Even if Ray Milland hadn't won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Don Birnam, we'd still be shouting from the rooftops about what a fascinating character he is. Even though Don does some seriously messed up stuff while in the throes of addiction, the guy somehow remains a sympathetic character throughout it all.
Rookie of the Year
In order to understand this, we need to look back at how Don got to the point of hiding bottles of rye in chandeliers. Surprisingly, Don had a great deal of early success as a writer: his work was published in The Atlantic and Reader's Digest by the time he was nineteen. That's huge—it seemed like he was on his way to being a Bright Young Thing of the literary world. High off this early success, Don dropped out of school and bolted to New York City, expecting his literary genius to be rewarded immediately.
It didn't quite work like that.
DON: I moved right in on New York. Well, the first thing I wrote, that didn't quite come off, and the second I dropped—the public wasn't ready for that one.
And on, and on, and on. Don expected his Hemingway-level genius to be met with instant adulation from the masses, but when this praise didn't materialize, he turned to booze to ease the pain.
This created a vicious cycle in which Don was unable to write because he lacked confidence, which in turn made him feel less confident the next time he tried. And around and around we go…it's like the least-fun, most booze-sodden carousel imaginable.
A Vicious Cycle
Not surprisingly, given Don's cycle of self-doubt, the concept of "cycles" gets brought up a ton in The Lost Weekend. This is an obvious reference to the cycle of addiction, which is the process through which an addict needs their drug of choice, satisfies their cravings, and ends up needing more of their drug of choice.
Don's well aware of this unending cycle, but feels unable to free himself from it:
DON: You get on the merry-go-round and you've got to ride it all the way. 'Round and 'round 'til that blasted music wears out and the thing dies down and clunks to a stop.
Unlike a lot of addicts, however, Don has a strong support system. He has his girlfriend Helen, who's pathologically optimistic about his chances for recovery. He has his brother Wick, who provides him an apartment, gives him an allowance, and in the past even paid for his booze.
The sad irony here is that this support system (and Wick especially) ends up hurting Don by keeping him insulated from the consequences of his actions. If Don's going to get better, he's going to have to do it himself.
As it turns out, that means Don needs to hit the proverbial rock bottom. With Wick gone for the weekend, Don's finally able to ride his little merry-go-round to its conclusion and fully experience the consequences of his actions. This comes in the form of his visit to the alcoholic ward, where he witnesses for the first time the horror of the DTs—the withdrawal process from alcohol. In many ways, this is a glimpse into his future should keep turning to the bottle.
But that's not rock bottom—not by a long shot. After escaping the hospital, stealing some booze, and experiencing the DTs himself (yikes), Don trades Helen's trademark coat for a gun at a pawnshop… so he can kill himself.
This isn't just a huge bummer, but it's also massively important on a symbolic level—it shows that he's finally rejecting her love and choosing death instead.
The End... Or Is It?
As we know, however, Don doesn't kill himself. Whether due to Helen's pressure or the seemingly magical appearance of his typewriter (thanks, Nat!), he realizes that he does have a purpose in his life: his writing. What's more, he can use his gift to help other people who are struggling with alcohol addiction.
Check it out:
DON: And out there in that great big, concrete jungle, I wonder how many other there are like me—poor, deviled guys on fire with thirst, such comical figures to the rest of the world as they stagger blindly towards another binge, another bender, another spree.
There's no way of saying whether Don is truly a changed man, but this is a huge moment for him. After all, he now looks at writing as a way to help others who are suffering, not simply as a way to pad his own Hemingway-sized ego. That's a good start. No matter how it all ends up, we're going to count this one as a win.