with a Hershey Bar.
Dick never finishes high school, and eventually gathers enough courage to run off to join the Army during the Korean War. It is here that he is put under the watch of Lieutenant Donald Francis Draper. He and Draper are given shovels and tasked with building a field hospital. The rest of the unit has either died or deserted. While they are digging, they are shelled by the enemy, and Draper ends up dying. While Dick is losing consciousness, he is able to steal Draper’s dog tags and when he awakens, he finds himself in the hospital, presumed to be Don Draper, and is awarded a Purple Heart. When he returns home, he is able to convince a drunk Richard Sterling to give him a job at his ad agency and is able to eventually work his way to Creative Director. He marries his wife Betty and begins to start a family while also leaving his old identity behind.
Don shows a talent for knowing what other people desire and is able to use this ability to help him come up with amazing copy that wows the clients and coworkers of the ad agency. But, he is unable to accept his past, and his torment ramps up when he is visited by his brother Adam. Adam informs Don that their family has all passed, and in order to keep his facade alive and well, Don gives his brother $5,000 and orders him to never contact him again. Adam sends Don a care package full of old photographs and soon after hangs himself. Don has a change of heart, but it is too late, and he learns of his brother’s passing and begins to reevaluate the life he has built.
If we take a step back here, we can see two men with the same makeup. Both have suffered the tragedy of being raised without a stable father figure save for the seedy men who have stepped in as mentors. They use this information to better their stations in life, but they soon find themselves doing all that they can to uproot those same lives shortly after they are achieved. They both attempt to live under false identities and pretenses, and they both were reared in perverse conditions that warped how they saw relationships at a later age. If you were to squint, it would almost appear that Don and Barry are cut from the same cloth, but the largest difference between both is what period of time their story is documented. Lyndon lives in the 1770s during a time of great change and revolution in Europe, while Don lives in the 1960s, during a time of great change and revolution in the United States of America. The changing dynamics around them make them feel even more isolated. The ideals they were taught while young do little to assist them in the new worlds they find themselves in.
Solid footing is essential for children. Because they have not mastered their emotions or their intelligence, they need guides in order to decide what is best for them. Kids are blank slates that we as adults help to draw on. Eventually, the children pick up their own paintbrushes and pencils and begin to sketch what they themselves see fit, but without any guidance in the most vulnerable years, children will fill that void with whatever they have at their disposal, good or bad. This happened with both Barry and Don. What they were able to perceive as young children was that money and power are what ultimately make a man. The other aspects are just trivial pieces that only the weak worry about.
Barry meets any opposition from his stepson with violence. He has multiple affairs and is never satisfied with the things he has. His entire life he wished to be in the higher echelon of society, and the moment he is able to attain this status, he finds himself still searching for more. The same can be said about Draper. He has a beautiful wife, a lucrative job, and the position of being a leader inside the agency he works for. But he is never happy. No matter how many beautiful women he is able to bed, no matter how much money he makes, and no matter how many big-name clients he is able to impress, Don can never shake the pain from his childhood. He constantly feels like he is being looked over or forgotten. The two men’s abandonment issues take center stage, and they spend much of their adult life dealing with the consequences of their ailments.
Because no one showed Don and Barry what love and security really are, they are never able to supply themselves or their loved ones with them. The love they received their entire lives consisted of conditional terms, and due to this, they are never able to form an ideal version of themself that they can be content with. Barry chooses to use his wife’s fortune to give him the life he always dreamed of without thinking of the consequences, and Don does the same thing but with the money he gets from his dream job he swindled his way into.
Barry Lyndon’s ending is simpler to tell, so we’ll start with that.
Barry is able to gain entry into high society, but like all other illusions that Barry concocts in his life, this one soon withers as well. During a lavish birthday party for his wife, Lyndon is confronted by his two sons. Charles takes Bryan to the party to cause a ruckus. After grabbing the attention of the entire party, Bullingdon claims that he is leaving the estate and will not return for as long as his stepfather remains. The incident causes Barry to lose all self-control, and he beats Charles severely in front of the party guests. This causes Lyndon to lose favor with his guests and ultimately forfeit any chance of obtaining a title.
Things only get worse for Barry from here. Bryan asks Barry for a horse, though he already owns and rides a pony. Barry warns his son how dangerous it is, but Bryan doesn’t want to hear it, and with Barry being a pushover for his son, he relents. Bryan discovers that Barry purchased the horse before his birthday, and sneaks off in the middle of the night to ride it. While doing so, he loses control of the horse and is thrown from it, crippling him. Poor Bryan is unable to recover, succumbs to his injuries, and dies. Barry is unable to cope with the loss of his son and throws himself into drinking. It is then that Charles returns. He challenges Barry to a duel.
When the duel takes place, Bullingdon misfires his gun, which allows Barry to take his own shot. Barry shoots his bullet into the ground, thinking that it will de-escalate the situation and let the two men go on their way. But Bullingdon isn’t satisfied and chooses to take his next shot. He is able to hit Barry, but not kill him, only injure him. Charles shoots Barry in the leg, and in order to save his life, Barry must have his leg amputated. Bullingdon arranges for Barry to leave his mother’s estate with a stipend that will support him through the latter part of his life, but the last thing we see of him is as an expense at the end of the year for his ex-wife to manage, and nothing more. We never find out what Barry’s true fate is, only that he once again becomes a gambler but without the same success as before.
Barry Lyndon was never able to reconcile with what happened when he was a child. He was never able to come to terms with his true self or his shortcomings. Rather than face the music, Barry chose to give in to his own selfish urges which brought about his downfall.
Lyndon was only able to be hot or cold towards his offspring. His beatings of Charles were the exact opposite of what Bryan received, yet both of them suffered from Barry’s parenting. Barry was never taught the subtlety that is best suited for parenthood. There’s a difference between discipline and abuse, and Barry was never able to deduce what that was. You can also see this with the people who helped raise Barry. Captain Grogan, the family friend who assists Barry, is a stark contrast to the Chevalier who takes him under his wing in the middle of the film. Grogan attempts to set Barry straight after seeing Barry fall head over heels for Nora and run off to the army. The Chevalier simply teaches Barry to be more deceitful and deceptive. Both are unsure of how to deal with Barry, but they attempt to do their best. What Barry needed was what he was lacking since he was a child: unconditional love and a strong male figure to guide him through life.
When it comes to Don Draper, things get more complicated.
Don is able to use his skills to become a success. Though his life is based on a lie, he is able to build on that lie with his own accomplishments. The thrilling scenes in Mad Men are the ad pitches. This is when Don and his team are able to present their vision for the product they are selling. Don is in his best element when he is the point man. He uses his salesmanship to convince the clients that their vision is perfect. Don grabs the smallest details of what people are hungry for and he maximizes that attribute to make the product irresistible. What is revealed to us through the series is that Don has sharpened this skill for the sake of himself. He is able to attract and consume anything he desires, but it all bores him in the end because nothing at all makes him happy. No matter what he pours into the empty hole inside himself, nothing is able to fill it.
Through the latter part of the series, Don’s marriage with Betty falls apart and he replaces her with a younger woman, who originally was his secretary. Don witnesses the world-changing events of the 60s going on around him and soon finds the vision that he once held dear of himself fading away, much like the vision of the nuclear family he bases his facade on. Understanding how the 1960s shaped us as a country after the 1950s is key to understanding where Don fits in. Don’s life needed to have the image of control and masculinity because he lacked those things in himself. Dick Whitman doesn’t have those attributes, but Don Draper does. What Don fails to see is that just because he can take someone else’s identity it doesn’t mean that he loses all of the issues that Dick Whitman had.
Things come to a head when Don is in front of The Hershey Company. In the middle of one of his legendary pitches, Don has a breakdown. He recalls the memory from the brothel where he would receive a reward of a Hershey Bar for a job well done and admits to the clients that this was the only time he ever felt like he was having a normal childhood. The men leave in shock and Don begins a downward spiral that he can’t control.
Eventually, Don becomes a nomad, moving from place to place while not feeling attached to either of his past lives. He is no longer Don Draper, but he also isn’t Dick Whitman. He witnesses the breaking of the sound barrier in Utah and calls his daughter Sally in order to inform her of what he just saw. It’s then that his daughter reveals that his ex-wife Betty has contracted cancer. Sally is the one who informs Don that she has already made plans for what to do with her brothers after Betty passes. Sally recognizes that the kids need stability, something Don never was able to grasp. Don has also failed his children, much like Barry Lyndon did. Sally is the one who needs to act as the adult and inform Don of the bad news that would usually be reserved for a parent to divulge. The difference between the Drapers and the Lyndons is that Sally is accepting of her father’s shortcomings while she moves on with her life, unlike Charles was with his stepfather. The reason behind this is because Sally knows she must be there for her brothers. She has seen what her father has become and chooses to do something about it.
Don is able to gain admittance to an Esalen-like retreat to try to heal from his trauma. The person who guides him there is Anna Draper’s (the real Don Draper’s widow) niece Stephanie. Stephanie has recently given up custody of her child, and when she shares this at the retreat, she is met with shame. Though Don has habitually abandoned his family over and over, it’s Stephanie that is kicked to the curb. It’s interesting to see the different standards displayed here. She leaves the retreat and Don is left by himself.
Don makes a second call, which mirrors the call with his daughter Sally. This time, he calls Peggy Olsen, his former Mentee from the ad agency. He tells her of his misdeeds after Peggy pleads with him to come home. He tells her of stealing the real Don Draper’s identity, and he states he has never done anything substantial in his life. He spills his guts out to Peggy so that she can finally see that the facade he created was what she was following all along, but Peggy refuses, stating to him, “That’s not true.” It’s not that Peggy doesn’t believe him, what she is trying to express to Don at that moment is that he isn’t Dick Whitman. Don/Dick has been living as Don for years, enough time to build a family and a career. Even if Don was at some point Dick Whitman, he is no longer that man. He changed long ago, and the only person who was unable to see that was Don/Dick. One thing to note here is that Peggy states that Don should come home to work on the Coca-Cola account. You’ll see why this is important soon.
One of the counselors sees Don is upset and invites him to a group therapy session. She sits next to Don and looks at him, expecting him to share his pain with the group. On the other side of her is Leonard, who is the exact opposite of Don. Even when you look at what they are wearing, it shows they are opposites. Don wears a checkered flannel, representing his own past and view of it, while Leonard wears a similar blue, but in a plain, solid sweater that covers the lined shirt he is wearing. Don is handsome and rugged while Leonard is balding and clean-shaven. It isn’t Don who answers the call to speak, Leonard is.
Leonard explains how he feels unseen. He also recognizes that he sees people giving him their love but he is unable to process it. He recalls a dream he had where he is an item in the refrigerator, and someone comes to the fridge, opens the door, selects an item, and closes the door. Each time, the person smiles and selects an item, but they never look at Leonard. The light turns on, the cycle continues, and then the light turns off again. He bursts into tears in the middle of his explanation, and Don rises from his seat, walks over, and hugs the man. He comforts him and cries. For the first time in Don’s life, he is able to soothe himself. Leonard is able to convey what he had felt his entire life, much like Don was able to convey people’s wants and needs during his ad pitches. Leonard has taught Don to heal and confront his issues rather than hide from them. Don has never embraced the side of himself he considered weak and vulnerable, and once that happens, he is finally able to feel whole.
One thing to note is that during the Free Love movement in the 60s the hippies wanted to break down the old establishments because they thought of them as corrupt. Throughout the entire series, we see Don scoffing at statements and revelations from young people in regard to their observations on the modern world of the 1960s. Using an Esalen Institute stand-in was done purposefully because this was actually where many of the thoughts and philosophies of the counterculture were formed. Don was only able to heal from his delirium by using the tools which he spent so much time degrading. What he needed to do the whole time was love himself, and accept himself no matter how flawed he was.
Recognizing that tidbit is important because it explains the next few scenes. First, we see Don standing at the coastline, looking at the setting sun. Don is finally saying goodbye to the old Don Draper. While he is still looking out over the water, we hear one of the counselors from the center greeting the “mother sun”. We flip immediately to the next day, to the next morning, where Don is further participating in group activities, this time meditation. The guide says, “A new day, a new idea, a new you,” and then we hear a bell ring. The group begins their tantra, and in the middle of meditation, a small smile spreads across Don’s lips.
We then cut to an ad, the “Hilltop” ad from Coca-Cola, that came out in 1971. The commercial was a major success for Coke, and people still recognize it to this day as one of the most endearing and popular commercials of all time. The commercial consists of a large group of young people, of all nationalities and origins, all singing together while holding bottles of Coca-Cola. It embodied the feeling of the 1960s due to its look and feel of folksy yet poppy music, long hair, and multiculturalism. What the show is implying here is that Don was able to take all the warm and fuzzy feelings of healing and growth that the Esalen Institute, the Human Potential Movement, Flower Power, and everything else, and package them into a neat and tidy commercial that he could sell to Coca-Cola. This calls back to two things that were said to Peggy during their conversation, that Don should come home to work on the Coca-Cola account, and that Don had never done anything of substance. Don was finally able to come to terms with himself, and due to that, his true genius was finally able to shine through, and he made a commercial that was so loved it became ingrained into the culture. There’s also a bit of darkness to it as well because it showed that Don was able to capture the essence of the 60s and sell it back to the people who created it themselves, just like he had done with so many other products through the show.
While Barry Redmond/Lyndon never was able to heal from his trauma, Don Draper/Dick Whitman was, and what we see come from that is positive manifestations rather than plight.. Pain, torment, anger, and sorrow are all things that we must learn to live with regardless of how difficult they can be to endure. Running from your issues does nothing but set them aside to be handled at a later date. Also, dealing in deceit only makes one more deceitful. But when you are able to confront your issues, head-on, no matter how lost or out of place you feel, that takes an immense amount of courage. Choosing to grow in that regard can only do good for you, and the opposite, which would be leaning into the lies that have guided you so far, can only lead to ruin.